Mental illness and the Body of Christ

I spent the other day at the cathedral church for my diocese, going through the required training program to become a Eucharistic Visitor. (A Eucharistic Visitor—EV—is someone who brings fellowship and the Eucharist to members of the congregation who can’t make it to church for some reason.) It was…interesting. Some of it was new; some of it was useful; some of it was infuriating. For the most part, I felt a real camaraderie develop among the 16 or so of us trainees, who came from several different area churches. As the day progressed, I was impressed by the strength of faith, theology, empathy, and openness of my fellow trainees.

A large chunk of the training involved witnessing and performing role-played scenarios of the types of visits we might encounter. We were handed slips of paper with a brief description of the visitee’s age, situation in life, and temperament: Man, 79, is recovering from knee replacement surgery at home and is in generally good spirits but lonely and desirous of company. 66-year-old woman is dying of cancer in a hospital bed and has trouble speaking or swallowing. 89-year-old woman has recently moved to an assisted care facility; she is gregarious and invites several friends to participate in communion with her. We split into pairs and took turns playing the visitor and the visited; afterward we’d gather as a group to reflect on our encounters. Emphasis was placed on developing our empathy, both through practicing active listening and through creatively imagining ourselves into the situations we were given.

Great. Good. Until one pair of trainees turned out to have had a scenario involving a 21-year-old woman who was in a psychiatric ward for suicidality. And then—and I’m not sure exactly how to describe this—the atmosphere changed palpably. There was a discussion, punctuated by furrowed brows and wise nods, of how hard and unusual and strange this situation was, how difficult to reach the woman being visited, how glad everyone else was that they hadn’t drawn that slip of paper that would require them to pretend to be a young woman in a psych ward. Perhaps the most concrete example of what I mean is that one of the training leaders said, “Well, I just can’t imagine being 21 years old.”* Someone else immediately chimed in, “Let alone being suicidal!” It felt as though the discussion had abruptly shifted from exploring how to put ourselves imaginatively into someone else’s shoes to a relieved consensus that such empathy was obviously impossible.

This description is far more nuanced than I could have given at the time. In the moment, all I was aware of was the shock of going from feeling warm, welcomed, and safe to the opposite extremes. I could feel myself shaking with anger and struggling not to cry. I excused myself to the bathroom for a few minutes. I glared at my reflection in the mirror, balled and unballed my fists, wiped my eyes, took a breath, and went back out. The conversation had moved on, and no one had noticed that anything was wrong. Our day ended shortly thereafter.

What was wrong, exactly? I’ve spent some time pondering the situation, and here’s what I’ve come up with. We had been invited—directed—to put ourselves into the situations of the people we might be called upon to visit. The leaders reminded us repeatedly that one of the purposes of the exercise was to imagine what it was like for our visitees. But no one wanted to play the young woman in the psych ward. No one wanted to imagine what her life—my life—has been. And instead of acknowledging this reluctance as coming from discomfort, they said, “oh, it’s obviously too hard. It’s impossible, really.” And all these lovely, empathetic, warm, thoughtful people pushed me away, without even realizing that they were doing it.

You know what? I can imagine what it might be like to be 89 and in an assisted living facility. To feel your body change and start to fail you, and to worry that your mind will do the same. To feel that others are beginning to see you as irrelevant, while you know that you have more to offer than ever. To lose the dignity of autonomy. I can imagine what it might be like to live with chronic physical pain, or to lose one’s spouse of many years to death or divorce. I’m sure that what I imagine is different from individual reality; and I don’t think that putting myself into someone else’s shoes gives me any kind of ownership over their situation. But I try to imagine these things, and (even if I don’t always succeed in this) I try to listen to the narratives I hear from others for whom these things are a reality. So why did it feel as though these people were unwilling to do the same for me? Why, when we talk about mental illness in community,** is it always “them,” never “us”?

A suggestion: people are scared. This seems reasonable to me. We don’t want to think about bad things happening to us; we don’t know how we’ll deal with changes that shatter our world. We do nonetheless share a cultural understanding that we might get cancer, however shocking it inevitably is when it happens. We know that our best-case scenario involves growing old and the hardships that come with that. We know that all marriages end, whether by death or divorce. (See [please!] Louis C. K. on the matter.) But it’s terrifying to imagine that the sadness and despair that we all experience at some point could balloon, could devour our lives until we actively seek death. We don’t want that to be part of the human experience. We don’t want to be able to empathize with this. Perhaps on some level we’re afraid that, if we put ourselves into a suicidal person’s shoes, we’ll never be able to take them off.

I have been there, and I understand it. I find that even among the narratives of those who have been hospitalized for depression, there’s a curious desire to distinguish between the ones who are “really” crazy and the ones who just, you know, happen to be there. Between them and us. But there is no them; there’s only us.

Afterward, I wondered why this small incident of alienation had stung so much. It’s not as though something similar doesn’t happen pretty much every time mental illness comes up in pretty much any group I happen to be in. It’s not as though this was in any way unique or drastic in the annals of people alienating one another. What I kept thinking of was 1 Corinthians 12:21: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'” This was a Christian context, and I had felt safe as a member of the Body of Christ. Until I didn’t.

*I should note that I appeared to be the youngest person in the room by perhaps 15-20 years.

**”In community” is important. One-on-one, I’ve found people to be remarkably sympathetic and usually eager to share stories of their own encounters with mental illness, either personally or in someone close to them. When I tell one person about my hospitalizations, I actually often have the opposite problem (though I suspect it comes from the same emotional place): they want to assure me that they know exactly how I feel, and they often have trouble listening to me because they’re filling the space with their own stories of depression. This bugs me, but I’ve certainly done precisely the same thing to other people more than I’d care to admit.

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You, too, are the Body of Christ (part one)

I’m sort of ashamed to admit it, but I grew up in a pretty serious Catholic bubble.  I went to Catholic schools my whole life and grew up in a heavily Irish neighborhood.  My Irish/Polish and Mexican families are teeming with Catholics.  I don’t think I knew anyone who wasn’t Catholic until I went to high school.  In college, I met a number of Muslims and Jews, thanks to an explicitly inter-religious campus ministry, but my exposure to non-Catholic Christianity was quite limited.  Before I met Mary, I didn’t know the difference between the terms “Episcopal” and “Episcopalian.”  This is all by way of introducing the slightly embarrassing fact that before this year, I had never attended a non-Catholic Christian worship service.

This limited exposure wasn’t by design; I chose to go to Catholic schools, but I didn’t realize that by choosing Catholic education I was also choosing an environment  predominantly populated by Catholics and thus, not by other Christians.  I didn’t really think about how myopic I was until my sister decided to get to know our neighborhood and began conducting what she called “theological field trips,” where she went around to the Protestant* Christian churches in the area to visit at a different worship service each week.  As she rattled off the list of churches within a few miles of our house, I realized that I had passed those addresses a million times, but never noticed them because I never had a reason to go in.  I could name 15 or 20 Catholic churches in a few miles radius (like I said, really Irish neighborhood), but couldn’t list a single non-Catholic church.

As I’ve said, I am ashamed of this bubble. I’m ashamed because it means that by explicit choice or not, I have surrounded myself with Catholics and failed to experience and learn about the other half of the Christian church.  Such a Catholic dominated environment is dangerous primarily because it can lead a person to see the Catholic perspective as the normative Christian perspective.  It reminds me, in a way, of Peggy McIntosh’s analysis of white privilege where she lists “arranging to be in the company of people of  [one’s] own race” as the first example of white privilege.  I’m certainly not saying that ecumenical relationships are nearly as complicated or oppressive as race relationships/racism, but like it or not, there is a power dynamic at play if I can choose to surround myself with Catholic friends, Catholic schools, Catholic churches, and Catholic theological perspectives with ease and rarely encounter the “other” voice of the Protestant Christian.

Coming to understand this “theological privilege” is difficult and surprising for me because I am someone who tries to constantly analyze the privilege and power at work in the world.  Racial and gendered privilege are especially poignant issues to me and I would never accept such a ignorance or lack of exposure in any other realm of my life.  So I decided a few months ago to simply attend a worship service at a church of a different denomination.  A few blocks from my apartment is an Episcopal church so I attended a low mass at 6pm on a Tuesday night.  (Imagine that!  A mass at a convenient time for people who work! Ok.  End of snark.)   I tried my very best not to make it a “museum visit,” where I looked at the service from a detached, analytic lens, but to experience it as it was–a spiritual and religious service.  I’m happy to report that my overwhelming reaction was the feeling of being welcomed, by the pastor, the community, and the fellowship following the service.

I’ll  use another post to reflect on the actual service itself, as this post is growing mammoth, but let me end with this point: not to make excuses, but I think, unfortunately, this Catho-centric experience is really common for Catholics.  Perhaps its the size of the Church, the extensive education system, or the Catholic pride some feel, but there are some undeniable power dynamics at work in the Christian Church.  I hope that both institutionally and individually, Catholics have the self awareness to analyze these power dynamics, but also that our Protestant brethren participate actively in that discussion.

To end, I’ll note that the title of this post comes from a phrase that a cheeky Jesuit I know uses.  He says the masses for a particular retreat I lead, a retreat that is populated by mostly Protestants.  When they approach him in the communion line, arms crossed for a blessing, instead of the usual “Bless you in the name of the Father…” or “May Jesus live in your heart,” he says “You, too, are the Body of Christ,” with particular emphasis on the “too.”  When I realized what he was saying, and how refreshing that blessing might sound to a person deliberately excluded from sharing the Eucharist, I was struck by its spirit of inclusion and I hope to keep that strike that same spirit throughout my studies and theological exchanges with all Christians.

*For lack of a better one, I’ll use the term “Protestant” to describe the half of the Christian Church that isn’t Catholic, even though it defines those Christians in terms of the Catholic Church, and I do so with the understanding that this term lumps in about a billion Christians with a great diversity of beliefs into one word.  If others have a suggestion to describe what I’m getting at, I’d love to hear it.