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.


11 thoughts on “Mental illness and the Body of Christ

  1. Pingback: Miracles, Broken Strings, Suicide and Hemorrhoids: Mental Health Monday | A Way With Words

  2. A very thoughtful, compelling reflection. As a Christian with a mental illness myself, I have encountered similar meetings. I am featuring this in my weekly “Mental Health Monday” post. Keep up the great writing.

  3. Amazing post. I have experienced that a lot, too, in my church. One on one people want to know and understand (but they don’t, possibly can’t, relate even a little). In my church community most of the time mental illness is usually immediately shrugged off and one obviously has a “spiritual problem” that can be healed if you want it to, if you believe, if you pray.
    Not that I deny the power of God, but most of the time, it isn’t a spiritual problem, but a symptom(s) of my mental illness taking a turn for the worse. Why is it that people can’t understand that? If someone’s white blood count changes when they have a disease, they are getting sick(er). People accept that. If I become suicidal because I am hopeless and can’t handle all that happens in my brain, I’m just crazy or stupid or I’ve let the devil run away with me and I must be spiritually dead or about there.
    And your thoughts on 1 Corithians 12:21 are true. I think the scripture is true: they say they have no need of us (in one way or another), but they do need us. We may be one of the most important parts. But others are very good at making me feel alienated too. My thoughts are kind of going fuzzy here so I am going to stop lol. Thanks for sharing though!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so sorry that you’re getting the “mental illness is a sign that God is not with you, so you should just pray harder” bullshit from your church community. That stuff is insidious, easy to internalize, and hard to shake off. But it’s bullshit.

      I would disagree slightly on one point, though. I think everyone goes through hard times, and I think anyone can empathize and relate to experiences of mental illness to some extent. There’s a huge degree to which “You can’t know unless you’ve been there” is also true, though. I guess I have conflicting impulses on this topic–my husband and I actually talked about it at some length before I posted it. I think what bothers me is when I feel like people are not so much trying to understand my experiences as trying to diminish or appropriate or contain them by mapping them onto a situation that they feel like they can handle. But there’s a quote that kept running through my head as I wrote this; I can’t remember the origin: “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

  4. Mary ~
    Your courage to so cogently and honestly talk about these issues is remarkable.
    It has been my experience that when such a topic comes up among Christians, there is no framework for them to relate to the situation. When looked at biblically, they think of the Gadarenes and pigs. To make the jump to see it as a physical event is harder to do. It is also frightening to think of approaching that abyss and not be sucked over the edge.
    Your openness in speaking as you do can help to bridge that divide, enlighten eyes, help hearts to reach out.
    Thank you.

  5. Wow. Beautiful post and thought provoking reflections.

    I think my most pressing reaction sort of mimics what you said in a comment–this problem hinges on the “I haven’t been there, I don’t know” problem. Though I have had minor experiences in depression and seen so many loved ones deal with chronic depression, I never want to look at someone experiencing the depths of depressed despair (ie: suicidality) and say, “I know how you feel.” I don’t want to diminish their experience by appropriating it towards mine. I’ve heard appalling stories of the well-meaning “I know how you feel” sympathizers whose desire to make a connection trumps a meaningful grasp of what’s actually happening.

    BUT–at the same time, respecting someone else’s experience doesn’t preclude empathy. I love how you phrased it–“it’s not us, it’s them” when it comes to mental illness. (Reminds me of the Slate article that’s been going around– Mental illness is not so utterly outside the basic human experience as to be unable to be understood. In fact, I think depression is PART OF the basic human experience. So, even if we are scared of the implications, even if we don’t want to examine our own potential to slip into a depression that results in suicidality, we deny the humanness of that experience when we refuse to empathize with it.

    I am so sorry you had this experience. Truly I am. At the same time, it also tells me you are going to be a baller EV.

    • Exactly exactly–there’s this dance we all do, where if we go too far in one direction we end up diminishing and/or appropriating others’ experiences, and if we go too far in the other direction we isolate them. I sort of tried to gesture toward this tension, but I think it’s worth talking about more directly. It’s something I have to be very careful with, personally. I have a tendency to overreach when I’m trying to connect with people or offer sympathy, to talk over their experiences with my own, and to say, “I know EXACTLY what you’re feeling!” when, um, no, I don’t, because everyone’s life is new. I think I tend to just want so desperately for people not to feel alone that I tend to position myself way too close.

      On the topic of depression as part of the human experience, I will answer your awesome link with another link:

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