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.