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Christ on the Psych Ward
In June of 2011 I had the worst week of my life. By most outside indicators, I shouldn't have been miserable. I had just finished my first year of seminary. I'd done well in my classes, made new friends, and secured the unheard of Holy Grail of a paid internship at a nearby congregation. So why did it feel like my life was falling apart?
Looking back, I can list off the triggers, the seemingly small chips and cracks in the façade of wellbeing I was living behind. The impending departure of beloved roommates, a series of relationship failures, a week of on-hold frustration with our internet provider — all of these seemed, for me, to be indicators of something deeper and more dangerous, out of proportion to their individual surmountability. Rather than a series of isolated challenges, I interpreted the bumps and bruises of that summer as evidence of my failure: failure to transition into adulthood, perhaps; failure to figure out life tasks and relationships; failure, somehow, to live and love. And so it was that I found myself isolated in my basement apartment in Northeast DC, wrapped in darkness, planning how to end my life. Looking back at a journal entry from that summer, I can watch myself trying to reconstruct exactly what happened, to craft some sort of coherent narrative out of a time that felt completely fragmented and jagged. My memories of that time have a surreal quality to them, as if I am watching distorted footage of someone else's life. What I know is, at some point, I began to harm myself, something I had done in high school but thought I had left in the past.
The week progressed — perhaps I should say regressed. I barely slept. Every morning I dragged myself out of bed, primarily by screaming at myself internally. I would go for a run in the heat and humidity of the DC summer, hoping in some strange sense that this would shock me out of my self-destructive state — or maybe, simply, that it would kill me. I stood on the edges of Metro platforms, daring myself to jump in front of incoming trains. In the afternoons, I went to class, appearing to all but the closest of my friends to be doing quite well, absorbing the difficult material of biblical Hebrew. A few hours of studying afterwards with classmates, and then I would return home where I, once again, was isolated in my dark apartment, turning violently inward, falling into pieces and hoping I could work up the courage to die. I was terrified. I had no idea what was going on.
Sometime toward the end of the week, some instinct for self-preservation or longing for life — in the theological language of my Christian tradition, perhaps an encounter with prevenient grace — combined with some foggy awareness of the similarities between this experience and previous struggles with mental health led me to call a suicide hotline. I have no memory of what the person on the other end of the line said, though I am very grateful for them. They talked to me for an hour, before helping me identify a friend I could call. My friend Lindsey had phoned earlier that day; her missed call was still indicated on my phone. She was on the West Coast, and might still be awake. Lindsey picked up the phone and talked me through the night, until I was exhausted enough to fall into a half-sleep. Before I did, she made me promise to call her in the morning and check-in.
I'm a rules follower. I was that tattling kid that got on everyone's nerves in elementary school. In this case, it was a godsend. Lindsey had established a clear "call me in the morning" rule, and so I had to call her, no matter if I wanted to or not. The morning was no better. I found myself examining a bottle of non-prescription pills to see if the warning label gave any description of how lethal an overdose might be. I called Lindsey. We made a list of people close by that I could call. After making a number of calls that went unanswered, I finally reached an acquaintance that served as a chaplain at a nearby university. He came to pick me up and took me to a hospital in DC, where I admitted myself into a psychiatric unit for the first time in my life. It wouldn't be the last.
* * *
"I admitted myself into a psychiatric unit."
It's a short, simple sentence; it was neither a short nor a simple process. The whole experience had a surreal element to it, as if I was watching some sort of satirical take on my life rather than living through the experience myself. After I checked in at the ER desk and waited for a while, I was taken to a hospital room. My chaplain friend, perhaps by the power invested in him by his clergy collar, was able to accompany me. I was assigned a nurse intern, and I figured out rather quickly that her job was to observe me and make sure I didn't harm myself. I asked her if she had to write down what I did, and when she said yes, I started cracking jokes, even dancing at one point, to see what would make it into the log. That I was both feeling suicidal and also cracking jokes and interacting with the medical staff should have been a hint that the initial diagnosis of a Major Depressive Disorder was not an accurate description of my condition. In hindsight, I can see now that I was manic, but at the time I had no idea what that meant. If I had any idea what a "manic episode" was, I probably thought it involved delusions or other experiences that I wasn't having. Now I know there is a distinction in the psychiatric world between "hypermania" and "hypomania," but those words meant nothing to me as I sat in the ER.
I was in that room in the ER for hours, with that poor beleaguered nurse intern having to put up with me. A nurse came, then a doctor, to look at the cuts and scratches and burns on my arms and shoulders and stomach. Then a social worker came to ask me a dozen questions, which came down to, "Do you want to kill yourself?" and "Are you willing to voluntarily check yourself into the psychiatric ward?"
"Yeah," I remember thinking, "that's what I came here to do."
I eventually learned that the reason I was waiting was that there wasn't an empty bed in Ward 7 West, but that there was a chance one would open up. And so we waited. Finally, the good news came through — good news that people in my situation don't always get to hear: a bed had opened up. I could go to the psych ward. It was a strange sort of gospel to receive. My chaplain friend and I were escorted through the hospital (I seem to remember being wheeled there, but it's all a bit fuzzy.), up an elevator, to a big set of plate glass doors. Signs on the door warned that the people inside could be a flight risk. I realized that was about to mean me. My mind swirled around the term. I imagined myself and a whole troop of my fellow patients flying away from the hospital, the employees in awe of our telekinetic prowess. My imagination was in a weird sort of hyperdrive, perhaps to create a layer of denial between my mind and the fact that those big, glass doors would soon be locking behind me.
The nurse went to a wall phone and dialed through. The big doors clicked unlocked. We went in. I signed in. Waited again. Then another nurse in white coat came and told my friend it was time to leave. He departed with a few encouraging words and promised to check back in the next day. The big doors locked behind him. I was inside. The nurse took me to a gently lit office — by this time it was night — and asked me the same standard bank of questions the social worker had posed in the ER. She was the picture of professionalism: completely non-anxious, not cold, but also not shocked by anything I said.
One of the standard questions, after, "Do you think you might try to hurt yourself?" is "Do you think you might want to hurt anyone else?" My mind latched on to one of the seemingly minor triggers that had come to loom so large in my destructive self-evaluation of the past week:
"I kind of want to murder Verizon customer service right now."
The nurse looked at me out of the side of her eyes. Her demeanor and language shifted, just for a moment, from the professional to the colloquial: "Honey," she said, "that just don't count."
* * *
You may have already noticed that the buffers and safety nets that saved me are simply not accessible to many people who struggle with disordered moods and mental health challenges. The number for a suicide hotline, a friend I can call who has some skill in navigating the tricky waters of mental breakdowns, a chaplain who understands mental illness as illness to be treated and not as weakness of faith simply to be prayed away, access to medical treatment — these are not resources that simply fall into the laps of everyone who needs them. The stigma and shame that has surrounded mental illness deters many people from getting the help they need; the brokenness of this country's health care system in general, and mental health care system in particular, prevents many others. These two factors — stigmatizing silence and economic barriers — inform and reinforce each other. How can we fix the mental health care system in this country without breaking the silence about mental illness? And yet, how can we break the silence without providing people support and access to resources for recovery?
It's a massive challenge, requiring a multi-layered response. Policy changes are needed. So are safe spaces to share stories, and individuals brave enough to share. So, too, are preventive measures. I am very grateful, for example, that I did not have easy access to a handgun during this time of my life, which meant that the pressing question of how I could end my life was a complex, rather than a lethally simple one, to answer. As it was, I found myself in a hospital bed, with cuts, scratches, and burns all over my left arm, cracking out of place jokes to the nurse intern and holding onto my cell phone like it was a flotation device, as if I had some inward sense, deeply buried, that connection was the only thing that could save me.
* * *
It took about eight hours between the moment I limped into Sibley and my actual admission into a bed in Ward 7 West, the psychiatric unit where I would spend the next two weeks. When I had emerged from the basement and informed one of my housemates that I was headed to the hospital, she had the forethought to make me eat. It was the only meal I had that day. It would be a day before anyone could bring me clothes; somehow, I had thought to bring a phone charger. There was something fitting about that first night in the hospital, stripped of most possessions, even my shoelaces, wearing nothing but boxers, a hospital robe, and bright blue hospital socks. It was as if all the armor and barricades that I had constructed between the tempest raging internally and my outside affect had been pulled away, revealing the cuts and burns on my naked arms and the exposed, vulnerable mess of my actual experience. The next day, I was put on psychiatric medication for the first time in my life. Something in that initial cocktail must have had an effect: I slept through the night for the first time in a week.
* * *
I won't share every moment of those two weeks at Sibley, nor recount in detail each subsequent hospitalization — three in all — before I was admitted into a longer-term program at a hospital in Connecticut. Hospital wards are characterized by boredom, and I wonder whether the desperate boredom of the psychiatric ward is a major obstacle to healing, or whether it is mental illness itself that breeds the tendency toward languor and ennui. My father, who suffers from a mood disorder, describes depression as a feeling of trying to walk through molasses. Sometime that first day I asked for a pen and a pad of paper, and I began to write obsessively. In hindsight, much of what I wrote during that time is incoherent, clearly manic, or simply wrathful, but there are occasional moments of lucidity. In one such moment, I stumbled into an image that would follow me over the next six months as I bounced in and out of four acute psychiatric hospitalizations, one outpatient program, and one transitional living program housed on a hospital campus. It was an image of Christ on the psych ward:
Hebrews 1:3 says that "[ Jesus] is the reflection of God's glory, and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things–bears along all things–by his powerful word."
Christ bears along. These words are giving me some comfort. The Human One who is the imprint among us of God's very being is the same One who bears all things with us, who sustains us and holds us in being.
Christ is on the psych ward, bearing along. Suffering along. Sustaining the woman who can't sleep can't sleep can't sleep. Bearing along the scared young person with the addiction who wants to stop hating herself, wants to stop being disgusted with herself. Suffering with all those who feel they break relationship, hurt people, want to hurt themselves.
This Jesus knows a thing or two about broken relationships, about people hurting, about a body tearing itself apart. "Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested" (Heb. 2:18). "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18). And this reconciliation, this bearing along, has a universality to it, for it is Christ "through whom [God] also created the world" (Heb. 1:2) and "in him all things in heaven and on earth were created" (Col 1:16) and are held together (Col. 1:17).
So here is Christ on the psych ward, just like Christ at the checkpoint or the food line or the refugee camp — bearing along, sustaining, holding together the jagged bits that cut, that bleed, to hold onto.
"I'm not going to lie to you. I feel really awkward, but I'm glad I'm here," said one visitor. "I might be a mess, but I'll be there," said another. "Solidarity is salvation," said a third. Here are people who, whether they know it or not, are bearers of the Christ who bears along all things, sustains all things. The one who sits with, the one who listens, who bears up, who holds your hand or your arm when you thought all it could hold was the knife of self-injury; they merge, somehow, mysteriously, sacramentally, into the One who ultimately holds us together at the most broken place of all.
Life. Death. Resurrection.
Christ is here on the psych ward as surely as in any book or any church. "What matters is you getting better," the social workers say. "What matters is your healing." But they also say, "Some of the best insights come from each other," or, "does anyone else in the group resonate with what _____ just said?"
"I feel so fragile." "I just wish I could sleep." "I'm embarrassed, ashamed."
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, be gracious to us.
We are your broken ones.
* * *
The months following that journal entry were marked by feelings of desperation, loneliness, confusion, and pain; and yet, somehow, I had some cognizance of the presence of Christ in the midst of the jagged shards of it all. I don't want to overly spiritualize my experience, nor romanticize mental illness. I also do not want to universalize my story, as if there is some easily traceable corollary between mental illness and religious experience. As I will insist in the next chapter, any discussion of God's presence must also make room for the experience or perception of God's absence. Yet a quick glance back at my journals during this time reminds me of how prayerful and reflective I was during this time — far more so, ironically, than I had been during my first year of seminary! What do I make of this paradoxical experience of God's presence in the midst of some of the most difficult months of my life? It was certainly not a "feeling" of God being with me — my feelings at the time were doing their best to kill me. With all respect to Horatio Spafford, it was not "well with my soul." I experienced feelings of abandonment and despair, misdirected anger and deep doubt. If God was present in it all, what sort of God could I possibly be talking about?
That's the question, as I look back over my time in various hospitals, that slowly emerged from the messiness and pain. What sort of God was I talking about? I, who pursued a seminary education, who spoke of a call to ministry, who aspired to serve the church. What sort of language could I find to describe this God? What is the shape of a faith in this God? The understanding of God that I found myself crawling into was not an omnipotent, omniscient, Wholly Other Being thundering from above — though in the summer storms that swept over Sibley, I did imagine the voice of God in the thunder. Nor was it a God who sent suffering as some sort of test or trial — though I certainly cried out in pain against such a God, against such a test, which, if it existed, I was convinced I was most certainly failing. No. In order to imagine God present with me on the psych ward, I found myself drawn to images of vulnerability, even weakness. Images of a God who draws close to human suffering, even submitting God's own self to suffering. A God intimately familiar with the pain and contradictions not only of the human condition in general, but also the particularities of harmful experiences.
Excerpted from "Christ on the Psych Ward"
Copyright © 2018 David Finnegan-Hosey.
Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Let Me Tell You a Story 1
1 Christ on the Psych Ward 15
2 A Deep and Terrifying Darkness 29
3 Who Told Us We Were Naked? 44
4 Sufficient 59
5 God's Sleeves 76
6 God's Friends 93
7 Diagnoses and Demons 107
8 No Pill Can Fill the Hole in My Heart 127
Conclusion: Leaving the Labyrinth 145
Appendix: Mental Health Resources 151