March 26, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Last summer, a post began circulating on Facebook entitled, “An Experiment for People Who Don’t Understand Depression.” The post was shared over 20,000 times by the end of the year, passed along by people who were struggling to explain their own depression to family and friends. One woman, for example, said, “[I know depression is different for everyone but] this is exactly how it feels for me.”
The author of the post, John Anson, wrote this:
“A lot of people have asked me what depression feels like. They earnestly seem not to know, as if depression were some sort of unfathomable specter. To that end, I offer the following experiment:
“[Go into a cold bathroom.] Turn on the fan. Leave only a single dim light… as if barely there—maybe a flickering candle. Stay in the here and now; nothing exists on the other side of that door. Slowly and deliberately, strip off each item of clothing, one by one….
“[Now] Draw a warm bath … Make it the best bath you possibly can. Get in. Lie there in the heat, enjoying the comfort. Close your eyes. Wrap your arms around yourself to make the warm embrace literal.
“This is the world everyone else knows.
“Now, still lying in the perfect bath, pull the plug. Sit there as the water slowly recedes, as the warm water turns to cold air on your skin. Listen to the gurgling thirst of the drain, as your bath gradually transitions to the past tense….
“After the last of the water runs swirling down the drain’s rim, sit there for a while. Sit there cold and wet and naked. Keep still. Let yourself shiver. Don’t attempt to warm yourself. This is what depression feels like. It feels like everything good has all drained out, leaving you cold and naked and alone.” 1
In Matthew 25, Jesus calls us to clothe the naked and we can hear this as a call to be concerned for those who are literally naked, people homeless and impoverished, the type of person Jesus must have seen many times wandering about the ancient Palestinian streets, but there is another sort of nakedness that I would like to talk about today, and that is the nakedness and vulnerability of mental illness. I don’t think that it is much of a stretch to interpret Jesus’ command to care for the naked as a call to care for the mentally ill because many of the physically naked people that Jesus had in mind were also suffering from some sort of mental illness — the Bible with its premedical world view calls them demon possessed — and certainly in today’s world those who might be found literally naked on our streets would also be the mentally ill or substance abusers, two populations that frequently overlap. But I want to broaden our scope and hear in Christ’s call a concern for those whose nakedness may be not a nakedness of the body but a nakedness of the psyche, of the spirit, of the soul. Mental illness covers a broad spectrum and is found in quieter forms among members of our own family, our congregation, our neighborhoods; it may even be something that we wrestle with ourselves. In these cases, nakedness, though not a literal description, remains an appropriate metaphor because those who suffer from depression, crippling anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disease often feel as if the boundary between the world and themselves is too fragile, too thin to protect them, sometimes non-existent. It is as if they are standing naked before all of the threats of life and have nothing to keep them safe.
All of us go through difficult times or experience down days, but if you have a normally functioning brain, you are able in essence to clothe yourself in healthy thinking and behaviors that will allow you to come through those times unscathed and whole. A person with a mental illness, however, doesn’t have that same capacity. Most often it is their own brain chemistry that is the culprit, or a neural circuitry that fires at the wrong time and for some it is traumatic life experience that has stripped them of healthy strategies. Whatever the reason, the person with mental illness feels naked before life, and so the person with OCD develops compulsive rituals to try to shield themselves from that dangerous world; the person with anxiety disorder experiences panic attacks, their brain unable to sort through the triggers; the person with depression curls up in a dark room with no strength to face the overwhelming challenges of the day because out there in the world, they are exposed, vulnerable; they are naked.
Many of our own beloved Biblical characters suffered from mental illness. King Saul, for example, struggled with bouts of crippling depression. It says that the only thing that could soothe him was the music of David’s harp. And remember how Saul reacted when he heard that young David was going to fight the giant Goliath? The Israelites and the Philistines had been at war but had reached a stalemate in their battle, and so one morning as they faced each other across a valley, the Philistine giant Goliath dared the Israelites to send a man to fight him in a winner-take-all duel. The sight of the giant terrified the Israelites and no one came forward to defend their army, until the boy David walked into camp. David said, “I’ll do it,” and went to King Saul to offer his services. Saul tried to talk David out of it, saying that he was too young and too small to fight the giant, but when David insisted on going, the Bible says, “Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk.” The armor was so heavy that David couldn’t even move, let alone fight. Saul’s inappropriate solution to the challenge of Goliath makes sense when we remember that Saul struggled with depression and anxiety. His own mental illness left him with a heightened sense of vulnerability and so when he thought of David going against Goliath, his instinct was to clothe David in the heaviest armor he could find. Like Saul, people with mental illness may use strategies that make little sense to those who are healthy but their illness fools them into believing that these self-defeating strategies will shield them from a dangerous world: and so they may abuse substances, binge eat, blame others for their problems, lie to their loved ones, obsess and worry about tiny matters, or simply retreat into themselves and become inaccessible all in a vain attempt to feel less naked before a world that overwhelms them.
Mental illness is a very broad category, incorporating everything from chronic depression to psychoses such as schizophrenia, which makes it hard to talk about since the symptoms and treatments differ vastly over that spectrum. Nevertheless, most health sites say that around one in five adult Americans will experience a mental illness in the coming year and when you add to that the number of family members and friends who are affected by the mental illness of a loved one, you realize that virtually every one of us here is likely to know someone who is living with a mental illness or the mental illness of a family member. And how has the church done in caring for people who suffer from mental illness? Lifeways Research polled several hundred people diagnosed with mental illness and asked them whether they felt that their faith community had been helpful to them in their struggle. Only 6% of the respondents answered yes. 2
One person commented, “If I had cancer, people in the church would offer to drive me to my chemotherapy sessions. If I have a heart attack, church members will pray for me. If I break my leg, the church will bring me soup and chicken pot pie. If I get bronchitis, people will send me get well cards and ask me how I’m doing each week. But if my illness is in my brain chemistry, the church is silent.”
Moreover, when the church does try to help, it often ends up making matters worse by adding the burden of guilt and failure to the person with the disease. In another survey done by Lifeways Research, over a thousand people were asked whether they agreed with this statement: “People with serious mental illness like depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia could overcome mental illness with just Bible study and prayer alone.” 1/3 of the respondents agreed, and 48% of people who self-identified as evangelical Christians said the statement was true, asserting that prayer and Bible study could overcome mental illness. In spite of our growing knowledge of the influence of brain circuitry on psychological health, we continue to think of mental illness as a character flaw: the secular person judges a mentally ill person as weak in character, unable to make the right choices, while the Christian judges the mentally ill person as weak in faith, unable to trust God to put a right spirit in them. And so now, in addition to their illness, we have added the gnawing doubt that their illness is their own fault. If they would just pray, have faith, buck up, and fix themselves, they’d be better.
In 1835 a man visited a doctor in Florence, Italy. He was filled with anxiety, couldn’t eat, and was exhausted from his inability to sleep. Things got so bad that he began avoiding his friends, shutting himself in his home alone after work. He finally sought out the help of a doctor, but after examining him, the physician said that he was in prime physical condition.
“What you need,” the doctor said, “is to get out and have some fun.” The physician told the man there was a circus in town and its star performer was a clown named Grimaldi. Night after night he had the people rolling in the aisles.
“You must go and see him,” the doctor advised. “Grimaldi is the world’s funniest clown. He’ll make you laugh and cure your sadness.”
“No,” replied the despairing man, “he can’t help me. You see, I am Grimaldi!”
The reason mental illness is called illness is because it is an illness, not a character flaw or a weakness of spirit. When the church tells a person who is struggling with depression to cheer up, when we say to a person with a mental disorder to pray harder, or when we say to someone with anxiety disorder that they should stop worrying and put their problems in the hands of God, it is like telling a homeless naked person standing in the cold, “Go get some clothes on!” instead of handing them what they most need — a coat.
Christ calls us to clothe the naked — to provide the vulnerable with a layer of protection between their fragile selves and a world that is sometimes too difficult for them to bear — and for the mentally ill, the layer of protection that will help warm them are found in the clothes of understanding, attentiveness, and love. While it is true that we in the church cannot cure the mental illnesses of our community, neither can we can cure the cancer of our friends, or heal the broken bones of our neighbors. We in the church have never been in the business of fixing people — we are in the business of extending a caring hand to those who are broken, clothing them in the warmth of an understanding embrace, assuring them that they are not alone, and reminding them their lives are meaningful and valued even if their disease tries to tell them otherwise. Many of the men and women in the pages of our Bible and in the history of our faith endured mental anguish and psychological turbulence; many were riven with anxiety, or had long dark nights of depression — Elijah, Hannah, Saul, Jeremiah, so many of the saints, the great preacher Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther King, Jr. — the list goes on and on but all of these men and women are remembered not for the state of their mental health but for their lives of faith. God assured them and proclaims to us over and over again that we do not have to be physically healthy in order to live a spiritually meaningful life. Even when our own brains try to convince us that we are worthless, or too fragile for this world, or that there is no hope, God reminds us that it is not our brain which has the last word; it is God. God will whisper in our ears over and over again, “I don’t care what your brain tells you, know that you are loved and you are valued and I will wrap you in my compassionate arms, and clothe you with my love.”
And we in the church are called to do the same. We are called to reach out and ask our friends and loved ones who are suffering, “How are you today?” We are called to be attentive and understanding, never judging or advising but simply standing with them in their struggle. And we are called to clothe the naked with love, reminding them that they are valued no matter what their brain may be telling them. As one man said, “What I need from my church is for them to say, ‘We love you, we are praying with you, and don’t forget to take your pills!”