What do these folk have in common?
In Mark 1:21-28 we find Jesus teaching at a synagogue in Capernaum. The crowds are astounded at his teaching, comparing him to the Scribes, the scholarly elite who are experts in the teaching and interpretation of religious texts, particularly the Torah. These Scribes speak with authority. Jesus speaks with a kind of authority the Scribes don’t have.
As if the teaching weren’t big enough news, Mark relates in some detail this scene: A man with what the writer calls an “unclean spirit” interrupts Jesus teaching. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus rebukes the spirit, telling it to “Be silent, and come out of him!” The spirit convulses and comes out of the man. The crowds are even more amazed. Jesus’ words have real authority.
People like this man with an “unclean spirit” are often called “demoniacs” in the New Testament. (That phrase appears some 14 times in the Gospels). To be a demoniac is to have an unspecified illness. It is often associated with blindness, violence, Epilepsy, being tormented, or madness.
I want to take an imaginative leap here. I want to ask a touchy question. Do you think the writer is describing people who have mental illness? In the New Testament, there is no term for mental illness, but those words seem to me to capture part of what is going on in this scene. And In the New Testament—as in modern times—mental illness is, at the very least, an interruption. Polite people then and now simply don’t like to talk about it. And, then as now, we avoid people with mental illness.
Neely Simpson felt that way about her Aunt Nan, whom she writes about in her blog, Glimpsing God. Nan suffered from bipolar disorder compounded by PTSD from an abusive marriage. Nan would literally lose her mind and go missing for months, remembering very little about her absence. Neely wrote these words after Nan’s suicide at the age of 62:
One night when I was an infant, Nan came to visit. My mother noticed that there was something off about her and woke late in the night hearing a voice in the kitchen. When she went to investigate she found Nan sitting at the kitchen table talking to people who weren’t there. My mother marks that as the beginning. The beginning of a lifetime spent cycling in and out of mental hospitals; the beginning of repeated disappearances and missing person reports; the beginning of calls from the police saying that they’d found Nan nude behind a restaurant, walking barefoot in the rain down the middle of a busy Charlotte road, or locked in a gas station bathroom face down and unconscious, miles from home. Once, when I was five years old, she disappeared for 3 months and was eventually found living out of her car in Charleston. She was often mistaken for a homeless person. Hers is the face I see when someone points maliciously at the homeless and says, “get a job!
Neely admits that relating to Aunt Nan was difficult for her and for her family:
My mother called her every day. I tried to call her once a week, when she wasn’t missing or in a mental hospital, but I didn’t follow through all the time. The truth was she could be hard to talk to. The truth was she made me uncomfortable. The truth was that her life was sad and it frightened me. The truth was that deep down I was desperately afraid of becoming her. So, I relegated her to a place in the periphery of my life.
Mental illness frightens us and befuddles us. When we talk about it—as I’m daring to do now—we often run the risk of being patronizing. Our thoughtful talk sometimes isn’t thoughtful at all. And instead of bearing light, we generate smoke. I don’t want to further marginalize those who struggle with mental illness; at one time or another, that number probably includes us. No matter how much we say we care, and no matter how badly we may fumble expressing that care (like now?), people with mental illness often say that they feel misunderstood and unreachable.
BUT IN CAPERNAUM, a man with an unclean spirit called out to Jesus, “I know who you are.” And Jesus looked at him and knew who he was, too. You are a beloved child of God. You are the apple of God’s eye. You are more than your disease. Illness, come out of this man!
And it did. The illness came out of him. The man was made well.
When this man with an unclean spirit ranted and raved in Capernaum, it’s a safe bet people avoided him. But one day, Jesus saw him and didn’t turn the other way. Jesus didn’t pretend not to notice. Jesus didn’t revile this man. Jesus didn’t freak out or ignore him. Jesus simply healed him.
The crowds are right: Jesus speaks with authority.
The people named at the top of this blog have many things in common. One thing is this: they are alleged to have each struggled with mental illness. They suffered from what Churchill called visits from the “black dog”—depression. They suffered from social anxiety and bipolar disorder, bulimia, and alcoholism and other substance abuse disorders.
But—thank God—in every case, these men and women were blessed with a community that saw them as more than their illness. They were seen for their talents, humor, quirkiness, strengnth, and their humanity. Somebody loved them even though their “demons” (New Testament language) or “brain chemistry” (modern language) sometimes made it difficult to love them. Somebody loved them anyway.
That’s the first miracle at Capernaum: Jesus stopped, noticed, and had compassion. The healing is another miracle, but the first miracle is that Jesus paused and loved in the first place.
And that’s the miracle that God has given us the power to perform. We can stop. We can pay a moment’s attention. We can be healers if not on the front line, like Jesus, then from the periphery, like my friend Neely.
I can’t cure mental illness. I can’t make the troubles go away, or the anxieties evaporate. But I can do my small part, likely Neely did with Aunt Nan—on the periphery. I can try to listen a little better; I can try to love a little more. I can donate money to agencies and churches like St. Giles that help and care. I can join my voice with others who say our mental health system is badly broken and deeply overburdened. I can pray. I can try to be more patient. I can pray. And I can pay closer attention to the one who spoke with authority in Capernaum, the one who stopped, who didn’t run away, who took some time . . . to love.
Jesus still speaks in the synagogues, in the churches, on the streets. And the man with the ‘unclean spirit’ isn’t the only one who knows who Jesus is: we also know that Jesus is the Holy One of God. In a world of hurt, could it be that Jesus invites us in God’s name to touch the world’s hurt with healing in our hands, with power in our voices, with justice on our minds, and love in our hearts?
I think so.
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(1) Mark 1:21-28 (NRSV) 21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[a] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
(2) Creigh Deeds, a senator in Virginia, described his son Gus as a “perfect kid… a great son.” On a morning a year ago, Gus stabbed his dad 10 times in the head and chest, before turning a gun on himself. Gus was very sick, and the mental health system had no psychiatric beds to hold Gus, even though he qualified for such care. Creigh’s love for his son wasn’t enough to heal him—now all the scarred senator can do is change laws and improve care so that families with members who are out of control and get the help they need. CNN reports that his agenda for the 2014 legislative session in Virginia included proposals that would create a psychiatric bed registry and expand the time limit for emergency custody orders. He said he hopes that his son is not defined by his illness and that his life will have a positive impact. “I want people to remember the brilliant, friendly, loving kid that was Gus Deeds,” his father said. Google Senator Creigh Deeds (CNN, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post, etc) and learn more about his powerful story.
(3) NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) offers free classes to family members of loved ones suffering from a mental illness. There are 2 types of classes taught here in Greenville and they will be starting soon. One is called Family to Family. It is designed for family members of adults (over the age of 18) who have been diagnosed with a mental illness (anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, etc.). It meets for 12 weeks and lasts 3 hours each evening. The other class is called Basics. It is designed for family members or foster parents who have a child (under the age of 18) who exhibits symptoms of mental illness, whether already diagnosed or not. It meets for 6 weeks and each meeting is 2 1/2 hours in length. The courses are FREE and include information about diagnoses, resources, treatment, self-care, crisis management, etc. One Family to Family class to be taught by Jim and Glenda Hayes will begin Tuesday February 24 at Taylors First Baptist Church. Another Family to Family class will be taught by Alisa Bridger and Larry Kendall on Monday evenings beginning January 24. Location TBA. A Basics class will begin in April and will meet on Tuesday evenings. It will be taught by Jill Mann and Beth Dobson. Location TBA. Please call Jill Mann at the NAMI office 331-3300, for more information or to sign up for a class.
(4) Following is Neely Stancel Simpson’s post entitled “Nan Robinson January 16, 1953 – June 26, 2011” from her blog Glimpses of God. This appears with Neely’s permission.
“Aunt Nan,” Sophia said from her car seat, as we drove through the moss draped tunnel of oak trees that lined the quiet Low Country road.
“No Sophia, we’re not going to see Aunt Nan today. We’re on vacation,” I said glancing at Sophia in the rear view mirror and thinking with a twinge of guilt that I really should call Nan. Then I pushed the thought out of my head. It was Sunday, the last day of our vacation, the first family vacation the three of us had ever had. I would deal with Nan tomorrow.
“Aunt Nan,” Sophia repeated in her small two-year-old voice, while she kicked her feet and watched the trees pass outside the window.
I turned in my seat to look at her and asked, “What about Aunt Nan?”
She looked at me matter-of-factly with her big blue eyes and said, “Aunt Nan’s home.”
“Did you have fun at Aunt Nan’s house?” I asked thinking it odd that she was remembering a day trip to my aunt’s condo in Charlotte two weeks ago. She had turned back to watching trees pass outside the window and did not answer. I turned around in my seat and thought no more of it.
Tuesday I received a phone call from my mother.
“Hello,” she said in a voice that sounded strained, “is Dave home from work yet?”
“No, not yet. Why?”
“Well, I just wanted to talk to both of you so I’ll call back in a little while,” she said trying to make her voice sound chipper, in a way that reminded me of the times she’d called to give me bad news about her cancer.
“Is everything okay?” I asked suspiciously. There was silence on the other end of the line.
“No,” she said finally, her voice breaking a little. “Nan is dead. She took her own life.”
It was a call I’d been expecting for years, only I’d always thought that instead of suicide Nan would be killed by her disease. I guess in a way that is what happened.
“When did she die?” I asked.
“The police think that it was Sunday.”
I’ve never had much use for that old adage, God never gives you more than you can handle, mostly because I’ve met people that had more than they could handle. My mother’s younger sister, Nancy Robinson was one of those people.
She was diagnosed at the age of thirty with bipolar disorder, compounded doctors said, by an abusive marriage that she’d had as a young woman and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the terrible things that had happened to her while she was out of her mind with mania and at the mercy of the world.
As children, Nan had been the pretty one – thin, blond, and popular, while my mother had waded more awkwardly through adolescence with corrective shoes and braces. Pictures show a fresh faced, well dressed girl, sometimes laughing, sometimes moody. Nan was charismatic, witty and talented — a gifted writer and artist who amused her fellow classmates with school-related satirical cartoons worthy of the New York Times. She was the editor of the school newspaper and yearbook. She had boyfriends and admirers and was even hit on once at the age of fourteen by a college classmate of my mother’s.
She attended college at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, but didn’t finish there. During a year abroad, she fell in love with France and decided to stay, which was one of the happiest periods of her life. Eventually, she returned to her native South Carolina to finish a degree in Film and Media Arts at the University of South Carolina. After finishing her degree she became the Director of Media Arts for the South Carolina Arts Commission. It was in that capacity that she met her husband, a struggling artist and filmmaker.
She worked to support him while he made films. Eventually, the two of them started a film company in Columbia, South Carolina called Kingfisher Films. Among her body of work are the documentaries Growing Up With Rockets, and Dizzy Gillespie – A Night in Tunisia. Together they traveled all over the country for their work and met famous people. She wore beautiful, expensive clothes. They even had an apartment in New York. Throughout it all, my mother reports that there was abuse and bouts of depression. Her marriage finally ended after five years and Kingfisher Films fizzled into nonexistence.
One night when I was an infant, Nan came to visit. My mother noticed that there was something off about her and woke late in the night hearing a voice in the kitchen. When she went to investigate she found Nan sitting at the kitchen table talking to people who weren’t there. My mother marks that as the beginning. The beginning of a lifetime spent cycling in and out of mental hospitals; the beginning of repeated disappearances and missing person reports; the beginning of calls from the police saying that they’d found Nan nude behind a restaurant, walking barefoot in the rain down the middle of a busy Charlotte road, or locked in a gas station bathroom face down and unconscious, miles from home. Once, when I was five years old, she disappeared for 3 months and was eventually found living out of her car in Charleston. She was often mistaken for a homeless person. Hers is the face I see when someone points maliciously at the homeless and says, “Get a job!”
She had a job . . . for a while. She was brilliant, talented, and funny. After her divorce she moved toWashington D.C. where she had several different editing jobs for journals and periodicals. But job terminations started and then became more frequent. She was always looking for a new job. Each manic episode debilitated her a little more, leaving her mind a little less able to complete basic tasks. She became slower. She left things undone. When she was manic, she scared people. She was odd and frightening. She sometimes made violent threats. What few friends she made, she always scared away. There was more than one occasion when my father slept downstairs on the couch near the door, just in case her fractured mind could piece itself together enough to follow through on her threats. That was when she was manic. When she was herself, she was fun, and witty, and smart. It was a horrific, real life case of Jeckyll and Hyde.
Finally, when she could no longer hold a job, she moved home to South Carolina, to live with my grandmother. Nan was always very close to my grandmother, who worried about her endlessly. Together with my mother, she spent a lifetime, tirelessly trying to find some solution, some cure, some help.
Living in the small South Carolina town where she’d been raised, Nan felt isolated. It was not a place where mental illness was discussed openly. It was not a place where mental illness was understood. People felt uncomfortable around her and avoided her. She began to become bitter and that came across sometimes in conversation. She could be hard to talk to. She detested the awkward pretending that people always did around her, as if there was an elephant in the room and it was her. Once I asked her to tell me about the mental hospitals that she’d been in. She seemed relieved, almost happy that I’d asked, as if encouraged that I had quit pretending. I remember wishing that I’d asked her sooner.
Ever the cruel master, the mania was not content to strip her of friends, dignity, and safety. It took everything that she had. She was impoverished. When she was manic, she bought things – cars, jewelry, and once she even made an offer on a beach house, which was accepted. She’d had to declare bankruptcy. She had numerous debts, among them were hospital and doctor’s bills. She had nothing. She was the poor relative. When no one could figure out any other way to relate to her, they brought her food, and bought her clothes, me included. It was humiliating for her.
My grandmother helped Nan to buy a condo in Charlotte, which was where she’d lived for the past eight years. In those eight years the mania got worse. She was in and out of mental hospitals, sometimes as many as three times a year. The hospitals always seemed glad to be rid of her. Her problems were more than they were equipped to handle and they were always short of beds. They often released her before the mania had ended and so she was usually picked up by the police and put back within the month. She saw numerous psychiatrists provided by the state, some who cared more than others, but the state budget for mental health was always being cut and so were the jobs of the people who worked with Nan. Doctors and medication changed frequently.
If ever you wanted to know anything about mental health or the mental health care system, my mother would be the one to ask. Caring for Nan had been her full time job. She’d looked into every kind of private placement scenario, but they were all totally unaffordable. She looked into guardianship, but was advised against it as she would be held legally responsible for Nan’s actions. The very idea of guardianship put a strain on their relationship. Nan clung desperately to her independence, which was her last shred of dignity. In the end my mother decided that it was better for Nan to have a sister who loved her and not a jailer. Still, my mother spent much of the last eleven years researching the system, and then working ceaselessly to find help for Nan. Sometimes she was successful. About five years ago, she was able to get Nan a wonderful case worker who was a saint and who was able to advocate for her within the system, but it seems that budgets must always be cut, which means jobs have to be cut and that social worker lost her job. It seemed like a miracle when Nan was assigned another case worker who was also wonderful. We lost that case worker to yet another round of budget cuts about a year ago.
When I was a teenager, Nan very hesitantly came out of the closet with her immediate family — fearing, I think, that she would be rejected by the only family that she had. We had suspected for some time. It makes me sad to hear people talk about homosexuality as if it were some sinful frivolity that could be fixed with a little godly discipline. As if it were like choosing a flavor of ice cream and my aunt had chosen the wrong moral flavor, when she should have been sensible and chosen chocolate like everyone else. It wasn’t a choice for her. She was a woman who felt isolated and rejected in everyway. Being gay was one more rejection.
She felt rejected by the church, but she missed it at the same time. She asked me once, “Why do you like the church so much?” She hadn’t experienced it like I had. For me it had been a place of acceptance, a place where I was taught to accept. Every gay and lesbian friend that I have, I know through the church. But I had my struggles with the church too and my own bad experiences. So I said, “Well because it’s kind of like family, you know? You love them, but they’re all kind of crazy and they drive you a little nuts. In the end they’ve been a means of Grace and you bear a slight resemblance to them.” She laughed and nodded. She’d tried again and again to find a church, but she couldn’t drive, and half the time she wasn’t in her right mind. So it was hard. Sometimes she just didn’t feel welcome. When I was in college, Nan’s ex-husband contacted her. He was remarrying a Catholic woman and needed an annulment. So just like that, the church said that five years of abuse never happened. Rejection.
Someone asked me once, “Doesn’t your aunt take her medication?” When she wasn’t manic she took it faithfully, desperately clinging to the hope that she wouldn’t have another manic episode. She feared them. Terrible things happened to her when she was manic, humiliating things, violent things. She would slowly and eventually surface to sanity after months of mania with only shadowy memories of what had happened. She would return to sanity to find her life in shambles: Her condo would be destroyed by her own hands, the electricity and water turned off because she hadn’t paid the bills, wallet missing, money gone, and new friends scared off.
Psychiatrists told my mother to stop cleaning the apartment and paying the bills. They said that in order to live with her illness, Nan needed to see what happened while she was manic. In order to live independently, Nan needed to learn how to manage it all by herself.
Once during one of her disappearances she called my mother and alluded to the death of her dog. It was a much beloved dog, her one companion. Dave and I went to her condo to try to find the dog, but it was gone and never reappeared. She came home months later to find that her beloved pet was gone. Each manic episode was like that. She would spend months trying to put her life back together only to be betrayed by her own mind and begin the process all over again.
One place Nan felt accepted was The Lesbian and Gay Community Center in Charlotte, where she did a lot of volunteer work. She was treated with dignity there and even had a few casual friends. It was not in the church that she encountered God’s Grace, but at The Lesbian and Gay Community Center. That’s got to be biblical, right? Grace popping up where authority says that it shouldn’t be. It makes me think of that woman with the long hair and the alabaster jar who anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears and then dries them with her hair. All those good church people were appalled that Jesus would allow such a thing to happen; that Jesus would allow such a woman to touch him. Jesus just says, “Listen here boys, this woman’s got more faith and more love than all of you combined.”
My Aunt Nan spent her life trying to live with a cruel and debilitating illness. Year after year she tried to put her life back together only to be knocked down again. She had been rejected by everyone there was to be rejected by, including her own family who was a little afraid of her and who, like everyone else, wasn’t entirely sure how to relate to her.
My mother called her every day. I tried to call her once a week, when she wasn’t missing or in a mental hospital, but I didn’t follow through all the time. The truth was she could be hard to talk to. The truth was she made me uncomfortable. The truth was that her life was sad and it frightened me. The truth was that deep down I was desperately afraid of becoming her. So, I relegated her to a place in the periphery of my life. When I did talk to her we talked about writing because, as I have mentioned, she was a very talented writer. She had been working on two screenplays for the past two years and I am hoping to find them among her things because they are probably brilliant.
She liked my aspiration to be a writer and encouraged me to keep at it. Once for Christmas she gave me a worn old book that had been hers. It is the best book on writing that I have ever read, and it inspired me to begin work on a book that I’d always wanted to write. It’s called, If You Want to Write: A book about Art, Independence, and Spirit by Brenda Ueland. It seems appropriate now that I would bury Nan with words, cover her with the shroud of her own story, and lay her to rest.
On that Sunday when Dave, Sophia, and I were driving along a moss draped Low Country road, Nan left a note and overdosed on drugs. She knew her mania was getting worse as she aged. She was losing memory, hearing, and ability.
My mother talked to her Saturday night because my mother talked to her every night.
“She seemed fine. She’d had a good day. There was something different about her, she seemed almost happy,” my mother reflected. The next evening when my mom called, Nan did not answer.
During a conversation with a pastor friend about that last phone call, our friend said, “She had a plan and she was at peace with that plan.”
Reflecting on her death, I am not uncomfortable with her suicide. I understand it. My mother and I talked about what we should tell people. We decided that we should tell them the truth because her death bears witness to how much she suffered — for that reason and also because she was so tired of everyone pretending.
Suicide is a touchy thing with Christians. Some Christian groups think that suicide gets you automatic entry to Hell. No part of me believes that. What small amount of Hell I believe in, exists mostly on earth. I am a parent and God is a parent, and as a parent I know that if my child had suffered the way that Nan suffered, the word rejoice is not adequate to describe what I would do and how I would feel when that suffering had ended. I would wrap my child in my arms, will away all the pain, and be so glad that she had come home. And that’s what God did on that Sunday night. On that Sunday night, Nan was no longer rejected, she was no longer humiliated, she was no longer alone, and mania could no longer touch her. She became whole. She went home. On that night when she took her life, God was there.
That week, my mother went to her condo just to be there. She found that Nan had organized things and left them where they could be found. She found Nan’s Bible. Psalm 70 was marked:
God, hurry and save me. Lord, come quickly and help me. Let those who are trying to kill me be put to shame. Let them not be honored. Let all those who want to destroy me be turned back in shame. Some people make fun of me. Let them be turned back when their plans fail. But let all those who look to you be joyful and glad because of what you have done. Let those who love you because you save them always say, “may god be honored!” But I am poor and needy. God, come quickly to me. You are the one who helps me and saves me. Lord please don’t wait any longer.
This past Sunday marks a week since she died, and it was one of those strange “thin” days as my Scots ancestors might say, referring to the thin veil that separates the living and the dead. Nan was somehow in the air and the universe seemed to be trying to tell us that she was home. In church we sang, Great is Thy Faithfulness and Precious Lord, Take My Hand. The sermon seemed written just for us.
My mother took Sophia on a walk and they discovered a juniper bush with a dried up brown limb. Sophia pointed at the branch indicating in toddler sign language that she wanted to know why it was brown.
“It’s dead,” my mother said, struggling with the words and wishing she could think of a better word to use with a two-year-old.
Sophia looked up at my mother, nodded and said, “God.”
“Yes,” my mother said, “God.”
Then turning from the bush she saw a feather on the ground. Nan liked to collect feathers and upon occasion would give them to my mother. They walked on a little farther to examine a tree. While Sophia busied herself inspecting ants and leaves, my mother looked down and found another feather. She picked it up and placed it in a hole in the tree for safe keeping, planning to take it with her when they left. She turned to look at something that Sophia wanted to show her and when she turned back for the feather, it was gone.
~“GREAT IS THY FAITHFULNESS,” O GOD MY FATHER. THERE IS NO SHADOW OF TURNING WITH THEE; THOU CHANGEST NOT, THY COMPASSIONS, THEY FAIL NOT. AS THOU HAST BEEN THOU FOREVER WILT BE.
~PRECIOUS LORD, TAKE MY HAND. LEAD ME ON, LET ME STAND. I AM TIRED, I AM WEAK, I AM WORN. THROUGH THE STORM, THROUGH THE NIGHT LEAD ME ON TO THE LIGHT. TAKE MY HAND PRECIOUS LORD, LEAD ME HOME.
WHEN MY WAY GROWS DREAR, PRECIOUS LORD LINGER NEAR. WHEN MY LIFE IS ALMOST GONE, HEAR MY CRY, HEAR MY CALL, HOLD MY HAND LEST I FALL. TAKE MY HAND PRECIOUS LORD, LEAD ME HOME.
WHEN THE DARKNESS APPEARS AND THE NIGHT DRAWS NEAR AND THE DAY IS PAST AND GONE, AT THE RIVER I STAND, GUIDE MY FEET, HOLD MY HAND. TAKE MY HAND PRECIOUS LORD, LEAD ME HOME.
PRECIOUS LORD, TAKE MY HAND, LEAD ME ON, LET ME STAND I’M TIRED, I’M WEAK, I’M LONE. THROUGH THE STORM, THROUGH THE NIGHT, LEAD ME ON TO THE LIGHT. TAKE MY HAND PRECIOUS LORD, LEAD ME HOME
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...