Thursday, July 28, 2011

Outside the Box of Sanity

This is an obvious turn from my discussion about a Men's Retreat.  What brought this topic to my thinking was an episode of 20/20 last week. It followed the lives of three families whose daughters suffered from the dreadful disease of schizophrenia.

The outward manifestation of this disease is truly horrible and a loving parent's worst nightmare.  You can see how hard they fought against the disease, hospitalization after hospitalization, piles of drugs . . .and still, the demons could not be slayed or even tamed.

I can also see why many more conservative (and uninformed) evangelicals would assume that these really are demons and what the child really needs is an exorcist. If only it could be that simple.  But it does beg the question of why would God allow such a horrible condition on such an innocent child?

Of course it must come back to the fall. We are full of imperfections and some of those are in the genetic fabric of the brain. While some of the mutations may result in things like, personality disorders, higher or lower intelligence, seizures, tendency towards depression . . . or schizophrenia.  The child is an innocent victim as well as the whole family. One little girl had attempted to kill her normal sister . . . yet she loves that sister. It is a nightmare. Those families were exhausted and had done every thing they humanly could do to stop it. Some of the marriages were coming apart at the seams because the mom and dad were physically spent.  These people were heroes in my book.

I've seen schizophrenia play out in an evangelical church setting three times that I can think of. Once in Marquette, Michigan and twice in my previous church on our island.  In all three cases I had an court-side seat because I was an elder.  In all three cases, the response of the leadership was the same . . . demons.  The last time I was involved with a schizophrenic in the Christian setting was in my previous church.  A man went nuts in the service and began screaming profanities.  The only one other person recognized it as schizophrenia and that was a friend who was paramedic.  Everyone wants the simplistic answer of casting out the demons and seeing the person become totally normal in an instance.  I also see this as part of the problem of dualism. When you believe that the only important realm is the spiritual, then someone screaming profanities in the middle of a church service must be a spiritual problem . . . it can't be a brain problem . . . or can it?

I want to move the discussion to the more typical experience of most Christians.

Mental illness of course can come in a variety of unrelated forms.  Most of us, or maybe all of us, suffer from some form of mental illness at times.  The severity of these illnesses vary along a spectrum as well.  On one end they are very much under our control. In the middle of the spectrum it is still possible to treat the mental illness with behavior and cognitive work and/or medications but, as you approach the bad end, the mental illness falls more and more outside the box of our control.  Those who end up there are typically abandoned by the Church because the Church likes to make the assumption that all of our behavior, like screaming profanities at invisible monsters in the middle of the church service, is a moral problem . . . personal sin of some sorts. Seeing the victim as an innocent sufferer doesn't fit in our paradigm. But it should if we really understood the consequences of the fall. So, in some mental heath issues, we are on the back of a wild horse but we do have the reins in our hands and can exert some influence on the course of the runaway.  However, in some disorders you have one foot in the stirrup and are being dragged with virtually no control. The little girls in the 20/20 story, as well as their families, are being dragged . . . almost to an emotional oblivion.

I will make this a bit personal.  In my life I have a moderate level of anxiety which is garden variety.  In that situation I'm in the saddle and the reins are in my hands and I can take actions, re-frame thoughts, pray and over time see a difference.

I also had one bout of clinical depression which started when we had a missionary experience failure (about 21 years ago) and it lasted three years. While in the beginning I was being dragged, I eventually was able to get back in the saddle and wrestle the beast . . . not quite into submission but to a fragile control.

However, I also went through an experience 15 years ago that was very traumatic.  I don't want to talk about the specifics here but just as an observer. The best way you could describe it--in mental health terms--was PTSD.  Now, the good news it that I'm much better now with some echos of worsening anxiety every since.

But here is my point. I was overwhelmed at the time with the new notion that what was happening in my brain, in response to the trauma, was completely out of my control. I had one foot in the stirrup and was being dragged through hell.  I fought the horrible and extreme anxiety (constant terror) with all my heart. I honestly, for the first time in my life, prayed without ceasing.  I had continuing flashbacks and intrusive thoughts which I had absolutely no control over. I felt totally mentally ill. Each time a flash of the memory came into my mind it was a terrible and very real jolt as if I had been hit with a cattle prod. This happened very 2-3 minutes all day long, and all night (with no sleep for days).  I am a very rational person and not a big believer in tissue paper miracles or demons behind each bush, but I was begging for the demons to removed from me and that's how scared I was. It was a 1-2 year nightmare . . . then slowly the majority of the symptoms improved. But I've never been the same. Something concrete changed in my brain . . . I assume, forever.

So, I'm reflecting on the intrusive mental illnesses and how we as Christians view them.  I know that when my body was "possessed" by the extreme . . . I guess I would call it constant terror . . . it was in control and I had none.

But how do we as Christians handle this in others?  In my old evangelical paradigm, we always made the sufferer responsible. That made sense to us. We were good and strong Christians because of our hard work and obedience to God. Those who heard voices . . . well they must have done something terribly wrong, or, because they are weak (morally) they were possessed by demons.

I just think what what would happen if anyone of those families on 20/20 attended one of our churches?  Now, I know that there churches and Christian people who would accept them, love them, and not see the parents as failures of the James Dobson School of Perfect Parenting, but giants and heroes.  I know that there are good Christian people out there who would take the healthy sisters for the weekend to give them a break from the chaos, and some brave ones who would even take the schizophrenic child for a week so the parents could come up for air.

But I remember sitting in a elder's board meeting at my church in Marquette after a different man with a thought disorder yelled out profanities in the previous Sunday's morning worship.  One of the members, a surgeon who should of known better, said the most ridiculous thing.  "I have a bad feeling about Jack (the screamer).  There's a dark spirit about him and I sense something satanic."


PRS & ALS said...

Amy says:
I've never understood why some people who wouldn't attribute diabetes or cancer or any other physical disease to demons find it so easy to attribute mental disease to satan. I've suffered from PTSD because of childhood sexual abuse and have a friend who has it because of experiences in war. We've both been told (when it comes to flashbacks) to just not think about it, then it will go away. I think people just don't understand it, are afraid of it, feel helpless... A mental health agency in our county makes it a point to educate church groups about mental illness. It's a start, but there is a long way to go in helping people understand these illnesses.

Anonymous said...

In all three cases, the response of the leadership was the same . . . demons.

Shouldn't that be "DEEEEMONS!!!"?

As in "under every bed"?

Just like all those WITCHES! skulking everywhere (and under every bed) during the RL Burning Times in the Thirty Years War and English Civil War? Souring milk and making cows miscarry? Fought only by the Anointed Witchfinders-General?

"I have a bad feeling about Jack (the screamer). There's a dark spirit about him and I sense something satanic."

Just like that picture of a Cobra in a White Dress I bought at the FC 2010 Art Show. The one whose circumstances of acquisition reminded me of one of the biggest failures in my life at full emotional intensity and triggered a two-month depression? The one my sister-in-law told me (on the advice of a "Spiritual Warfare Expert" who previously Prophesied "God's Judgment On America Has Begun") had to be DEMON-possessed?

How does this differ from Isangomas "smelling out witches" in old Natal/KwaZulu? Where the "witch-smellers" would walk through the populace marking "witches" with a flick of their horsehair switches, with said witches being immediately dogpiled and lynched by Impalement?

Headless Unicorn Guy

NOTAL said...

" the "witch-smellers" would walk through the populace marking "witches" with a flick of their horsehair switches, "

Well, if she weighs the same as a duck . . .

jmj said...


I'm sorry for what you've been through. I hear that story far, far too often. Actually once is too often.

I think we have also lost sight of the consequences of sin here in this physical world. We can do terrible things to other people that damage them beyond complete repair until the earth and heavens are made anew.

HUG, I really see no difference. It is odd that when things happen in our generation they appear normal, but when you look at the same thing lost in distant history, it looks cruel and nutty.

What if they weight less than the duck?

Anna A said...

This is a rough one for me. I've been a co-worker of a man who was on medication for schizophrenia and got off of them.

That was a very scary period of time. None of us had had any experience with that kind of situation, nor were we prepared for it. M was socially awkward when he was hired, but that is normal for scientists.

Yet, at the same time, I was aware of a spiritual battle going on, with M as the center. I'm grateful that I was anchored in my Catholic Church at the time. I felt that I could trust Fr. Dave when I talked to him.

Looking back, even a relatively short time afterwards, I wonder for whom that battle was for. Not M, but possibly some of my co-workers.

Thank you for bringing this up, I have prayed once again for M, my former co-workers, and for all those who suffer with mental illness. AND those who love them.

jmj said...

Can you imagine the nightmare of being in the skin of someone who suffers from a thought disorder. Where you can never know, for sure, the boundaries of reality. Then on top of that, most people hate you for things over which you have no control. You can understand why the suicide right is so high for these people.

Anonymous said...

I am in the field of mental health and want to affirm that the typical evangelical and/or charismatic church has little to no understanding about mental illness or substance abuse addiction.

As a result, their attempts to "help" are often disastrous---not because they don't want to help, because they often do, but because when they decide to "help," they do it arrogantly, assuming their worldview has the answer, instead of trying to help from a place of humility (which would involve going to the professionals for advice, researching the illness and the treatment theories, working to understand and consider the implications of brain chemistry on our emotions and behavior, etc)...

The church community can be a powerful tool for recovery. If, and only if, it is a humble community. An addict in recovery, or a person with a severe mental illness who is seeking to get to a stable mental place, could be SO helped by a church community...IF that church community had a basic understanding of mental illness and recovery and how to support the suffering member through the lifelong process.

Haven't seen it yet...but it would sure be a cool thing to see.


Anonymous said...

What a breath of fresh air this place is. Thank you imonk for helping me find it. My wife and I have lost two of our 4 children. The first one in 2002 in a cave in accident at the age of 11, and the second in 2004 in a motorcycle accident, and the age of 15. The two kids (twins) we still have are about to go to college in a couple of weeks. I've had a growing problem with axiety in the past 2 years, where now it's becoming troublingly serious, and harder to control by the month. I've often wondered if I have a form of PTSD. Anyway it's good to know one's not alone.

jmj said...

Anonymous, I'm so sorry for your loss. No mortal human could have experienced what you have without some enduring wounds.

The most crazy people I've met in my life, and I'm not saying this nicely, are the mother and daughter, strong Baptist church people, who had a party after their husband/father was killed suddenly. They thought the proper way for a Christian to react was to celebrate that their loved-one was now in heaven. They were nuts and in total denial.

The second was a close friend of mine, my mentor, and well known for being godly who never shed a tear when 16 year old son was tragically killed . . . because he was sure that's how a godly person suppose to react.

I wish I could go back and somehow, magically, give them the "permission" to tear their clothes and weep for months because the consequences of the fall is very, very real and tragic.

You sound normal. I would be very anxious too. One of my sons was hit by a car a month ago (for the second time). He is fine, however, this past Saturday night the news broke of a man being hit by a car and killed in Seattle (where my son lives) and I about had a panic attack.

Eagle said...


Some of this hits home to me. Too close....

I have a close relative who has been afflicted by schizophrneia for the past 15 years. When my loved one was in a hospital, I was in college and I remember getting the psychosis phone calls from her. It scared the hell out of me and my roomate. I cried so hard over what had happened to my family member when my Mom flew cross country to help out. The pain was overwhelming, and it has been a hard jounrey. But at the time I didn't have an understanding of mental illness and thought of it like a cold, etc.. After 5 years when my loved one wasn't responding well to treatment my parents told me that we might have to learn to live with this and the doctor's said that there could be the possibility that my family member might not recover. My faith nose dived in anger, shock and in despair. By accident I found God again in St. Louis in a most amazing situation. And it led me to bouncing back. I've actually traveled back to St. Louis a couple of times hoping that I could resolve these current problems of faith.

But my family member is doing better. I love her immensely and try and be a good brother by sending her cards, text messages, etc.. reminding her as to much she is loved.

But fundgelicals do not know how to treat or respond to mental illness. In the 10 years I was in evangelicalism I never saw much of mental illness in the church. I did see some depression but the fundy's didn't know how to respond. "Get over it, will you?" or "Just think happy thoughts and have faith in Jesus!!" were what I heard when the topic came up. In the third wave church some charasmatics attributed mental illness to demonic possession. And I knew one guy in Crusade that deeply dealt with depression, and at the time there was concern about suicide. (Today he's fine by the way...) But my Crusade leader told me that he didn't understand the depression or the problems related. Why can't he just let go?
There is a lot of ignorance among the fundys. A lot.

MJ...your not the only one who feels guilty. I to have spent time in a combat zone. At the time I was delueded into thinking "God is in control..." and didn't realize how fortunate I was to have gone to some of the situations I did without harm. Safety is hard when you are in a guerrilla warfare environment and I couldn't find many evangelicals to discuss this with. Too much of the "happy, go lucky", God is good bullshit. The situation really didn't hit me until time passed and the war in Afghanistan got worse. About two years after being there someone was killed by a suicide bomber in the same convoy I once rode around in. I read about it on CNN and felt guilty. The questions or "why" and who lives and who dies and the timing of it all became difficult.

I think everyone lives with scars. For some it may be PTSD, others it may be OCD, or bi-polar, others may deal with recovering or trying to recover from a divorce, etc..

Life is hard. I wish I could find a Christian community where I could interact and discuss some of the spiritual problems that derailed my faith. But that won't happen in many circles. All too often Christianity is a smile, say "God is in controoool" and gave a Bible verse answer with 110% certainity. And then you are good.

I'll pass..thank you.

Brendan said...

Anxiety is a constant battle for me. Things are better now but I think that's because circumstances are better and not because I was able to "grab the reigns." Ever since I became a Father I've had a tough time trying to control fear (paternal postpartum anxiety?). For months I couldn't sleep, and I would frequently break out in sweats and shivers.

A couple of months ago I confessed this in a sermon. It was my attempt to let people know it's ok to not be ok. The response I got was overwhelming. The number of people in our small congregation who struggle with anxiety and depression is shocking. I got so many phone calls from people "confessing" their mental illness and treatments, it was really refreshing. It was liberating, but I guess it's also common. Schizophrenia is a different issue.

We have someone right now who has been diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia. The trouble is in getting her to accept it. She really thinks this is a slander campaign brought on by the county Sheriff who is out to ruin her reputation. The people of our Church aren't screaming "DEEEMON!" but they also don't know what to do. So I fear they'll default to ignoring her and her problem until it becomes a public issue. Sadly I don't even know how to help her.

Eagle said...


My heart breaks for you guys. I have a loved one who deals with schizophrenia. I've cried, prayed (when I believed) and hoped that things would resolve itself. Most people react with fear to schizophrenia. Just the name alone conjures up images of a mother drowning her kids in a bathtub. 90% of schizophrenics are harmless.

Man what I would have done to have been in yoru church. In my fundgelical church is was all spiritual warfare, and some thought the answers were deliverence from demons.

jmj said...

Brenden, I mentioned two of the schizophrenics being men yelling out in church. The third one was much like you described. She was a member of out church. She seemed very pleasant on the surface. My wife told me once that "Beth" has an amazing story. I knew she was a troubled woman.

One night Beth calls to talk to Denise (my wife) and she wasn't home. Then she says to me, "I guess you know what I'm going through."

"No," I honestly said, "I know nothing of your situation."

To make a long story short, my wife and I went over to her apartment that night. Beth started telling me an amazing story (wrapped in religious talk, God's spirit said to my spirit yada, yada, yada). But then it got bizarre. According to her, her father was the most powerful man on earth. Saddam Hussein (this was at the beginning of the Iraqi war) took orders from her father, as did president Bush and her father had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.

Then she said that her father was going to kill her and her kids through a complicated plan (creating rubber suits so he and his agents can pretend to be any of us at church). You get my point.

I interrupted Beth and said, "Beth none of this is real. I know you believe it is real but it is not."

She began screaming at me that I was calling her a liar. I assured her I was not.

I showed her as much love as I could. I called a psychiatrist friend of mine to set up an appointment. Beth refused to go.

I was an elder at the time and brought it up at our next meeting. At the meeting there were a variety of responses. One elder said that Beth was a lair. One elder said that it sounded demonic. The pastor expressed great disappointment that I had gone to Beth's and said I should have called him, that I had mishandled the situation. So I asked what he would have done to have made it go so much better. He never answered me.

Beth never came back to church after my meeting with her (and the pastor blamed me for that). I did see her in town several times, always giving her a hug and telling her how much I missed her.

These are tough situations, especially when they do not see that they are sick, nor see a need for help.

Eagle said...


My loved one believed that September 11 was a conspiracy by the government and never happened. You couldn't reason with her. She thought her parents were going to kill her. Some of the phone calls she made were shocking.

I was involved in NAMI. When I went to NAMi I leanred that one of the homeless guys I walked past each day was someone's son in the support group I was in. It shocked me. Unfortunately you have privacy laws where she can refuse treatment, and many do. I saw on CNN that the individual who shot Rep Guifford was told by the judge that he can refuse treatment. Sadly we don't know how to deal with the mentally ill, and at the time when peopel need it the most (deep economic recession) many mental health services are being cut and eliminated by the state.

Brendan said...

WOW Eagle and JMJ, you get it.

My "congregant" is a lot like Beth. She was even forcibly hospitalized last month. I went every other day to visit her. I told her that the things (delusions but I didn't use that word) were probably not true, and sounded like paranoia. Then I told her that didn't mean we couldn't help her receive help (physical therapy which may be real or imagined). I reassured her that while I didn't agree with her theories I wasn't going to go away.

But now what? I've got a meeting with her next week. I have no idea what to do.

Brendan said...

... did I mention that this doesn't help my anxiety. I have job related anxiety. Always afraid I'm going to loose it or I'm not doing a good job at it. I mostly do a good job of separating out my self worth from how things are at work, but this is one of those traps. I really want to help, but I don't want to get sucked in.

Jaimie said...

Wow, all of this made me remember that I had a schizophrenic person in our church when I was younger. Maybe the whole family was. They all believed in this woman called Paula who called them from Russia. Paula was in a concentration camp, where the Russians were testing her because her blood had supernatural properties. When they drew blood, the blood droplets would fall down and turn into little, miniature Paulas that would run around everywhere. The family was constantly asking for prayer for Paula so that she could get out of the concentration camp. Apparently Paula's only contact outside the camp was this family. In America. Despite the long distance bills.

One time Paula escaped the camp and although the guards shot at her, the bullets went right through her body. They knew that because the bullets put holes into her clothes. Etc. Etc.

I used to think this family did this for attention, but now it's pretty clear that one or both of the parents had schizophrenia and the kids just went along with it, not knowing any better.

One time my Mom pointed out the inconsistency in their story, and they stopped talking to her about it.

Anna A said...


I know that you are not Catholic, but may I recommend that you ask St. Dymnphna for wisdom. She is the Catholic saint for the mentally ill.

If there are any deceased pastors whom you respect and have shown wisdom in similar situations, you can ask for their help also. I know that I probably shocked some Baptist preachers, when I asked that they help with a person I knew on the internet. Heart for God, and very evangelistic, but with the idea that Catholics need to be saved. I just wanted his zeal to be redirected.

jmj said...

Brenden, I think I mentioned somewhere way back in this blog that I sought counseling for anxiety. The first two were "Christian Psychologists." Those two people were far nuttier than I was. One was trying to force me to remember "repressed memories." He was practicing brain washing in my opinion.

But finally I went to a masters level, secular psychologist at Mayo Clinic (where I was working). Whew, what a breath of fresh air. She identified clearly what I was suffering from and the convoluted path out (via cognitive therapy). The Bible calls it, "renewing the mind" or forcing yourself to catch yourself having wrong (out of touch with reality) thoughts, then forcing yourself to think realistically.

But the hallmark to social anxiety (which is a big part of what I suffer from) is the fear of being judged by others. I worked through a book with her called "Mind over Mood." It was a great help and I only regret that I moved away before we were done.

This brings me back to Beth. When I told my pastor that I was trying to set her up with a psychiatrist friend (who has no claim for being a "Christian Psychiatrist") he totally opposed that idea. He tried to set her up with a pastor friend of his who does counseling.

This is one of the problems the Church has with mental illness. They don't understand how serious it is, nor how much of it is deeply rooted in the physical world (meaning brain). Many patients need drugs, not all of course. But if it is a disease of the brain, then, just like a disease of the kidneys, it needs medical therapy as well as cognitive therapy, especially schizophrenia. A pastor trying to counsel a schizophrenic back into reality, I think, is getting in over his head. But, like we are saying, sometimes that's the best we can do because they refuse to go to a shrink.

I have many patients who are schizophrenic and some of them have never seen a shrink. I spend lots of time with them (I work in chronic pain) and sometimes I do prescribe anti psychotic medications when I can.

I never took medications for anxiety (save an Ativan just before I did talks to large crowds) but I probably should have been, especially when I was in the middle of a severe anxiety period of my life.

Brendan said...

Is there a connection with Schizophrenia and chronic pain? The lady I know suffers from chronic pain.