Truth in the Psych Ward

BY SERENA RIDDLE

This piece is part of syndicated series in collaboration with Yale Logos for Lent 2021. You can read the original piece at https://www.yalelogos.com/home/truth-in-the-psych-ward.

Trigger warning: Suicide, self-harm

Disclaimer: As David Finnegan-Hosey says in his book Christ on the Psych Ward, “any eloquent description of the experience of mental health struggle conceals as much as it reveals. In particular, words conceal the incoherence, the indescribable reality, of mental illness.” This is not a band-aid answer to that pain. Furthermore, everyone who struggles with mental illness has a unique experience – this is only about mine.

The ER was overbooked, as it tends to be these days, so I was put in one of many beds lining the hallway by the nurses’ station. From my position, I could see and hear the rest of the folks in my section, which gave me something else to meditate on for those 14 hectic hours other than my own miseries. Almost every patient around me was in for depression or suicidal ideation, too––mental health suddenly seemed a more tangible issue as I witnessed the emergency department overrun with our invisible illnesses.

The man who occupied the bed at my feet chattered with the nurses and argued with the psychiatrists. He unabashedly demanded that someone help him avoid jumping off a bridge to end it all. He turned to talk to me after he heard me tell the nurse that the book in my left hand was The Lord of the Rings, and in my right was the Bible. “Quite a combo,” he said, in a smooth, baritone radio voice, “though one has perhaps more practical takeaways than the other.” He told me he’d read the Bible cover to cover three years ago, then promptly went nearly blind as he developed multiple sclerosis. Life changed. “Everything is a challenge now. Before, everything was easy.” But he claimed God was real to him now, despite illness, homelessness, aloneness, depression. His blue eyes shone despite their disability, and he delivered an inflamed speech on the importance of continuing to live. “Your life is a book, and if you stop writing, that’s it––no more pages. You don’t get to see it turn around.” I wanted to laugh, and cry, and say, “My friend, don’t you see where we are?” A suicidal man in the ER preaching to me about the value of life. A tad ironic. But instead I heard myself saying, “You’re right. And that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? To keep going.” 

That night, I was transferred to Yale Psychiatric Hospital, where I’d spend what would have been the first week of classes. 

It may seem a little paradoxical to say that the God of Truth is viscerally present in the midst of insanity, or deep confusion. That the God of all comfort is made manifest where most are too restless to sleep. In this place, those who dig for death more than they dig for hidden treasures (Job 3:21) make their beds. Could the God of “life, and life more abundantly,” be here? 

Before I got wrapped up in the big wet blanket of clinical depression, I would have had a clear answer if you asked for evidence of Christ living in me: my fiery zeal for life and for others, my optimism, and the hours I spent building authentic community and chasing (relatively) selfless goals. Thinking anyone had access to these wells of energy and productivity (Christ and the enlivening spirit He places in us are a free gift to all, are they not?), I was quick to judge those who lacked my zeal; I assumed that they were just further from God than I was. But as my illness stripped me of these markers, I understood that I had begun to subconsciously glorify myself as a proper follower of God, rather than glorifying God Himself. 

Now, I no longer can point to myself as the conduit of my own salvation. I no longer have confident answers, zeal, affection, efficiency, or the will to get out of bed. What I used to take as evidence of God’s presence in me gradually seeped away. However (spoiler alert), God’s presence, as far as I can tell, did not seep away. 

Five days in the psychiatric hospital showed me how the eternal elements of our faith can glow in the damp, dark places of mental illness. To my surprise, I soon felt comfortable in the half-daycare, half-hospital vibes of my unit, huddled around playing Uno or coloring with the other patients. I felt that elusive sense of home, even as these strangers-made-friends described their psychotic episodes, hard drug experiences, suicide attempts, or trauma. They joked and laughed off heavy diagnoses and hopeless prospects––speaking freely about the dark places we’d all been without blank uncomfortable stares or judgemental platitudes. While laid bare in ways that would typically lead to taking some hits, hard-learned empathy instead gave rise to respect and relentless belief in one another’s worth. That was real grace––yes, grace as in the thing that is a core element of the gospel of Jesus Christ––filling in the cracks that often create chasms between us and the rest of the world. I heard authentic (and thus more convincing) defences of life’s value from those who were daily feeling tugged by the temptation to end it––their hope refined in a daily, hourly fire. Compassion spilled over walls of irritability and apathy as patients took responsibility for each others’ well-being when they didn’t even have the energy to keep themselves safe. And here, truth was more precious than food, because the legitimacy of life’s value would determine whether the next meal was worth choking down at all. And we talked about God; He came up a lot in the midst of all that, even though I rarely raised the subject myself.

Even as love-lauding Christians, here at Yale (and in most of the world) mental health is hard to talk about. Even though we pursue the God of the Bible, we can confuse Him with the things the world (driven by human nature) pursues. It’s sticky; as I mentioned before, I used to directly conflate my academic and extracurricular productivity with my relationship with God. We don’t like being weak. It seems objectively (and sometimes morally) worse than being strong. 

This piece is in part a plea to recognize that those who are weak in the eyes of Yale are sometimes keepers of treasure––a treasure that we smarty-pants, “successful” people might never even realize we lack. A plea for the body of Christ to stop worshipping the way the world does, as we mistake success for godliness, and look down on our brothers and sisters who fall short (Romans 12:2). A plea to see God where we often overlook Him.

I suppose I could take this opportunity to once more boast in myself; in my depression and the perspective I’ve gained through it. But the miraculous goodness that grows out of the dead, hard places in my life has shown me the reality of a God who is present in the places where a human soul is worn so thin that there is nothing left to boast in. There’s strength, wisdom, and even beauty in the very-low lows, in rooms full of people with self-harm scars and weeping hearts, because God is who He is. That’s my conviction. I’ll boast in that God: the one who chose to suffer like we suffer, because His love for us humans is pretty enormous. And the good news is that, though He even died as we do, He’s alive. And He wants me to be His friend, His family, despite my mess (John 1:12).

It doesn’t look pretty. Waking up in “the looney bin,” as my grandmother would say, doesn’t look at all like something Yale or society at large would glorify. But I’ll boast in the God who chose the unproductive things of the world to shame the productive, the tired to shame the energetic, the mournful to shame the happy. The One who loves the despised, embraces the stigmatized, and wants the last to be first. It’s ugly. The cross is ugly. And the resurrection is beautiful.

Brothers, consider the time of your calling: Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly and despised things of the world, and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast in His presence.

It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God: our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

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