My first (known) experience with mental illness came during my psych rotation of nursing school. In that rotation 20 of us — innocent, young, female students, unaware of some of the tragedies and vices of mental illness — were plopped into a veterans psych hospital.
We were plopped there having practiced “therapeutic communication” for a total of one week. We were dumped there knowing the phrases “Tell me more about how you feel” or “What was that like for you?” or “What did you feel like after that happened?”. We were told never to contradict.
We were told to ‘be safe’.
The first person I met looked at me and introduced himself as Jesus Christ. “Oh no you’re not” I said! My instructor looked at me in horror, and pulled me aside. “You’re not supposed to contradict!” She said with strength and warning in her tone. “But he’s NOT Jesus Christ!” I said to her indignantly. “That’s ridiculous!” She sighed. “We’ll talk later….”
During that semester the world as I knew it was destroyed. From depression to suicide to abuse to transvestites to domestic violence to teen drug use to schizophrenia it changed. My world was shaken to the core and I didn’t know what to do.
So I came down with a rash. That seemed the only way to cope. Hives took me to the emergency room where I was safely treated for a ‘physical symptom’. I could escape the psychological symptoms for a time through Benadryl and cleaning my drawers.
But sooner or later I had to return.
This was the beginning of realizing that my faith, the gospel, the truth of the ‘I Am who I Am’ is nothing if it can’t penetrate the psych ward. If my faith wasn’t strong enough for this….I didn’t want anything to do with it. If my Jesus was not somehow present in all of this – no. I didn’t want Him.
There had to be a light that could shine bright enough, reach deep enough, be strong enough. A light that could shine into troubled hearts and tortured minds, go into the living hell of some of these patients.
If there was redemption, a redemptive process, I had to know it was strong enough for this.
Red from scratching the raised bumps of hives, I sat on my bed and frantically looked for a gospel story that could shed some light, offer a hope to the world that I was confronting. And I found it in the story of Legion.
Jesus is in the Galilee walking with his disciples and comes across a man who is tortured in body, mind, and soul. The man lives in tombs, has the strength to tear chains off his body, and cuts himself with stones. If there is hell on earth, he was living it. But in all of this, he recognizes who Jesus is and falls on his knees. When Jesus asks the man his name, he responds: “Legion, because there are many of us”. And Jesus takes this tortured soul, sets it free, sends this legion of demons into a herd of pigs that run into the lake and drown.
Jesus doesn’t turn away, he enters into this pain and frees the man.
In no way am I suggesting that mental illness is demon possession. But I am suggesting that the pain and torture described in this story are what many people with mental illness feel. They are in their own living hell.
Since that time I have had many encounters with mental illness. I’ve walked beside people into emergency rooms and counselors offices; I’ve sat with people as they’ve described their manic thoughts and desire to end it all, as they’ve tried to deal with the hurt of a mind that has betrayed them. I’ve been present with the family members of those who have chosen suicide.
I have witnessed redemption through proper medication and counsel, holy moments of healing during crisis, a God whose presence can fill the psych ward or the therapists office.
But it was the story of Legion that first gave me hope – that my gospel can and does belong in a psych ward. That healing and ‘therapeutic’ communication can come as balms of holy oil to the one who suffers. That this gospel, this good news that I love, is strong enough to reach into tortured souls and living hell.