The nurse was sitting across from me, her voice matching the softness of our chairs.
“You have a theological background, yes?” She knew I was a seminary student, had seen me reading my Bible on my bed during room checks.
“So. Think of the wind that blows where it will. The same wind that brought you to this hurtful place is the wind of healing that is going to blow you to places of happiness and wholeness. It is one wind, and we don’t always know where it takes us, but we are trusting it is all part of the process of healing.”
I offered a small, tentative nod.
“This is a process,” she continued, “but it is like an upward spiral. You can’t think of this as going backwards, but as a painful part of the process toward healing.”
She paused, allows me a moment to digest.
“I am just trying to give you some images to help you grasp this. If they are helpful, fine. If not? Fine, too.”
And so, I received the gift of these images of healing: of wind, of spirals, of handles to grasp on to.
This conversation took place six years ago, on the psychiatric ward where I had admitted myself as a patient. I think about this conversation often, and about the nurse who took the extra time and effort to offer me some images of healing in a language a bit more familiar, a bit less scary, than the [at the time] unfamiliar language of medicine. Over the course of that hospital visit and the six months in and out of various hospitals that followed, I became by necessity something of an amateur expert in the language of mental illness. I can now tell you the differences between type II bipolar disorder (my diagnosis) and type I; between hypermania and hypomania; between mixed episodes and rapid cycling. But at the time, the language was foreign, unknown, scary. So I reached for language and stories that were more familiar, more comforting: the language of my faith.
Whether we realize it or not, the different metaphors and stories that we draw on inform and shape how we understand sickness and health, illness and recovery. In my upcoming book, Christ on the Psych Ward, I talk about the advantages and the limits of the medical model for describing mental illness, and about the various ways I have tried to understanding healing and recovery since being diagnosed with bipolar disorder 6 years ago. At first, I thought my hospitalization would be quick disruption to be overcome by a return to “normal” life; but I would soon find this not to be the case. The nurse who had noticed me reading my Bible was right: healing would not be linear. It would be much more like a wind blowing where it will, or like a prayer labyrinth in which one is never quite sure how close one is to the center as one walks, step by prayerful step.
Mental illness is often stigmatized in faith communities. In some communities, this stigma takes the form of polite silence, in which we never mention or name the pain of people or families with mental health struggles. In other communities, mental illness is demonized, attributed to possession or lack of faith. This stigma is harmful, not only in and of itself, but because it keeps us from drawing on the rich language of faith which can speak so powerfully into exactly the experiences of hurt, alienation, and isolation that accompany mental health struggles. In Christ on the Psych Ward, I draw not only on my own experiences but on the biblical narratives to try to communicate some of the difficult to name internal realities of mental illness. I recount the story of the manna in the wilderness from the Exodus as the gathering up of small pieces of “enough”; I reflect on the power of Jesus calling the fearful, mournful disciples his friends; I share the story of Bartimaeus, a man who is called by Jesus not for a great task but simply to experience healing. Our faith need not exclude the power of medical language for describing and treating mental illness, nor vice versa. The language of faith and of medicine can be held in conversation, offering us many healing images to draw on.
The wind of the Spirit blows where it will, but it leads us toward healing. For myself, that healing has come to me in many forms: the medication I take to manage my symptoms, the friends and family and faith communities that have supported me in my journey, the doctors and counselors and nurses and social workers who have offered me care. These things and people are means of grace, tangible ways that the Spirit of God works its healing power in my life. I’ve come to see the medication I take as sacramental, as a visible and tangible sign of invisible grace leading me to wholeness. The Spirit is calling us to healing. May we listen to what the Spirit might have to say to the Church.
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.