The Reverend Allison Barrett

Loving the World with Words

Abstract vector watercolor drawing of a child head showing logical and creative thinking.

If No-One Had Told Them – a sermon on mental health

In writing this sermon, I became aware of a conflict within myself when it comes to talking about mental illness, and part of the conflict is this: I do believe that the kinds of despair described by John Bentley Mays in our first reading from his book “In The Jaws of the Black Dogs” are a result of illness. I believe that much of the misunderstanding that the mentally ill have suffered over the centuries has been because people did not understand that they were ill – not possessed, evil, moody, lazy or being punished for something in a past life. Our modern identification of mental illness as a condition with both physical and environmental causes has gone a long way to helping us to understand mental illness.

And yet, I have two difficulties with the characterization of those who live with various forms of mental illness as “The Mentally Ill.” The first is that we are not a hospital, but a church, and we are a church who holds a model of wholeness and full acceptance as the way we choose to see the world. We do not start from sin or fear, illness or pathology and work up to love and trust and health; we start with love and trust, and a vision of health, and adjust as we must to allow for the human condition. So it’s hard for me to begin by categorizing someone by their illness instead of by their health or better yet, by their wholeness, which makes room for both.

I also want to question the way we turn an adjective into a noun when we are talking about those who live with mental illness. In thinking about how we define terms, I discovered a curious phenomenon; that mental illness is one of the few illnesses or conditions that can end up labelling a whole person. There are a few more, like “paraplegic, ‘quadriplegic’ and some chronic health conditions like ‘diabetic’ or ‘epileptic,’ but for the most part, those of us who suffer physical illness are recognized as having an existence apart from our illness. We are not “the migraine,” “the walking cancer” or “the endless cold” although we may feel like it from time to time. We are able to separate our physical illness from ourselves, and see ourselves as apart from it, even if we do feel invaded every now and again.

But those who experience mental illness are called “The Mentally Ill” as if their illness were the only defining human thing about them. I know this to be not true, so in writing this sermon, I played for a while with different acronyms for people living with mental illness. The first one I came up with was “People Living and Exploring Alternate States of Existence” or PLEASE, (perhaps a plea for understanding) but that sounded too much like a commune from the sixties! Next I tried “Souls Who Have Alternate Truths” or SO WHAT? Of course, there are so many different ways that people live with mental health challenges, so perhaps I could just say “People living with a “lot of things,” simply shortened to “A LOT.” So during this sermon, if you hear me say mental illness or mentally ill, I hope you will remember to translate, if you like, to “people living with a lot.” Because I know that’s what it really feels like at times.

I think I know the reason for this confusion though. It’s because we consider our minds to be the places where WE live, and it’s very difficult to separate our sense of self from how we are in our mind. If we break a leg or even a foot, we do not think of ourselves as broken, it’s our foot! “I broke my foot when I fell down the stairs.” But we do not think “I broke my mind when it fell down the stairs” although this happens to us, too.

Once I asked a neurologist why he had chosen his field. “It’s the brain! he said “It’s so utterly fascinating! It’s the only organ that is both simply an organ and a great mysterious something more!” The brain, in ways that we do not fully understand, is somehow both – the seat of consciousness and the human soul; it contains our emotions, our personality and intellect – and yet one good blow to the head can take away all that. We cannot deny the simple organic nature of it, as anyone who has sustained a head injury or stroke or nursed anyone through Alzheimer’s can attest.

Yet from it has come the sonnets of Shakespeare, the poems of Pablo Neruda, the stories of Alice Walker, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the Starry Night of Vincent Van Gogh and the sensual flowers of Georgia O’Keefe. It is a mystery that we will never completely fathom, but if I ask most of you “Where do YOU live?” inside your body – what’s the part that makes you the person you are – most people would say their mind, or some part of soul or consciousness that depends on it. So when our mind falls down the stairs and gets broken, it’s so easy to see the brokenness as the person, and not the result of the fall. It’s so easy to feel as if YOU are broken, instead of just your mind.

We do not know how “people living with a lot of things” have fared throughout history, although we have some idea. No doubt in times of superstition and ignorance, they have been shunned, persecuted and even put to death – the most recent concerted effort being made by Hitler during the Second World War when many of those suffering from mental illness or developmental delay were simply gassed to get them out of the way.

But we also know that not every culture has seen the visions and voices that come to some of us as illness. In many cultures, “The Visionary” literally, the one who saw visions, was the Shaman or Wise Woman who interpreted the meaning of the Gods to the people. All three of our modern western religions are based on stories of visions and voices. Moses went up the mountain and saw an angel and a burning bush and heard the voice of God giving him the ten commandments, a voice that no-one else could hear. Jesus’ followers believed in their vision of him walking and talking after his death and the disappearance of his body; and the entire Koran came to Muhammed in a dream. (I often wonder if these people were to walk among us today with their stories and visions, if they would end up on a locked ward instead of inspiring the beginning of religions that are now followed by millions of people.)

Among many indigenous peoples of the world, a dream or vision state is actually induced by going without water, food or sleep, or even ingesting hallucinogenic substances. Hal Bennett, author of a book about the Zuni people of the American southwest says “In many indigenous societies, from ancient to modern times, the education of the shaman begins with a near death experience or with an intense personal trial in which the person confronts his or her mortality and the limits of his or her personal knowledge. Certainly many of the states described by those who live with mental illness involve this same level of intensity, threat, fear and finally, learning or letting go.

There has always been an understanding that being human includes many different states of awareness. In his book “Multiple Man,” Adam Crabtree investigates the possibility that “multiple personality may be an unusual yet common form of the multiple consciousness we all experience.” As human beings, we slip in and out of many kinds of consciousness throughout our lives; worlds of wordless sensation as babies and young children; sleeping, dreaming, drowsing, praying and meditating, being drunk or high; making love or giving birth, being unconscious, anaesthetized, in a coma or dying; they are all different states, different phases of being human.

Whatever names we have used to describe these states, whether various forms of mental illness or religious revelation, the language of psychology or Byron’s “fine madness,” they are all ways that we are. Perhaps one key to understanding is to not see them as so separate from the other states of existence we commonly call “reality,” but to recognize them as all fully human.

Years ago at our General Assembly – our yearly continental gathering of Unitarian Universalists, I attended a lecture by Julian Jaynes, on his then recently published book “The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bi-cameral Mind.” Nice light summer reading! But Jayne’s area of study and interest was, well, the origin of consciousness – trying to trace the development of human consciousness over time and evolution. His theory is that there was a time, before the development of our modern two-lobed (or bicameral) brain, when we were less able to distinguish between voices within and beyond ourselves.

For many years when I was single, I could easily spend an entire day in silence (I’m sure there’s at least one of you out there who probably finds this hard to believe?) But I would get up, make my breakfast, do the dishes, get out my reading or writing for the day, do my work, go for a walk, make lunch, and maybe even go to a matinee by myself – all without the slightest need for conversation. At one and the same time, my mind was going non-stop in conversation with myself “What should I make for breakfast? How about porridge? No, I had that yesterday… Maybe muffins and a fruit salad… God, look what’s happening in the world… how can I get out of writing this paper?” (now it’s a sermon) and on and on with one thought after another, as my family used to say, crossing “my tiny little mind” all day long.

But being a possessor of a modern brain, and one that most of the time works roughly the way it’s supposed to and conforms with an accepted view of reality, I am easily able to understand that those voices are simply my own thoughts, not some outside interference. Jayne’s theory is that somewhere along the road to the modern brain, before our bi-cameral brain had fully developed, we were all wired quite differently, and much less able to discern the difference between the voices out there and the voices in here. We would all have been shamen then, and he believes that the memory of this hard-wiring is with us still in the variety of states of human consciousness that we experience as human beings – be they labeled schizophrenia, manic depression, visionary, seer or religious mystic. It’s a fascinating theory, not one that I understand entirely, but one that again pleads for understanding and acceptance for all of us.

Another way to gain some insight into mental illness is to listen to the voices of those who experience it, which is why I began our readings today with John Mays’ piece from “In the Jaws of the Black Dogs.” As something is taken away, so often something is given, and it seems that a disproportionate number of our own visionaries and modern day shamen (and women) – poets, writers, artists and composers (including most of my favourites) experienced both the terrors and the gifts of mental illness.

Listen to the words of Edgar Allan Poe in describing what has been diagnosed by modern medicine as likely manic depression or bi-polar illness. He writes to a friend: “I can feel for the “constitutional indolence” of which you complain, for it is one of my own besetting sins. I am excessively slothful, and wonderfully industrious – by fits. There are epochs when any kind of mental exercise is torture, and when nothing yields me pleasure but solitary communion with “the mountains and the woods”- the altars of Byron. I have thus rambled and dreamed away whole months, and awake, at last, to a sort of mania for composition. Then I scribble all day, and read all night, so long as the disease endures.”

Blake, Burns, Eliot and Plath, Schumann, Handel, Van Gogh, O’Keefe, the list goes on and on… Is it co-incidence that so many of our most gifted artists have also struggled with the pain of mental illness? In her book “Touched with Fire,” the title of which is taken from our second reading today, Kay Jamison warns against accepting as necessary the “mad, artistic temperament” and yet traces the prevalence of mental illness among so many of our most brilliant minds, those “whose lips, still touched with fire, tell us of the spirit” of not one, but of many different beautiful and exquisitely painful ways to be human. These are gifts of creativity, richness and insight that sometimes seem to well up from the same pool as madness or mania.

Many of you as well, who have lived with “a lot” have shared with me the gifts of the dark nights of the soul as well as the terrors. Unitarian writer May Sarton wrote in her “Journal of a Solitude” (1973) “Sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to whatever it exposes or demands.”

And of course, not all of our periods of anxiety or depression constitute “mental illness;” life is unfortunately full of depressing and anxiety-producing events. The bereaved, the chronically ill, those in physical pain, living in fear or under great stress; those in disheartening and dehumanizing situations like poverty, unemployment, and social isolation have good reason to be depressed or anxious. In these kinds of circumstances, we need to remind ourselves and others that feeling abnormal is a normal response.

When time and change and transformation can work their healing power, we will more than likely be restored to ourselves, sometimes with a little help from our friends, or a little nudge in our brain chemistry. As this sermon was billed as “Spiritual Dimensions of Mental Illness,” I’ll save the conversation about brain chemistry and medication for another time, although I have almost said several times before the prayer “Now let us pause for a moment of medication and prayer!” (Better than mediation and prayer, which churches have been known to use from time to time!)

There is no doubt in my mind that the advancements of psychology and psychiatry, of understanding the therapies available to people living with mental illness has had a huge improvement in many people’s lives and increased our awareness of mental illness ten-fold. When I was a child, neighbors still spoke in whispers about the lady across the street who was “seeing a psychiatrist;” now I believe most people see seeking help for mental illness as a sign of health and strength. We will never, at least in this country, go back to the kind of archaic understandings and treatments that made lobotomies and electric shock treatments common place, that placed psychiatric patients in jail instead of in treatment, until Joseph Workman, a member of our Toronto congregation at the turn of the last century, changed that as well.

But it is also true that even the God of the modern age, science, does not know all there is to know about the mysteries of the human mind and spirit. Although much progress has been made, and many therapies, treatments and medications have helped, we still do not have all the answers as to what causes and therefore what can cure, various kinds of mental illness. In the years since anti-depressants were launched, we have great evidence of improvement, anecdotal and clinical, but still no definitive proof as to how or why everyone who suffers, suffers and what can always be done about it. And of course, there is great inequity around the world for those suffering mental health challenges.

The American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the “DSM” put it this way after “although a number of neuro-transmitters, seratonin among them, are implicated in the psychopathology of depression, no laboratory findings support a direct connection between Prozac and relief from major depression.” Which translated means: “We are beginning to figure out what works, but we still don’t have all the answers.” As the Poet Marianne Moore puts it, “Psychology which explains everything, explains nothing and we are still in doubt.” I would not go so far as to say that Psychology explains nothing – it explains a great deal and helps even more. I only want to hold out for an understanding of the human spirit that makes enough room for all of us in our broken, beautiful state. If we are made this way, then we must be called to understanding and compassion for each other, in whatever form of our humanity we are presently living.

So I have no great answers to the mysteries of mental illness – I do not know why some are born to “sweet delight” and others to “endless night,” with black dogs ever circling and then retreating, with no predictable pattern. I do not know why changing the chemistry of the brain with a drug like Prozac or Lithium or a dozen others makes some people feel reborn and others only taunted by the possibility of relief. I do not know why the same spirit that brings confusion, despair and isolation also can bring insight, stunning creativity, and deep compassion for others, although I know it is true.

I do not know whether being inhabited by demons or drugs or visions or voices makes us wise or crazy or visionaries or mad, only that the answer sometimes is both. I only know that our true colours come in every shade of the rainbow, and the absence of colour as well, and that we are called by this embracing faith to acceptance of all of us in our human condition. I only know that compassion and understanding, dignity and respect, as well as practical help, support services and funding are all needed. So let us begin where we are, and do what we can to help each other shine through. So may it be. Amen.

Live life well, with love
And make any peace you have found here
A blessing unto others