The Common Good
January 2009

Amazing Grace in the Mental Ward

by William O'Brien | January 2009

For years, I had fought against the stigmas that dehumanize people with mental illness. Now here I was on the inside.

IT WAS EASTER SUNDAY, and I was in the mental ward.

I had been battling a serious depression for several years. I had struggled with inner demons who sought to foist on me the lie that I was shameful, guilty, unworthy of love. I fought back on a variety of fronts—therapy, psychiatric care, medication, support groups, intercessory prayer. There were very dark times when I hovered on the brink of not wanting to live. There were times of breakthrough, especially through prayer, when I began to feel somewhat free from the worst clutches of the depression.

The past few months had actually been a time of stability. But for reasons not altogether clear, I began to slide dangerously. It may have been a simple matter of the effectiveness of medication starting to wear out—a not uncommon phenomenon. But whatever the cause, it landed me in a situation that I had never experienced: a psychiatric hospital.

For years, I have worked with people who are homeless, a great number of whom suffer from serious mental illness. Frequently, folks I know have needed to be hospitalized, often through the traumatic experience of an involuntary commitment. Often I have visited my friends in a mental health hospital, and I almost invariably have left with a heavy and even depressed feeling at the often bleak and dismal environment of those psychiatric wards and the relentless oppression of the disease of mental illness.

Now, there I was, in that very environment myself. Now it was me who was nonfunctional, disabled, in need of drastic intervention. As the insensitive parlance of popular culture might put it, there I was, in the loony bin, one of the crazies.

Fortunately, this particular hospital was a relatively comfortable place, and most of the staff members were caring and competent. I was in a ward for persons with less acute symptoms (though several folks were on suicide alert). Nonetheless, during the first days I was prey to feelings of deep discouragement. It seemed as if I had crossed some line, that this was a turning point in my life. From this point on, I felt, I must acknowledge definitively that I am mentally ill. My life will always be diminished and difficult. I will al­ways need medication and mental health care. I will always be a burden to my wife. I will always be a potential threat to my children. It was a dark time.

Feeling all this, I recognized a profound irony: In my professional life, I had been in the role of offering support, services, and advocacy for people with mental illness. Now here I was on the other side. I had long been an advocate for the dignity of people with mental illness. For years, I have fought against the stigmas that marginalize and dehumanize persons with mental illness. Now here I was succumbing to a sense of shame at being a mental health consumer. I was victim of the very stigma I had fought against, that mental illness is somehow diminishing of our humanity and our dignity and worth.

ANOTHER IRONY was at work. I had recently been leading a Bible study on the gospel of Luke. Just the previous week I led a group in discussing Luke’s famous story of the Prodigal Son. We reflected on the story’s message of the astonishing, reckless, and unconditional love of God for us. Even in our brokenness and failure, our faults and our flaws, God rushes out to embrace us—God celebrates us and welcomes us home.

Well, I could teach it, but I couldn’t truly experience it for myself. In fact, most of my life I had yearned to experience that freeing unconditional love of God. But coming from an alcoholic family and prone to depression, my sense of self was always fragile and vulnerable. Rarely had I been able to extend to myself the compassion and mercy I so often showed others. Now, in the mental health hospital, I was feeling pretty miserable about myself and far from God’s love.

I can’t say for sure how much the hospitalization helped, but at the very least it provided me with plenty of time to pray. My prayer life had been sloppy and sporadic, in part due to the hectic demands of balancing work and family—though I suspect it was also a casualty of my depression and my lack of energy and focus. But during my days in the hospital, I did plenty of praying. And I came to prayer with rawness and honesty, never feeling so broken in my life.

And something happened.

In the midst of this painful experience, I sensed God saying to me, “None of this matters—I love you, I have always loved you with an everlasting love, and nothing will change that.”

Actually, two powerful insights came to me—or rather, two things I believed but couldn’t seem to experience became more real for me: One is that God loves me not because of anything I did or anything I was, but because of who God is—God is love. Love is God’s character and being. Out of love God chose to create me and us, and love defines the entirety of God’s relationship to me, and to all of us.

The other related realization is that when God said, “None of this matters,” God meant two things. First, my being in a mental hospital didn’t matter. My disability, my need for medication, my inability to function well, all my flaws and shortcomings—these didn’t matter. But the other thing is that my gifts, my talents, my accomplishments, my qualities, and strengths—these didn’t matter either. Or at least they weren’t the measure of God’s love for me, or of how much I deserved love. In fact, we most fully recognize grace when all of those things are stripped away.

PART OF OUR HUMAN sinfulness is an alienation from God’s grace. We are distant from God’s love, trapped in our own ego, deeply insecure and needy. Our families are often broken and strained, and we lack the nurture that assures us of our goodness and value. Those most responsible for loving us often scar us, and we bear those scars all our lives, sometimes scarring others.

Most perniciously, we live in a society that promulgates a great and terrible lie: that our worth and dignity as persons depends on our productivity and our success. We idolize the rich and famous and powerful. We put them on magazine covers and television shows. We aspire to be like them because we assume they have great worth and value. Meanwhile, our society denigrates those who are in any way weak, unproductive, unsuccessful.

These values dehumanize all of us. Obviously, they dehumanize those who are poor, struggling, addicted, mentally ill, or somehow otherwise broken in obvious ways. But they also dehumanize those who are successful and powerful—by seducing them into believing that their worth is based on things that are false, things that are not lasting or eternal, things that could easily be stripped away.

This value system is one huge lie, yet we so easily succumb to it. I have for much of my life. I too had staked my sense of worth, dignity, and value on my gifts, my strengths, my accomplishments. I deserved God’s love because I was an advocate for the poor and homeless. I was worthy because of my good values, and my talented writing, teaching, and political organizing for justice.

It didn’t work. No matter how good a student I was as a child, I could never fully earn love from my alcoholic father. And no matter how perfect a disciple of Jesus I was as an adult, I could never fully earn God’s love.

Unfortunately, too often the church participates in this same value system. Churches often send a message that we need to succeed spiritually, that we need to be righteous and saved and morally upstanding. Some churches won’t let you in the door if you aren’t dressed right, or if you are not behaving just right. Tragically, many churches are the last places where people feel they can be honest about their brokenness.

As I read scripture, it seems to me that one of the best definitions of what the church ought to be is a fellowship of sinners, a gathering of broken pieces, a place where we can be honest about who we are.

But I also believe the church is called to be a place where we gather to remind each other that we are all God’s precious, beloved children. It is to be a place where we accept and embrace each other’s brokenness. It is a place where we proclaim that the social values outside are a lie. What we should be hearing from the pulpit and what we should be telling each other in the pews is the good news of Jesus: We are beloved children of God, and nothing can separate us from that love. God loves us in all our flaws, defects, and shortcomings. God doesn’t care whether we are a CEO or a drug dealer, whether we reside in a mansion or a mental health hospital. Grace embraces all of us. In fact, the mystery is that it is precisely in the acceptance of our brokenness that we can know this amazing grace.

THINKING BACK, I try to comprehend my time in the hospital as a key chapter in my spiritual journey—particularly given the odd fact that I was there during the season of resurrection. I wonder if God loved me so much that God put me through an experience in which I was stripped of all the trappings in my life that hindered the work of grace.

Another gift happened the day I returned to work. One of our residents, who is formerly homeless and lives with mental illness, came up to me with an air of deep concern. She noted that I had been gone for a while and wondered if I was okay. I shared with her what had happened. Without a word, she embraced me. She had known the streets. For years she had cycled in and out of mental hospitals. She suffered through a barrage of medications and even electroshock treatment. In that moment, she welcomed me into the blessed community that Jesus spoke of, those who know their poverty and their poverty of spirit.

In that moment, I felt loved. I felt blessed. I felt a little bit risen.

William O’Brien worked with Project H.O.M.E., a program that develops solutions to homelessness and poverty in Phila­delphia and coordinated The Alternative Seminary, a grassroots program of biblical and theological reflection, when this article appeared.

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