I Lay Bare Myself Because Otherwise, I Cannot Approach the Altar
I've been writing about the Church and mental illness since 2004 when I was still an atheist. My book The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide launched my academic career. It's the story I've told so many times it is sadly told most often as rote: my paternal uncle committed suicide before my first birthday. It was kept from me that he was schizophrenic until my brother's girlfriend let it slip when I was 13. My father wouldn't talk about it, so I wrote a one-act play, starring me, that was put on by the high school drama club. It was about a guy who is wrestling with whether or not to open his brother's suicide note. It is essentially a conversation between himself and his conscience, played by my best friend and lead singer of our band Zodiak. The conscience is convincing the protagonist that the brother's death is his fault; the suicide note will confirm it, the conscience says. The boy wonders if instead it is filled with love and assurances, but is terrified of the opposite. In the end, he drops the note, unopened, into the grave and walks away.
Yeah, a little heavy-handed, I know. I was sixteen and it was 1992. Angst was in.
Still, it was an incredibly powerful, defining moment for me as a young artist and also in my relationship with my father. He took me out to TGIFriday's to tell me the horrific story of his brother's mental illness and bloody suicide in a cheap hotel room. I've had problems with my ears my whole life and that day I had a double ear infection, so I didn't pick up a lot of details; my father picking a loud, public place did not help but I could tell he did not want to have the conversation. I do remember, and maybe because he's since repeated it, "I just didn't want you to ever do that; I couldn't handle it." I promised him I wouldn't; a week later, over some beers I was way too young to drink my brother Stephen promised me he wouldn't, either.
We didn't know at the time, of course, that he had paranoid schizophrenia and I, as of a 2014 diagnosis, have rapid-cycling bipolar disorder with all manner of attenuating paranoia.
I've written and talked about Stephen's part of the story so much that my instinct is to skip over it, but that wouldn't be right. I'll hock my book for the details, but Stephen's suicide literally changed my life. I was 26. I was an agnostic working on a graduate degree in theology in order to be the next Richard Dawkins, and was coming out of an intense period in which both my brother and father had been dealing with major health issues for around four years, and my mother and I were exhausted. I was newly in a marriage that would not last, and while my parents were in New York so my father could be working with his students at the New Actors' Workshop, I was supposed to be checking in on Stephen. I was also newly embarking upon a decades-long slide into alcoholism, so the cocktail flu had me again. I called Stephen to say I would come over the next day, and he was happier than I'd heard him in years. I even remarked about it to my ex. "Wow, Steve seems really good!" I now know he was happy because he knew he was going to be released from his pain. I again commend the book for the fuller story, but I had my Paul on the Damascus Road experience. Over the years, I gradually gave in to God's call on my life, which has resulted in my being an Ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament serving a progressive congregation in my hometown. I'm a theology professor and am three semesters away from a doctorate. My whole life is about Christ, but it began with the story of Judas and the issue of voluntary death. That's the book, ultimately: it's about how suicide is not a sin, Judas is not a betrayer, and we need to stop chaining the mentally ill up at the edge of the village, like so many Legions, but instead, bring the mentally ill into the center of the Church.
My own diagnoses, especially coming after I'd already been ordained, have presented their challenges. I'm medicated. I'm in deep, serious therapy. I have accountability circles. I write almost obsessively about my life because authenticity is the only true coping mechanism I have; the lies around mental illness kept my uncle wrapped in darkness for nearly two decades. I lay bare myself because otherwise, I cannot approach the altar; I cannot continue to work on this deconstruction of the false self so I can authentically take on the clothing of Christ, not if I'm not honest. Mendacity is the enemy of mental wellness. At least for me.
There are many ways in which I am clearly a member of the majority culture, and with that comes privilege. Theologically, that impacts my visions of God. Oh, I can read Cone and Guittierez and Angela Davis to bolster my intellectual and academic understandings of God, but those perspectives have to be experienced. God glimpses for us the contours of the kin-dom, and my mental illnesses--because they are mine, I claim them — help me to understand in specific ways what it is like to have an existence that is considered expendable by others. Mental illness is always the scapegoat when there is a mass shooting, especially if it can be used to get the conversation off of gun control. We are more likely to be victims of violence, are among the most impacted by cuts in social services, and we need not go down the long, long history of how the mentally ill have been treated in hospitals, need we? My mental illness helps me understand more deeply how powerful and transformative is Christ's confirmation that we matter. That we are loved and valued and that God is with us, not in spite of our mental illnesses but perhaps even through them.
My doctorate focuses on Beloved Community. The idea began with Josiah Royce, who thought that the narcissism of Modernism would kill the Church and culture; he believed that the classical virtues can only be achieved in community. The term was shaped in the African-American community by people like John Malcus Ellison and Howard Thurman, who presented it to Martin Luther King, Jr. as a multiracial, multifaith community that is the only answer to the sin of segregation. And we are perhaps more segregated now than we were in 1965 when MLK came to my hometown and to my alma mater, Antioch College, to deliver the commencement address. He said, "We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality."
So I write about my mental illness, and then I spend the rest of my day trying to hear the stories of others. God went and left parts of us in other people, and we never know which ones. So we've gotta search them all.