“I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” – Peter Bergman (1986) in a Vick’s Formula 44 TV ad.
“I’m not a mental patient, but I play one in my mind” – Agent X (present day) in a real life proph-O-drama on the streets of Lubbock, Texas.
(Excuse for myself: I am fully aware that suffering mental illness is almost universally accompanied by stigma as well. People who suffer various forms of it endure shameful labels, and there are MANY of them which include “retard”, “nuts”, “lunatic”, “crazy” and many others. Sometimes technical terms become shameful, and eventually even the professional guild jettisons use of them. (“Retard” is a good example.) And while I recognize there is shame and stigma associated with mental illness in general and with a plethora of terms involved with it, I intend to embrace the stigma rather than shun it or run from it. It is one small part of my cruciform discipline and vocation. Thus my embrace of the condition and the labels (which I will limit in reference to myself alone) is no accident. Some of you will not like it, will find it offensive, and might not give me any further hearing because of it, but I find value in it that I hope you will discover too.)
A bit of my mental background (personal and familial):
My dad was a mental health professional when I was a kid – a marriage and family counselor to be exact.
Several members of both my immediate and extended family have suffered with drug and alcohol addiction (something even I flirted heavily with in my youth). Some argue that addiction and mental illness are like the chicken and the egg. Dunno which comes first, but there is little doubt that many mental patients “self-medicate” with illegal drugs and alcohol.
I suspect most of my family members have suffered undocumented depression, and I am aware of a couple of distant family members who died from suicide, and one close cousin died, after years of heavy drug addiction, under suspicious circumstances which some have speculated was suicide.
When I was in my early twenties, my maternal grandfather took me to a doctor (GP) who diagnosed me with Bi-Polar Disorder (this was back when the guild was transitioning away from the term “Manic/Depressive”) and he put me on Lithium to treat it. However, after several months, I got a second opinion from a real psychiatrist who re-diagnosed me with “Chronic Low-grade Depression” and treated me with Pamelor. Within a year or two, I stopped filling the prescriptions and did not seek further treatment.
Years later, I got divorced, lost my job, and my mom died all in a three month span. I began to struggle with a lot of stress and mental fog – deep depression, bad dreams, despair and loneliness, anxiety and even confusion. It got so bad that I wept at work; I would leave the house and forget where I was going; and my friends could not console me. Soon I went to another doctor (GP again) and got on some anti-depressants. One of the side effects of the medication was “suicidal thoughts”, which I was already at great risk for, and sure enough those dark thoughts began flooding my mind in the night. I began working out a plan in my mind and even sought out a street gang to confront in hopes they would put me out of my misery (a story for another time). When that fell through I considered more sure-fire options, and then decided I might quit using the antidepressants which I felt were possibly responsible for the new developing problem.
Later, I found out quitting cold turkey like that without medical supervision (which I did not seek) actually makes matters worse. In the meantime, I called the out patient clinic at the psych hospital. I went in to visit with a young college student/intern who did an intake interview with me. I was very curious what help they might offer, but I was also sure I did not want to get stuck as an inpatient. So when he asked if I was suicidal, I insisted that I was not. I was truthful about everything else – and actually that question is a judgment call anyway. I was there seeking help, which to my way of thinking meant I was not in fact suicidal – at least not at that moment.
A bit of my mental background (professional):
It turns out he was not able to offer me any services, except to put me on a waiting list (which I believe I am still on to this day more than a decade later). Nevertheless, this young man’s visit with me prompted me to take risks with my life in a more hopeful direction, and when I left him, I immediately went out and enrolled in a college program which earned me a second degree a couple of years later! (Thanx intern dude!)
It was shortly after that when I went back to that psych hospital and this time took a job as a “Mental Health Specialist”. That was a hoot. I was still on the waiting list to be a patient there, but now I was going to work for the place instead! Wonder how it would have worked out IF they had called me in for treatment – CRAZY!
At any rate, I became a staffer working with the inpatients at that point. And I gotta say, I really found my niche! I am sure I am remembered there still as a favored part of that staff. And while I learned a lot about mental illness and the various treatments, I also deeply identified with my clients and sensed a rich connection with most of them.
I became CRAZY.
Well, actually, before I went off the deep end, I discovered that I have an acute awareness of impending suicides. I am not foolproof, but I have a knack for sensing crisis situations like Radar O’Reilly sensing “choppers”. This earned me the experience of pulling nooses off of patients who were actively attempting to hang themselves. I developed a keen sensitivity that helped me to ward it off before it got that far. I also developed a keen sense for contraband (well, actually, I cultivated a rapport with this one client who was the master at smuggling in and hiding contraband, and I got him to teach me the tools of the trade). And I found myself bringing Jesus to bear in the lives of some of these desperate souls. Seriously, it’s amazing how deep Psalm 88 speaks to a suicidal person, yet sharing it is ironically counterintuitive. But when suicidal clients discover God’s Word for THEM, it’s amazing the impact it has.
Going slightly mad:
I began play-acting with the clients. I avoided using derogatory terminology, but they did not – AND they used it with regard to me. But it always came off humorous. Dangerous humor to be sure, but it proved time and again to be the avenue for deeper relationship.
I told clients in the inpatient facility, “Frankly speaking… It was being Frank with others that got me stuck in here…” And they laughed and called me “crazy”!
I said, “He just THINKS he works here…” And they warmed to me, but called me “nuts”!
And when I escorted them off the unit to eat down at the cafeteria, I found myself spouting off the standard institutional rules each time: “Everyone form a single file line. No one on Red Level can exit this door; If you are on Red Level, please step out of this line. When we get to the cafeteria, please take only one tray. Go to your seat and remain there except to get a refill of your drink. If anyone needs to use the restroom, do so now; we will not return to the unit for the next hour, and there are no restrooms for clients at the cafeteria.”
You know… blah, blah, blah… yada, yada, yada…
Some of our long term clients acted like they were tired of hearing me make the same remarks everyday. I could see some of them chafe at being told these mundane rules YET AGAIN, and it seemed a little belittling. It felt like talking to little children. I mean, it had to be done, but I began to chafe too. I felt like a broken record. I felt like a cog in a heartless, mindless machine.
And then one day I felt like an airline flight attendant explaining emergency landings, exits, and oxygen masks. I mean, if you fly a lot, you can repeat the directions in your sleep. And that, of course, is the problem. Complacency. But when the notion hit me that I was escorting a group of clients off a psych ward to the cafeteria for lunch, the idea of being an airline pilot/flight attendant in everyone’s fantasy suddenly struck me as a fun idea. Let’s all be crazy together!
I tried it out.
“Uhhh… Ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot speaking. We will taxi off the unit shortly. Today’s flight will take us to Café Teria. The weather in Café Teria is a cool 70 degrees, and our flight should take about four to five minutes. Please use the restroom now before takeoff, as once we are in the air, the fasten-your-pants-up light will remain on until our round trip flight back is completed. We hope you enjoy your flight with Delusion Airlines… You don’t gotta be crazy to fly with us, but it helps”.
Suddenly everyone was having fun with it. By the time we arrived at the locked down lunchroom, I spoke up again as a flight attendant this time saying, “In case of emergency, you will be asked to dump your tray in the trash barrel, place your forks and spoons in the dish window. As you can see we have two doors marked with ‘exit’ signs, but you cannot use them. And if you see oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, please talk to the doctor about adjusting your meds.”
The next day I was getting requested to be the escort to lunch!
A bit of my psych/theo/ministry background (integrating my vocations):
I never used the term “Nut Hut” before, but that is exactly the favored term for the psych hospital among clients, in my experience. I never called a client :”schizo” or “crazy”, but plenty of them used those terms and more for me. It didn’t hurt my feelings; I wore it as a badge of honor. I think I was subtly diminishing the barriers between my clients and me. My crazy behavior had limits, but I kept imagining and deploying more and more of these tactics to elicit humorous receptions and did not shy from self deprecation. It was one small step for cruciform kind, but one giant leap for Agent X. I did not make myself out to be more important than those I served; I made myself out to be LIKE THEM to the extent I could – or even more to be their servant sent by God. And I found many of the clients loosened up with me, confided in me, reached out to me.
Did this mean I HELPED them in some special way?
Maybe. I don’t really know. But I do know that I found much more interpersonal rapport with this mentality than when I acted like the trainers who trained me without it.
But also during this season of my life, I was spending more and more time on the streets reaching out to the homeless. And as you can imagine, I found a LOT of my psych unit clients out there (and vice versa). And when we were on the streets, none of the rules applied there (except maintaining confidentiality). You can read about one of my encounters with a psych unit patient on the streets on Loiter Larry’s blog. Find it here:
But the really crazy part is that one time we got this client who was quite a lot younger than me and deeply delusional, but he looked the part as if he were straight out of central casting. It was the hair that really told its own story. The guy had some truly wild and wiry locks. Not too long… well, actually yes… too long, but not tame at all and not past his shoulders either. But unwashed, straggly, frayed… like he put his finger in a light socket!
Everyone remarked on his hair. Everyone.
And it dawned on me that I could let my hair grow like that. I could tame it at work, but when I hit the streets, I could punk it out like his. So I tried it.
It took months to grow it out, and I never quite achieved the same length, but I did get quite a mop top. And on my days off from work, when I hit the streets, I would fray it out with lots of goop. I looked nasty crazy!
This mental patient was my hero. I wanted to imitate him. But I didn’t tell anyone. I just subtly set out to achieve this look.. this look that drew so much contempt from everyone who saw the guy. The Fat Beggars School of Prophets was still a new group then. A couple of people noted to me that John the Baptist looked like a wild man, and maybe I was kinda like him. But I kept thinking of my friend from the psych hospital instead.
I had another friend in the psych ward who thought he was Jesus Christ. He was a gentle soul, and could have given me cause for pause with his charitable way except he also thought he was “Prince Dark Lord”. This wasn’t multiple personalities; it was multiple demons-n-deities. It was a feature of his disease alright, but I couldn’t help but recall George Bernard Shaw’s play about St. Joan and the cross examination Joan of Arc undergoes with the prosecutor. Joan tells him, “God talks to me.” And he replies, “That is just your imagination.” And she retorts, “Yes. That’s how God talks to me.”
Seriously. Let that bake your noodle.
And so here I was taking cues from my psych patient friends about how to be a prophet. They had the stigma I wanted so I could embrace humiliation and be cruciformed. I come from a church tradition that is quite happy with prophecy being biblical – especially that kind of biblical which is trapped in the Bible! Any talk of prophecy in our contemporary age is viewed with deep suspicion. The same kind of suspicion Shaw’s Joan of Arc faces – the same kind of suspicion my friend from the psych ward who has delusions that he is Jesus Christ faces.
But what if Christ really manifests himself in the delusion? How would the doctor every distinguish?
I became … not a prophet, exactly, but a symbol of a prophet. I was deluded. I had to get okay with that. It is a shameful thing to confess. God talks to me in my imagination. That is how he talks to me.
I got some real-world confirmation though.
One day I was heading out to the streets to take communion to some of my street homeless friends that my church friends hardly have the time of day for, and when Mrs. Agent X, my wife, looked at me with my hair like-I-just-don’t-care, she very contemptuously announced: “You look like a psych patient!”
I said, “Thanx” and went on my merry way confident that I was hearing from God. I was becoming cruciformed.