Amazing Grace in the Mental Ward
During this Easter week, we share this spiritual reflection, written several years ago by Will O’Brien. Will has been a member of the Project HOME for over 23 years. A version of this article was originally published in Sojourners magazine.
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 medication starting to wear out – a not uncommon phenomenon. But whatever the cause, it landed me in a situation which I had never experienced: a psychiatric hospital.
For years, I have worked with persons 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 looney bin, one of the crazies.
Fortunately, this particular hospital was a relatively comfortable place, and most of the staff 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 at work: For years, in my professional life, I had been in the role of offering support, services, and advocacy for persons with mental illness. Now here I was on the other side. I had long been an advocate for the dignity of persons 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 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.
In fact, most of my life I had yearned for an experience of 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 toward 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 been sloppy and sporadic, in part because of the hectic demands 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 a 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.”
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 – at least, they weren’t the measure of God’s love for me, or of my deserving love. In fact, we most fully recognize grace when all of it is 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, but we so easily succumb to it. What I have had to painfully learn is that through much of my life I have succumbed to that lie. 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 and 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.
At Project HOME I have begun to experience and envision something close to my conception of what church ought 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. God loves us in all our flaws and 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 a mental illness, came up to me with an air of deep concern. She noted that I had been gone for awhile and wondered if I was OK. 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 electro-shock 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.