Monday, November 28, 2005

What Is It Like to be Mentally Ill?

From time to time, I volunteer to help a fellow who runs a ministry named "Compassion Ministries". Usually my job is to show up at a seminar that he is running on a Saturday. I give a 10 minute talk about what it has been like for me to struggle with mental illness for the past four decades. This is followed by a question and answers from a crowd of about 20 or 30 folks who are there to learn how the church can better understand and help folks with mental illness or family members of folks with mental illness.

I gave such a talk yesterday morning for an adult Sunday school class. Suddenly, tonight, I had a thought. What if someone asked me to come to a group of church people and talk about what it was like to be Physically Ill. Almost anyone can come up with a pretty good description of some struggle they have had with physical illness. The vast majority of folks could describe a time when physical illness was severe enough to interfere with their family life, work, or school. It caused suffering. It may even have been life threatening.

If one were to give a little talk on physical illness to just about any group, the response would undoubtedly be rather tepid, unless you could come up with something pretty horrible. Bone cancer. Open heart surgery. Something like that. But there is a good chance that even then, a stranger might think "What's the big deal, that is as common as dirt. I know plenty of people who have struggled with something like that" , although they would likely be too polite to say so.

Seldom would anyone ask what it was like for a Christian to have physical illness. Occasionally you might run into some wacko that would tell you to quit taking your insulin or give up your cholesterol lowering drugs since they indicate that you lack faith in God. But most folks would say something like, "God can heal in many ways!" .

So it is always pretty interesting to me that a lot of folks seem to sit on the edge of their chair as
I describe my struggles. I am always fully confident that there are a substantial number of folks in the room who have also suffered from mental illness or who love someone who has. Many of those folks feel that they are hearing this openly discussed in a church for the first time.
They have longed to confide in others, but have been ashamed or afraid of possible consequences. They may even feel that they would be likely to get more sympathy at their yoga class or from non-believers in a quilting club.

Hey folks, it is time for us to do something about this! The church is a hospital and we are all sick from the consequences of sin in the world. By all means, have your cancer or broken arm prayed for. Please don't stop there. Are you sad, anxious, or manic. Share. Pray. Encourage. Serve one another. Maybe you hear voices or cut yourself. Take a chance on someone that seems trustworthy and share what is going on. And if they tell you that all you have to do is trust in Jesus and you will no longer suffer those feelings, move on to someone who is not just as deceived as the guy who might tell my diabetic friend to throw away his insulin.

I thank God that he has freed me to share a whole new category of my weaknesses. I pray that you will know that same freedom, more and more. I also thank God that he has given me a family in the Lord who encourage me and support me. I thank God whenever I am able to encourage or serve someone else. And I thank you for reading this far :-)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Face of a Nihilist

What Do You Believe When You Don't Believe Anything?

Function: nounEtymology: German Nihilismus, from Latin nihil nothing -- more at NIL1 a : a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless b : a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths

By the time I was 30 years old, I had spent a lot of time deciding what it was that I believed.  I decided that I believed nothing.  I did not believe that God existed, but neither was I confident that he did not exist.

I worked as an engineer.  My work relied on a system of ideas about how the universe works.  Yet I felt that those ideas seemed to be under constant revision.   Relativistic mechanics replaced Newtonian.  Quantum physics seemed to raise all sorts of troubling questions.  At any given time, we seemed to have an understanding that worked to help us in a limited way, but it was never settled and unchanging.  So I used the prevailing scientific beliefs to do my work, but there was no sense of security or finality about those.  They gave me no sense of purpose.

I married and I divorced in the decade before my 30th birthday.  I had thought that perhaps love was something that could bring purpose and meaning to my life.  But the love I had was frail and easily destroyed by my own selfish desires.  I felt powerless to sustain it.

I had begun to drink heavily.  I was obsessed by the song “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd.  The following lyrics described the condition for which I strove:

There is no pain, you are receding.A distant ship’s smoke on the horizon.You are only coming through in waves.Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re sayin’.When I was a child I had a fever.My hands felt just like two balloons.Now I got that feeling once again.I can’t explain, you would not understand.This is not how I am.I have become comfortably numb.

I looked for the right combination of alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, and tranquilizers that could bring the relief I so desperately sought.   There were moments when I felt that I had come very close.  But they were increasingly rare.

I sought companionship and found some solace there.  I filled my days with work and entertainment.  I spent little time alone.  I sought comfort with friends, girlfriends, and chance acquaintances.  There were time of hilarity and times of profound sadness.  

I found that it was impossible to live consistently within my “unbelief system”.  I said I believed nothing, but I carried on my life, my work, and my leisure as if it were important to do so.  I found no reason to ascribe to any particular set of morals, and yet I retained a strong sense that some things were wrong and others were right.

In the midst of all this confusion, I found Barbara.  She will have to tell her own story.  But I can say that she must have been nearly as confused as I was.  Otherwise I very much doubt she would have agreed to marry me.  From the first night I met her, I felt quite certain that it was important to stay with her, but I do not think I could have explained why.  It may be the closest thing I had to faith in anything in those days.

Barbara and I were wild.  Since those wild times involved her and others whom I love, I choose not to recount them.  We were wild and tossed by the winds of circumstances and emotion.  Yet today I am sure that God’s plan encompassed it all.  I was simply unaware of it.

I had abandoned all hope of knowing truth.  Even the idea of truth itself was suspect.  I had abandoned all hope of knowing God or even of knowing whether such a being existed.  I abandoned some morals and embraced others. Nonetheless, I felt that all morals had no basis other than my choice.  

There is a bumper sticker that says “No God, No Peace; Know God, Know Peace”.  I did not know peace.  The closest I could come were moments of being comfortably numb.  Those moments became very rare indeed.  Moments of torment and fear became common.  I thank God for that pain and terror.  It is horrifying to think that without it, I might have continued to live an empty life.  No direction.  No purpose.  No hope.  It was the pain and the fear that drove me to seek help.  It was God himself, who used the consequences my foolish life to bring me to the point of despair that was necessary before I could abandon the idea that I was the judge of what was right and what was wrong.  I had tried so hard to reject the lies that I was taught as a boy, that I had rejected the idea that anyone but me could ever know right from wrong.  Now I understand Eve, very well.  God commanded her and Adam to avoid a single thing in the paradise they lived in.  Satan lied to her, and she chose to believe the lie.

Genesis 3:4-5 (The Message)
The Message (MSG)
4The serpent told the Woman, "You won't die. 5God knows that the moment you eat from that tree, you'll see what's really going on. You'll be just like God, knowing everything, ranging all the way from good to evil."
I chose to believe the same lie.  Thank you, God, for loving me enough to bring the pain into my life that enabled me to question that lie.  Even as I wrestled with the pain, you spoke to me.
God spoke to me, and said, “I am not your concept, you are mine.”  I thank you God that I came to realize that you are the beginning and the end, not me.  You are the way, the truth, and the life.  And there was only one way I could come to you.
That is a story for another time.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Why Me Lord?

One of the nice pluses of having an obsessive compulsive personality is that I can play the same song over and over again and enjoy it a little more each time.
Kris Kristofferson wrote it.  The recording I have been obsessing on is by Johnny Cash.  Here are the lyrics:

Why me Lord, what have I ever done To deserve even one Of the pleasures I've known Tell me Lord, what did I ever do That was worth loving you Or the kindness you've shown.Lord help me Jesus, I've wasted it so Help me Jesus I know what I am Now that I know that I've need you so Help me Jesus, my soul's in your hand.Tell me Lord, if you think there's a way I can try to repay All I've taken from you Maybe Lord, I can show someone else What I've been through myself On my way back to you.Lord help me Jesus, I've wasted it so Help me Jesus I know what I am Now that I know that I've need you so Help me Jesus, my soul's in your hand.

I love the twist on the Why Me question.  It has been especially meaningful these past few days as I endured a bit of a relapse into depression.  It did hurt, bad.  And I am still coming out of it.  But I have been overwhelmed by the kindness shown to me by friends.  As I spent therapeutic time last post counting some of my blessings, I encountered an interesting phenomenon.  I began by writing “I thank God for …”. As I continued to write, it unconsciously became “Thank you God for …”.  I realized that by that time I was thinking of God very personally.  He was someone I was talking to, instead of someone I was talking about.   And I understood a bit more that he loves me, even when he is allowing me to experience pain.  

And as the song says, “What have I ever done to deserve even one of the pleasures I’ve known?”  

Thank you Lord, for friends.  

Monday, November 14, 2005

A Meditation

Philippians 4: 4 - 9
4Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! 5Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you're on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute!
6Don't fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. 7Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.
8Summing it all up, friends, I'd say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious--the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. 9Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.


I am down. Really, really down. It feels almost as bad as a few years ago, before I got medical treatment that was life changing. Now I am examining the past few months. I am particularly thinking of the times I did my best to encourage and bless people who are struggling. I have learned a lot about how to encourage and listen and pray with people instead of giving advice. Nonetheless, I still shudder to think of how quickly I was able to slip towards thinking that everyone would feel great if they would just take my encouragement to heart.

And so I have decided to look upon this down time as an opportunity to grow in my compassion and understanding. If there was a better way for me to learn, I am sure that God would have used it. So I must trust that he knows what he is doing by allowing me to feel pain.

I have also decided to act on the scripture above, rather than just read it. So here are some things that are worthy of praise:

I thank God for my daughter who just called me to talk, to listen, to empathize, and to reassure me. It is so good to know that she loves me.

I thank God for my wife who is praying for me even as I write. I thank her for her gentle words of encouragement.

I thank God for my good friends, who are praying for me and who have listened without complaint as I have exposed my hurting to them

I thank God for what he is working in my children’s lives and for the growth and health that I see in them. Just as pain is sometimes a part of my walk with God, so it is with them. I rejoice that my children know God and trust him.

I thank God for small children, especially when I see them smile with innocent pleasure over such simple, but wonderful things.

I thank God for the friendly touch of a hand on my shoulder.

Each day I think I thank God a bit more for the sky, whether it is cloudy or clear and blue.

I thank God for trees, especially when they sway in a breeze. I love the way firs and pines sigh when a wind blows through them. I watch in wonder at the leaves tumbling through the air to the ground this fall.

I thank God for the ability to speak and to write. I love being able to hear or read and to respond.

Thank you God that I have come to know you better and better. Thank you for showing me how I will change as I know you more.

Thank you God that life is not scored on the curve. Thank you that each moment is a fresh start. I thank you that my sins are forgiven.

I thank you, God, for food, shelter, clothing, warmth, and luxuries like chocolate.

There is so much beauty. There is so much that is good. All these good things flow from you, God. You are love. You are faithful. You are true. You deserve all of these thanks and ten thousand more.

I thank you that there is more to thank you for than I could ever write.

I know that all who seek you and turn to you will find you and be healed. I know that is true for me, even when my feelings contradict.

I pray that God will be glorified in all that I write and say and do. I pray that in the midst of my weakness and pain, he will use me to help others.

So be it.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The End of Myself

Once again, at least for a while, a merciful God has brought me up against my limits. I am weary, depressed, and sorely tempted to think that my life needs to end now. And yet my wife, my pastor, my daughter, and other brothers and sisters in Jesus stand beside me and help me stumble through this time. Thank you to my dear daughter Pamela, who helped me look outside all the troubling thoughts long enough to get a glimpse of God's grace. It is enough to sustain me for a time. Now I will read, and then may God grant me the bliss of a restful night of sleep.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Stuck at Radical Geek, Never to Know Radical Chic

Everything I Knew Was Wrong

What if everything you thought you knew appeared to be wrong?

I’ve been there. In several posts below I described a bit of what is was like to be raised to believe a lot of lies regarding race, especially regarding African American or black people. I also tried to give a peek into how my mind could change as I was confronted with new information and experiences.

Race was just one area where I began to realize that I had been misinformed. However, it was a very big one. It had powerfully influenced my behavior, my attitudes, my understanding of why there were problems in my life. And so as the misinformation began to be revealed, my world was shaken.

I have been told that one reason some people are so frightened by earthquakes is that the “solid earth” is one thing that they feel they can really depend on. When even that solid ground begins shaking, it robs them of something foundational in their belief about what to expect in this world.

As I became a college student, I saw my own foundations being shaken in a way that I never imagined. I met many people that were very different from those I had known as a boy. There were lots of people from all over the U.S., especially the Northeast. I met foreign students from Asia and Africa. Many of my teachers espoused philosophies that were completely alien to anything I had heard before.

I did not believe that anyone could be sure there was a “God” or gods. I felt rather convinced that the idea of God was just a crutch for those who could not handle all the ambiguity in our lives. So I had no spiritual foundation to rely on.

I began to realize how narrow and bigoted my parents, teachers, family, and friends had been when I grew up in the southern U.S. in the 50’s and 60’s. I very quickly angered my father by questioning things he had taught me all my life. My mother was terrified by the conflict between us. But she was also eager to avoid conflict with my father. So I had no family to turn to.

As I began to understand that I had been taught many lies, I wondered if I had ever been taught any truths. “Firesign Theatre” was a comedy team that had an album titled: “Everything you know is wrong”. I began to consider that as a real possibility. At some level I even understood that the absence of God and the rejection of all authority left me suspended in a featureless void with no hope of direction. I had no sense of purpose that I could defend.

Meanwhile, another part of me kept my life in reasonable order. I continued to study engineering. I found comfort in the way science seemed to explain so many mysterious things. I was an athlete. I found comfort in new friendships and in a relationship with a girl who whom I would marry the same day I graduated from undergraduate school in 1972.

Of course, anyone with the slightest knowledge of that period in the late sixties and early seventies will know that I was certainly not alone in questioning the authority of all I had been taught and the authority of all who claimed to have new answers. It almost seemed that the collective modern western consciousness convulsed and shattered a great deal of the conventional wisdom that allowed those of us with no God to continue to function. We scrambled to find some basis upon which we could continue to do the things that people must do. We still wanted to love. We wanted to be safe. We wanted food, shelter, and a degree of comfort and a sense of security.

“Sex and drugs and rock and roll” is now a funny little phrase. Now it is a refrain from a goofy song recorded decades ago. And I did not chant a mantra to that unholy trinity as I began to dismantle a great deal of what I had trusted in as “the truth”.

I will begin with sex. Simply put, every young male that I knew, including myself of course, was desperately eager to have sex. It is difficult even for me to remember that in the early sixties, sex outside of marriage was truly taboo. Of course, it happened and happened often. However, there was often a heavy price to be paid if it was discovered. It is almost unimaginable that there was a time when characters on T.V. and in movies did not simply just have sex when they wanted to. Even sex within marriage was not discussed or written of in ordinary society.

As I began to question what I had been taught. It was especially convenient to discard prevailing ideas about sex. It was not an overnight process. Nor was it uniform in all age groups and segments of American and European society. However, the rapidity with which ideas about sex changed was astounding.

The suggestion that the girlie magazines and “art movies” of the 60’s would seem quite tame by 1973 would have been laughable. “I Am Curious Yellow” was a foreign film released in 1969. It had brief images of full frontal female nudity. By 1973, full nudity in magazines, movies, etc. was common. The “soft porn” simulated sex films and magazines of the late 60’s were rapidly replaced by hard core pornography that was openly available in every sizable city.

The people who warned us that trouble would come from this dramatic change seemed suspiciously similar to those who had assured me that the races must never mingle. Why should I believe them? I had been told many lies in my past. I will not use this space to relate my personal experience of these changes. Now that I realize just how damaging the changes were, I do not wish to dwell upon them or appear to glorify them. It is my very fervent prayer that the tide has begun to turn, and in God’s mercy he is exposing the lies about casual sex and unbridled lust. May God have mercy on all who have hurt themselves and others by believing and acting on those lies. May God have mercy on me, corrupted, scarred and still fighting against a sinful nature.

Very effective birth control was introduced about this time (“the pill”). Abortion came out of the shadows and was embraced as the fail safe back up when even modern birth control failed. Antibiotics could treat the common venereal diseases of the day. The pleasures of sex began to be declared openly. And the subtle use of sex to sell rapidly became as blatant as it was common.

Drugs underwent a similar amazing cultural transformation. Few member of my generation were aware of the problems that opium, morphine, and cocaine had caused during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Once again, why should we believe those who warned us of the dangers of mind altering substances? Marijuana was easier to obtain than alcohol by the time I was 19. Incredibly potent doses of LSD could be purchased for less than an hour’s pay at minimum wage. Even middle class college students could easily afford to use drugs as a form of recreation.

The first night that I smoked marijuana, I stood on the side of a hill and stared out at the lights of the city. The effect was subtle. Marijuana in that day was usually weak. I laughed to think of all the terrible warnings I had been given about it. I quickly came to believe that only people who were ignorant, or who were intent on preventing others from having fun, would make such things illegal. Remember, it was illegal for black people to ride in the front seats of a city bus in many cities when I was a boy. It was illegal for a black child to attend a “white” school. Citizens were considered completely justified in torturing and killing a black man if he was thought to have had unacceptable contact with a white woman. A trial was considered a foolish impediment to the need for swift justice.

And so it was that it became common for me to experiment and recreate with drugs. If I had been arrested, simple possession could have cost me years in jail. Like most young men, I made light of such dire possibilities. It would never happen to me!

And the experiments grew more intense. One night in particular I remember taking LSD on a whim in the late evening of what had been a long, tiring day. The hallucinogenic experience that followed is impossible to describe. I was unable to sleep for the following twenty four hours. I ran the gamut from ecstasy to paranoia. I went from exhilaration to tedium and a deepening fear that I would never be “normal” again. Fatigue and fear gripped me for days afterwards. However, my conviction was very strong that drug experiences were a very great privilege that must not be missed. It was so strong that in a month or so I tried LSD again under more controlled conditions and declared that it had opened my mind to a deeper understanding of all there was to know.

I will pass on now to the “rock and roll”. It was clearly more than a style of music. As a whole, rock music was a manifesto for my time. Although it began as early as the 50’s, by the late 60’s it had morphed into something that was wholly alien to the western worlds experience. The instruments, the vocals, and the lyrics were experiments that seemed unfathomable to people of my parents’ age. I remember my grandfather sneering at the “jungle bunny” music that I listened to on my transistor radio. It was more than a decade later before I learned that rock was powerfully influence by the blues, which had its roots in the African American experience.

Imagine that if as a boy I had listened to music from 40 years earlier. Listen to the sound track of “O Brother, Where Art Thou”. That is what I would have been listening too! Now my fourteen year old son listens to mix tapes with the Who, Led Zeppelin, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers intermingled. They are separated by decades and yet seen as part of a common musical heritage.

I hope that the lives of the men and women who recorded 60’s rock are not idolized by anyone today. However, to me Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, and Jim Morrison were great pioneers who were able to transcend the mundane mess that my parents had made of the world. And when all three died of drug overdoses in a single year, I was not the least bit deterred from continuing to idolize them and many others like them. I saw rock star excesses and even their drug induced rage and vandalism as credible responses to a world that I believed was a sham. More and more what little truth I remained aware of seemed a ploy to placate me and control me.

Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. I really believed in them. I felt sure we were on to something. No more war. No more hypocrisy. No more greed.

Please do not forget. There were very real problems with our culture that were being exposed when I was 20. Our air and water and soil had been badly poisoned. I lived just blocks form a river that caught fire and burned for days. It flowed into Lake Erie, which was soon declared completely biologically dead. I did not smell the steel mills in Pittsburgh so much as taste and feel the acrid air they created. The Carnegie Mellon campus was filled with handsome stone buildings that had been rendered charcoal grey and even black by decades of soot filled air. Black workers were denied equal treatment. Women were openly paid a fraction of what men were paid for identical jobs. And of course, black people and women and many others were routinely excluded from many higher paying jobs.

So yes, I was a fool to ignore all the dire consequences of “free sex”, drug experimentation, and a cultish devotion to a revolution in music and mores.
I was right to think that much needed to change. I showed terrible judgment in how I tried to bring about that change.

Now I find myself more than 2000 words into this posting. It would surprise me if even my own loving daughter could stand to read this far. I certainly have no intention of even beginning to recreate, and certainly not to glorify, my life during that era.

No one could live such a life coherently or consistently. I had no integrity. Francis Schaeffer wrote something to the effect that modern man finds himself with both feet planted firmly in mid air. I knew full well that my life had no foundation. I despaired of ever having a reason even to live, much less a rationale for all I did. But so powerful is the drive to survive, that I did go on living. I lived to experience drug addiction, alcoholism, divorce, promiscuity, and anxiety that dogged my every waking moment. I made terrible choices and took serious risks. God mercifully spares me from a full knowledge of the damage I did to myself, and especially to those around me. It is by the grace of God that I am spared an eternity of suffering. Perhaps yet another posting will tell of how God worked all those things to good in my life!

May God richly bless you and spare you from an awful journey like my own. I pray that you will know the truth. I pray that the truth will set you free.