I once belonged to a church where one of the pastors, it emerged, had been abusive toward his wife. It got ugly, in part because of racial issues. It was a Chinese church and the pastor’s wife was Caucasian. Some felt the fate of their beloved church was threatened by the wife’s decision to act (by going with her kids to a battered woman shelter) in ways that made the situation public — and, angry, they told her that if she had been a good Chinese wife, or had not held western expectations for a marital relationship, then this would not have happened. Talk about blaming the victim.
I had a seat on the deacon’s board, and urged that the church leadership address the issue from the pulpit, admit that domestic abuse is an issue in any community (religious communities included) and condemn that abuse in the strongest possible terms. It was decided instead to deal with it as quietly as possible — effectively to sweep it under the rug, as much as one could in a gossip-ridden church — in part because of a building campaign and the fear of alienating a portion of the congregation precisely when their support was most needed. I was, well, disappointed with this decision.
Sunlight, as they say, is the best disinfectant. Which brings me to the issue of Matthew Warren’s suicide.
If one of President Obama’s daughters (God forbid) were to develop an eating disorder, it could well launch a national conversation on eating disorders. It would serve to spotlight an issue that too often remains in the shadows. In the same way, the suicide of Rick Warren’s son Matt is leading American evangelicals to think and speak of suicide in ways they rarely do. Will it last for long? I don’t know. That probably depends in part on what Rick Warren does. But I hope that American evangelicals take this as a pointer toward the need for a serious conversation on mental illness and suicide.
We need to do this. Evangelical families — even more than most, in my experience — are wont to keep mental illness private. Parents whose children suffer from mental illness will sometimes keep it private for the sake of their children. That’s entirely understandable. But there are other, less legitimate reasons. Parents may want to maintain the facade of a perfect family in front of the church community. They may feel like confessing the situation is tantamount to admitting defeat, or may fear the pain and the vulnerability. Or, worse, they may think that their child’s struggles are God’s judgment upon the parents, or that, if their family were stronger in its faith, if they had been more loving and wise, then this never would have happened. So they may be ashamed.
They may also fear the gossip. They fear it for good reason — not just because gossip infects many church bodies like a disease, but because too many evangelicals have bought into foolish and superficial attitudes toward mental health. Evangelicals often view mental illness as a kind of spiritual deficit. If you really trusted God, they say, you would not suffer such anxiety. If you really believed in the truths of scripture and the hopes they proclaim, we say, then you would not be depressed. “Back in my day, we didn’t have psychiatrists. We didn’t have all these pills.” Kids these days just need to toughen up.
My own personal experiences illuminate, I think, the range of the phenomena here. When I was a teenager, I engaged in “cutting.” I cut my forearms with the serrated edge of an aluminum foil box. I’m still not exactly sure why. Partly to toughen myself up. Partly to train myself to stand the pain. Partly because I loathed my faults. My parents — wisely, in this case — did not take me to some doctor to medicate me. The phase passed, I moved on. Two young women (a girlfriend, and a girlfriend who became my wife) taught me that I should love my body and treat it well, because it was precious to them. But knowing when not to turn an action into a condition is not easy.
Later in life, a couple years after I broke my neck in a gymnastics accident, I needed to have a second surgery. I had been taking pain medication prior to the surgery – but the recovery to the surgery was botched. For quite some time, I had no pain medication to ease the pain of a spinal fusion surgery, and it was rough. Then, when the doctors and nurses realized their error, they prescribed so much pain medication it knocked my neural chemistry way out of balance. Instead of experiencing euphoria (a common effect of these medicines), I experienced dysphoria, an intense, overpowering sense of despair. The world felt godless; life felt meaningless. It was a nightmare. For a week or two, I was experiencing panic attacks multiple times a day. I remember well how it felt like some enormous weight was about to fall upon my head and crush me. If I was inside, I had to run outside; I would stretch out on a bench and try to slow my pounding heart; and I would beg God to bring me peace. I couldn’t find it.
I still take a very small amount of pain medication, but enough that I feel withdrawal if I travel without it or if the prescription is held up for some reason. In those moments, again the balance of chemicals in my brain is off, and it can feel impossible to hold the pieces of my mind together. By now I can tell myself that this is just a momentarily imbalanced chemistry and it will pass. But it gives me great sympathy for those who wrestle with these feelings all the time. Mental illness can force upon you a skewed vision of reality in which suicide seems like the only viable option.
That’s the point, though. It’s chemistry. There’s a fundamental chemical basis to this, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It doesn’t tell me any secret about the world, and it certainly doesn’t tell me anything about the state of my soul. It gets complicated, of course. Our spiritual condition and our neurological condition can each affect the other. And just because a chemical imbalance makes us more inclined to take an action, does not make the action right. But there is an irreducible chemical basis here, and sometimes it overpowers whatever spiritual defenses we possess.
In the same way, Matthew Warren had a mental illness – and by mental I mean physical, chemical, neurological. It was not his fault. He chose in his illness to do something he should not have chosen to do. But the illness was not his fault, and sometimes illnesses overwhelm us.
When I was a child, I believed that God looked at suicides with anger. I don’t believe that anymore. I think he looks on those who commit suicide with great compassion. They have not had an easy go of life. And for those who have given their lives to God, there is no deed, even a final deed committed in despair, that can separate them from his love.