On Treating Mental Illness, Rather Than Romantically Theologizing It

On Treating Mental Illness, Rather Than Romantically Theologizing It November 29, 2013

Below is part 9 of a series of posts presenting excerpted videos and transcripts of an interview I conducted October 14, 2012 with my college best friend John Hazlet, whose struggles with doubt and depression were instrumental in my personal deconversion. (The full two part interview is here and here.) At the time of our interview John was a Benedictine monk, publicly discussing his homosexuality and struggles with mental illness. In June of 2013, John left the monastery. He is in a relationship with a man. He remains a Catholic. Trigger Warning: In the two consecutive segments of our interview excerpted and transcribed below, John talks explicitly about his own darkest bouts of mental illness, including the suicidal thoughts and self-destructive behaviors they have induced. Then we discuss the relationship between mental illness and theological interpretations of it.

Those who are only watching the videos and not reading the transcript, please take note that there is a second video halfway down the post, followed by its own transcript.

Bede (John)Hazlet: And then the last question was about my experience last year. Is that right?

Dan Fincke: Yeah, the experience last year, and then also whether or not you fundamentally come down on the side that God made you gay, and you want to terms as a positive thing in some way, or fundamentally sinful… like, it seems like you have a very ambivalent view on whether or not you should hate that part of yourself, or own it in some other way. So those two questions.

Bede (John) Hazlet: Okay. Basically the way my experience of depression has worked is that, it began when I was an adolescent, and has been a constant undercurrent of my life since then, but has flared up more or less seriously at various points. And I think there have been about three really major flare-ups. Two… well, one when we were undergraduates together at Grove City, which you’ve described. Again, when I was at Oxford. And then again, almost a year ago, last November. And each one has been worse than the last, each one has been more serious, has involved more grave thoughts about the possibility of suicide. And I should mention that there have been about five suicides in my family within my lifetime, so that’s, um … that places you at risk to some degree. So this most recent one happened almost a year ago. It began with just a lot of stress in my life, not with bad things, necessarily, but just being very busy, having to deal with some difficult situations, getting very angry about something on one occasion, starting to drink by myself, not a good idea. And then just plummeting into the abyss of despair. It involved, for the first time in my life, hurting myself, cutting into myself, quite superficially, but repeatedly. And thinking very seriously about suicide, and in fact, also for the first time in my life, thinking very concretely about a means of doing that. I could take this razor bland I’m using to hurt myself superficially, and push a bit harder in the right place, and I could achieve this.

The monastic community was concerned, but I’m fairly good at, um, displacing that sort of concern. So, if people would come and check on me and notice that I wasn’t coming to things, I would just explain it away somehow. “I’m not feeling well, I’m upset about something, I just need a good bike ride and I’ll be okay.” And there was a huge sense of, sort of, having two psychologies operating at once. Part of me that recognized that this was not a good or healthy way thinking or feeling, and that I should take steps to change it, and part of me feeling like, that’s just how I wanted to feel, that terribly depressed feeling is an insight that puts me in touch with the deeper reality of things, and I just wanted to follow that to its end, its fatal end.

Eventually, someone I spoke to on the Kaiser Suicide Hotline, which was very important, got me to commit to telling someone else in my community that I needed to go to the hospital, which is something that a very close friend who lives not too far away had also encouraged me to do. So I did. And, it was a terribly difficult experience, being an involuntary patient for a few days, 72 hours, but definitively needful. And my experience of how monastic community worked in the course of that terribly depressed season of my life, made me think even more emphatically that this is a way of life that I need. I’m not sure that I would have survived that experience if I were living on my own in an apartment or something. Or even if I were somehow coupled with somebody. It’s a huge thing to ask one other person to bear with you, especially when you’re insistently resistant to any kind of help, which I was until there was a kind of turning point. And the attitude of the monastic community here is that, doing what is necessary to help make you psychologically healthy is something they’re willing to support and encourage.

So I’ve not been stigmatized in the least degree, quite the contrary. And it’s even been suggested to me by some monks that this is a kind of a sign of vocation, which is how I take it to be myself, that the fact that I have these struggles, and that being in a monastic community is a context in which I can work them out, in favor of my own mental health, but also live in a way that’s fairly stable and supportive, and allows me to be fruitful, in terms of the various sorts of work that I do, is a sign that this is a good way of life for me to be living.

Dan Fincke: Hmm.

Bede (John) Hazlet: So that kind of forced me to recognize that my tendency to romanticize depression is something that I need to… maybe not get over, but contextualize…

Dan Fincke: What was that romanticization like, and did it involve theological grandeur?

Bede (John) Hazlet: Some. A sense of cross-bearing, although that remains. But also a sense that, um, life is tragic, which to some degree it is, that lots of creative people, people of depth and insight are quite unhappy, so maybe my being quite unhappy is a sign that I might have some depth and insight and creativity. And also this sense of having a dark, hidden, despairing part of myself had a certain romantic appeal. But I was forced to come to terms with the fact that this is a potentially fatal illness, and the more I romanticize it and resist its treatment on those grounds, the more likely it is that it’s going to have terribly destructive and even fatal effects. So I’ve come to accept thinking of it in fairly clinical terms as something to be treated with medication and therapy, something to be vigilant about. And I’ve also begun to walk… to step away from my tendency to romanticize sorrow itself, to think that being a sorrowful, melancholy person most of the time is who I am. I’ve come to see that if I accept that, it could well lead to my death, and that it’s better to aspire to being a fairly content, healthy person, recognizing that there is always going to be this melancholic dimension of myself. It can’t be eradicated.

Dan Fincke: I remember the way that you had… this is gonna be a crude simplification, so I apologize, because my memory, but I remember you had… coming to terms with becoming a believer by having a very much a Theology of the Cross, and the idea that what Christianity fundamentally centered around was the idea of Christ suffering with humanity, and you had a sense of sharing suffering with other people that was very profound to you. And you felt like … you turned… I remember you … the way I took it, was you turned this darkness and this nihilism into a sense that this had given you an insight into the fundamental suffering in existence, and what Jesus represented to you, was it was an ability to link in with the suffering of others.

And then, this even lead to a benevolence towards animals, right? You’re leaving… I remember your leaving… your circumstances of leaving the seminary involved disillusionment over something you had done to protect an animal, and you felt … and it violated some rule, and you felt rather disillusioned at the Church’s callousness about that and … again, so this all connected to a sense of suffering, which made you an empathetic person, and not a judgmental one, and somebody who could be very nurturing in some ways. But there could also be sort of a romanticization of suffering that again is a problem that I have with Christianity, is that it does, sort of glorify suffering. I mean, you know, the infamous example that Christopher Hitchens points out is Mother Teresa, who ran her hospice not with any intent to heal, but to sort of luxuriate in the suffering of people, and celebrate suffering, rather than celebrate an ideal of wholeness and flourishing. So, what are your thoughts on that?

Bede (John) Hazlet: I don’t think that’s quite true of Mother Teresa. Although I do think that she’s paradigmatic in another, more positive sense that I don’t think that we have time to talk about. I still share that emphasis on the Theology of the Cross, that was a big part of my interest in Luther. But not as a way of glorifying suffering. It’s just as a way of flying my colors as being an enemy of triumphalistic Christianity, I guess; a way of insisting that Christianity does not propose that by embracing Jesus Christ your problems will be solved in some miraculous way. It seems to me that one of the deepest insights of Christianity is that there’s something about the presence of suffering in the world, that God takes seriously and shares in, and that must not be trivialized; that has to be come to terms with, but that can’t be explained away and mustn’t be trivialized. So that’s still very important for me.

And there was a … for a long time, I tended to think that … it’s kind of like something Woody Allen says at the beginning of Annie Hall, I think, that “As long as anybody’s unhappy, I can’t possibly be happy.” I still sympathize with that to a large degree, but I’ve come to recognize that if I allow myself to luxuriate in my own melancholy, it will basically disable me, in terms of my being able to give help to anyone else, and it could kill me. So I’ve come to see that working toward my own contentment is basically a necessity if I’m going to be available to work toward the flourishing, or the contentment of other people. And I do think that it’s a dark truth that suffering teaches you things that can’t otherwise be learned. Empathy; patience; love, ultimately. And I do think that there is some deep relationship between that reality, and the fact that suffering seems to be an inextricable part of our experience in this world. Not to say that God causes it or likes it in some sadistic way, but that God shares in it and that it may have a kind of cosmic trajectory.

Dan Fincke: Okay. And so, finally, just to get back to that last question never answered, would… gay, good or bad?

Bede (John) Hazlet: Sorry, I didn’t mean to neglect that.

Dan Fincke: No, that’s no problem. I gave you, like, five things to talk about.

Bede (John) Hazlet: Well, I’ve not yet understood it, I think, basically. I guess I’ve gotten to the point where I think of it less in evaluative terms, than in terms of its being part of who I experience myself to be. I’m convinced that whatever’s essential about me is not going to be evil, and I’m still exploring what that means. That’s not a very satisfactory answer to that. Certainly I’m strenuously trying to rid myself of the sense that I’m the object of divine disgust because I have these desires. But I’m still trying to work out what those desires mean, what they’re really aimed toward, both in a broadly human sense, and then in a more properly theological or even mystical sense. So I certainly do not try to eradicate them from myself. I don’t see them as something inherently sinful. And I’m still kind of… I guess, I’ve learned to be at peace in the midst of recognizing that this is a dimension of myself, and of human experience that we don’t yet understand, and that maybe I don’t need to understand in order to live my life. I embrace it as part of myself, I don’t try to expunge it, and I’m still trying to understand it.

The rest of the excerpted videos and transcripts from the interview:

How My Best Friend Helped End My Faith and then Became an Openly Gay Monk
Out of the Closet for the 1st Time, at Oxford
On Anglicanism and On Celibate Love
How Catholic Moral Teaching On Sexuality Is Evolving
Does A Good God Guide The Catholic Church? A Debate
Is The Catholic Church’s Treatment of Gays Morally Defensible? A Debate

Does Celibacy Infantilize and Create Child Molesting Priests?
A Gay Monk Argues Against Reparative Therapy
On Treating Mental Illness, Rather Than Romantically Theologizing It
How the Catholic Church’s Views on Gays Might Evolve

The transcripts in this series were created this summer by Josiah “BibleName” Mannion. He donated his time to produce the more than 22,000 word transcript of the entire interview. 

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