Catholic and Crazy: The Asylum of Faith

Catholic and Crazy: The Asylum of Faith May 10, 2013

When you’re locked in a rubber room, wearing paper pajamas that leave far too little to the imagination, trying to find patterns in the ceiling tiles as cracked as your brain, you wouldn’t expect to find yourself conversing with the spirit of an Irish teenager 1400 years dead—murdered by her own father, the story goes, when she resisted his incestuous advances. But that’s how it works when you’re Catholic and crazy. The communion of saints means we’re never alone, even in a psych ward.

In 2009, when I found myself in said rubber room and said paper jammies, pouring out my heart to St Dymphna, I wasn’t even technically Catholic. I was an Episcopalian, at a particularly low point in what I now know is a lifetime of (until last year) largely untreated mental illness. That morning in April, I’d casually mentioned in a Facebook message to my best Episcopal friend that I didn’t want to be alive. Friend that she is, she saw right through the casual and recognized that this was more than just my usual blue mood. She called our Episcopal rector, who, after asking me where God was in all of this and hearing me respond “Nowhere,” bundled me off to the emergency room of the local hospital where he was a board member. He and my friend were upbeat and supportive, until they heard me tell the intake nurse that I did indeed have a plan for hurting myself. That shocked them, almost as much as it shocked me to hear it coming out of my mouth; I was so deep in the abyss of depressive apathy that I couldn’t manage to reassure them with a reminder of how terrible I am at following through on plans, even on the best day.

I just thought I’d get someone to talk with me or medicate me or something, but instead the word plan set off an immediate march behind the locked door and the surrender of all my clothes. I was handed the paper pjs and told to wait until a doctor came to evaluate me. I sat on a gurney for close to 3 hours, alone with my distorted thoughts. About an hour in, I started to pray—old Catholic prayers from childhood, the Hail Mary and the Memorare and the prayer to my guardian angel. And then, because even when I am crazy I still know the patron saint for every occasion, I started asking Dymphna for help.

This post is a response of sorts to a couple of questions posed this week to Patheos bloggers, as part of a month-long conversation on religion and mental illness. May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and the conversation has been provoked by the release of Amy Simpson’s Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission—a terrific book I’ll be reviewing next week. Simpson’s book draws primarily from an evangelical Christian perspective, and I think it’s important to be part of the wider conversation from the point of view of both a Catholic and a person with mental illness.

The questions: How has your religious tradition historically seen mental illness? And how does your faith, today, shape the way you see mental illness?

With regard to the first question, I’m not an expert on the history of Catholicism’s approach to mental illness, but I suspect that (true to the universality of its name) Catholicism has tended to have a broader, more tolerant, more inclusive embrace of the mentally ill over the centuries than is reflected in, say, the churches profiled in Amy Simpson’s book. That is not to say that Catholics weren’t guilty of stigmatizing, torturing, and neglecting the mentally ill at various times and in various places; that appears to be a human fault, not one that’s specifically denominational. But there have been some Catholic milestones in the history of dealing with the presence of the mentally ill in the community.

  • In the early years of the Church, all were welcome at the Eucharist. Some special populations were dismissed with blessings at various times throughout the service, beyond which it would not be appropriate or comfortable for them to continue. The dismissal of catechumens after the Liturgy of the Word has been revived today in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. But there have been, at various times, special dismissal rites for widows, who would go out into the community to minister to the needs of women and children, for the physically ill—and for those known as the afflicted, people suffering from the frightening, unpredictable, or emotionally debilitating effects of what we now diagnose as mental illness. The afflicted were not ejected, but sent forth with prayer in the company of caregivers. The hospitality offered to the homeless mentally ill in many of our urban cathedrals and churches today is an echo of this rite of care for the afflicted.
  • Some of the first asylums, like the first hospitals and hospices for the dying, were established by Catholic religious communities. Here the mentally ill were sheltered with a holistic blend of physical and spiritual care. It was not until the Enlightenment moved to separate body and brain from soul that asylums were taken over by the state or by private companies, leading to the horrors of institutionalization most people associate with mental hospitals.
  • There’s St Dymphna. Though the story of her life and martyrdom may be pious legend (a variation on other European folk tales like Donkeyskin), her reported burial place in Belgium has been, since the middle ages, a place of miraculous care and hope for those with neurological disease and mental illness—possibly the world’s oldest example of a community model of mental health services.
  • And there are fine resources available, today, like Welcomed and Valued, developed by the Council on Mental Illness of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability. Many of the steps Amy Simpson advocates in Troubled Minds are outlined in this remarkable handbook—which was published in 2009, the same year I had my little conversation with St Dymphna.

That day in 2009, I convinced the doctor who finally checked on me that I was not a threat to myself or others. I learned to hide my continuing illness from my family and friends, not because they didn’t care but because I didn’t want to cause them grief. I left the Episcopal Church in early 2010, went to Rome on pilgrimage that summer, and returned to my Catholic roots that Advent. Meanwhile, the illness was bubbling underneath, depression and anxiety emerging as full-blown hoarding disorder. But this time, when I asked for help last fall, my faith and its embrace of all of us afflicted—underlined by a Marian pilgrimage last September that included Lourdes—gave me the grace to accept the help offered so generously and wholeheartedly.

I continue to accept it, every day. My faith shapes the way I view mental illness—my own and others’—and my mental illness shapes the way I see my faith. On my refrigerator is a magnet featuring that little Irish girl who heard my call for help, and led me to asylum. St Dymphna, pray for us!


Find excerpts, an author profile, book reviews and more about Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission by Amy Simpson at the Patheos Book Club.

Participate in the month-long conversation on mental illness and faith at Adrian Warnock‘s blog. Comment or post a link to your own blog here. Join a live video conference on Wednesday, May 15, at noon Eastern time.

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