Dancing on the Ceiling, Crashing to the Floor – The Impact of Mental Illness on us all

Rev. Robin Landerman Zucker
UU Church of Reading
November 12, 2000

Do you love to laugh? Loud and long and clear? Uncle Albert does, and “its getting worse every year.” You may recall this jocular, quirky character from the seemingly bland Disney classic, Mary Poppins. Can you picture that scene? When Mary and her young charges, Jane and Michael Banks, arrive for tea, they discover the old chap hovering near the ceiling, chuckling uncontrollably.

If only they’ll laugh with him, he explains, they can join the fun. Everyone has a grand time until all the biscuits and jam are consumed , and then the whole party comes plummeting unceremoniously and irritably to the floor.

That’s what bipolar disorder is like — dancing on the ceiling and then crashing to the floor. Once referred to as manic depression, bipolar disorder involves major episodes of melancholy and mania. Sometimes the dips and climbs can be bewildering and rapid, other times more subtle and flowing.

Earlier this morning, both David K and Chris G shared with us their personal reflections about the disturbing realities and the bruising impact of bipolar disorder on the sufferers and their families. David spoke about his brother James who recently took his own life; Chris spoke of her son Joel who is tortured by bi-polar disorder. We are grateful for their courage and honesty.

We’re here this morning to courageously and honestly hear about, learn about, think about mental illness. The topic is one that might be referred to, in ministerial parlance, as a “toughie.” How could I possibly do justice to the complex truths of mental illness in one sermon?

Well, I can’t and I won’t try. My objectives today are a few: to present facts, rather than myths, about mental illness; to increase awareness about its impact on individuals and families; and to explore how we might expand our empathy and increase our support for those among us most affected by its ravages.

I warn you — there is very little appropriate humor relating to this topic. It’s more within the “if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry” area of funny, such as the tale one member told me about the Thanksgiving when her troubled Uncle hurled the stuffed turkey through the Living Room Bay window. She told the story so dramatically that we chuckled together in my study until we composed ourselves and said, almost in unison, “It really isn’t funny when you stop to think about it. ” And it isn’t. Uncle Albert may be laughing, but mental illness is rarely funny. Just ask David or Chris.

Since one of my goals this morning is to disseminate accurate information, I’ll begin with a brief overview of mental illness and the three conditions that you have mentioned to me most often: bipolar disorder, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

First, its important to understand that mental illnesses are not signs of weakness. They are as much physical conditions as epilepsy, diabetes, or arthritis. A person no more induces their own schizophrenia than they might induce their own asthma.

One in five families will be affected by severe mental illnesses in their lifetime; and in any given year, over five million adults and three million children suffer from one of these brain diseases, yet only a third of those affected seek treatment.

Mental illness is more common than cancer, heart disease and diabetes, yet most health insurance is inadequate or non-existent. Mental illness is the number one reason for hospital admissions nationwide , with 20% of beds devoted to these patients.

In short, mental illness is not rare. It affects you and your families, the people in the next pew, your neighbors and colleagues, shoppers at the Fair. Mental illness happens all around us, and not talking about it will not keep it at bay.

In an article for Harvard Magazine about bipolar disorder, journalist John Lauerman explains that the mania phase has been described as a “key to genius.” It’s often characterized by powerful bursts of creativity and action.

Some of the world’s greatest artistic and intellectual achievers are assumed to have had bipolar disorder — Van Gogh and Freud, Emily Dickinson, Charlie Parker, Cole Porter, Georgia O’Keefe. Of course, Dickinson was a recluse and, well, Van Gogh was a suicide.

For the average sufferer, mania is no ticket to fame. Nor is it an infectious good mood. In fact, as Chris G has noted, many people are agitated and argumentative, even rageful, during their manic phases.

And, left unsupervised, manic persons can be harmful to themselves. Nearly 15% of those untreated commit suicide. Alcoholism and drug addiction are also frequent byproducts.

In the quiet of my study, a member told me tearfully about her high-strung sister who had impulsively ripped apart her house and started a million unfinished projects. This same sister was addicted to heroin and made several suicide attempts. She is often fiercely angry and resentful of the family.

Kay Redfield Jamison explores the “wild blue yonder” of mania in her book, An Unquiet Mind, A Memoir of Moods and Madness. She writes about “the invincible hours and days when she did the inexplicable like buy 12 snakebite kits, or a horse, or 20 books about Arthurian legend simply because she had caught a glimpse of a brook that reminded her of a passage from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.”

“But then,” Jamison explains, “as night inevitably goes after day, my mood would crash, and my mind again would grind to a halt. I lost all interest in school work, friends, reading, wandering, daydreaming.

I had no idea what was happening to me and I would wake up in the morning with a profound sense of dread that I was going to have to somehow make it through another entire day.”

Then, as the whirlwind of wakefulness and confusion whips harder, manic people lose all the perspective that could let them see themselves as sick.

Ironically, since bipolar patients rarely complain about their manic episodes, it is hard to diagnose them. Proper diagnosis combined with Lithium, a naturally occurring chemical compound, can be the saving grace.

Plus, the honest involvement of friends and family to help bipolar sufferers monitor and medicate themselves so they have a better chance of navigating a more stable course through life.

Then there is depression. Not just the blues, or a bad mood. I’m referring to paralyzing depression. Speaking of the mental illness that stifled his creativity and his relationships, author William Stryon notes that depression is ” a true wimp of a word for such a major illness.”

He conjures up several metaphors for depression, each more dreadful than the next — it’s like a “veritable howling tempest in the brain, ” he writes. It’s like “being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room where there is no breeze, no escape.”

Abraham Lincoln described his depression to a friend in a letter, lamenting ” I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would be not one cheerful face on the earth.”

More than 19 million Americans suffer from some type of depressive mental illness every year. Some battle a clinical depression that pulls a veil over everything. Others experience situational depressions which tend to be more short-lived.

Many factors contribute to depression. People whose parents or siblings suffer with it have three times the risk. Events such as divorce, the death of loved ones or job loss can trigger depressions. Women are twice as likely as men to suffer, a possible consequence of hormonal fluctuations. Children suffer from pediatric depression at an alarming rate, and the signs are too often ignored and brushed off.

In the Washington Post writer Tracy Thompson calls depression, “The Beast.” She writes: “The Beast has been my implacable and unpredictable enemy, disappearing for months and then returning in strength. I have deep respect for my adversary.”

In many cases of depression, though, astonishing possibilities exist to regain an active and balanced life. The English playwright Dodie Smith suggests that “Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.” If it were only that easy.

Through therapy, coupled with Prozac and other medications, lives can be salvaged, renewed, even saved. So, please, attend to this in yourselves and your loved ones, because with chronic untreated depression, suicide is often just a whisper away.

Do you recall the compelling, obnoxious character named Melvin Udall portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the film, As Good As It Gets? He barges into his shrink’s office, he ritualistically locks and unlocks his door and brings shrink-wrapped plastic utensils to his favorite restaurant. Thirty-three million Americans, like Melvin, are plagued with Obsessive- Compulsive disorder and the accompanying intrusive thoughts or obsessions. They may constantly wash their hands, count objects, or fret about imagined disasters. These worriers become slaves to their rituals. Marriages die, careers are ruined. Realizing their obsessions are abnormal, sufferers from OCD try to hide their rituals from family and friends; shame and embarrassment prevent them from seeking available treatment.

During one of my meetings with members as I prepared for this sermon, a mother shared that one of her children confided that voices were telling him what to do. He would stay up all night. He would talk about harming himself. She was understandably terrified and bewildered. Again, there is treatment and there is help available. Please take home and keep the resource guide inserted in today’s Order of Service.

But, honestly, you must pro-actively ask for that help — from your pediatrician, your personal doctor, from a school counselor, from a therapist, from me. There are many people in this church who can share their personal resources and stories with you, and they want to do that. They want to rip back the veil and share their stories, their pain, their journeys, even a few triumphs.

I appreciate the reticence to pull back that veil. Despite the increased awareness about mental illness, the specter of its presence in our families continues to carry fear, huge taboos, shame, stigma.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is rooted, I believe, in the American system of values. We are a nation founded on principles of self-determination, where – we are told — anyone can succeed if he or she simply tries hard enough. We adhere to the bootstrap approach, which dictates that adversity can be overcome by the application of character, willpower, and gumption.

In a recent survey conducted by The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, 71% responded that mental illness was caused by “emotional weakness,” 35% noted ” sinful behavior” and 45% said that people “bring on their own illnesses.”

Only 10% believed that mental disorders had a “biological basis.” Shocking! This stigma has been around for a long time. In colonial America, when families were unable or unwilling to provide care, the mentally ill were shackled and jailed. During the 19th century and well into the 20th, English families sent mentally ill relatives off to asylums in order to preserve their standing in society.

Even today, some doctors are reluctant to recognize mental illness as a disease, blaming the patient for getting him or herself in a “pickle.” Families buy into this and go into hiding.

We’d rather think: “Cheer up! You’ll pull out of it. We all have bad days.” or “Oh, he’s just quirky.” Or “She’s one of those moody teenagers.” or “He has such a temper.” Or “She’s just a sensitive child.” We cling to the view that our families should be like the all-American Cleavers in TV’s Leave it to Beaver. Ironically, Tony Dow, the actor who played Wally, the affable big brother, suffers from bi-polar disorder.

Make no mistake — the entire family is controlled by mental illness, like the proverbial Sword of Damocles dangling precariously over everybody’s head. Dreams shatter, scripts are blown to bits, brilliant futures evaporate, even the most basic domestic serenity is elusive.

There are lots of “if onlys; there is grief. One of you shared with me how your sibling’s manic-depressive behavior drove a wedge into the family. And how years of anger and frustration have lead to heartbreaking sadness. You told me, “She never knew how much pain she caused. ”

Writer and minister Frederick Buechner, speaking of humankind in general, suggests that “the fragmentary nature of our experience shatters us into fragments. Instead of being whole, most of the time we are in pieces, and we see the world in pieces, full of darkness at one moment and full of light the next.

No matter how much the world shatters us to pieces” (and now I am holding in heart all of those in this world and in our lives who suffer from mental illness) , “we carry within us a vision of wholeness that we sense to be our true home and that beckons to us.”

As a church community, we at UUCR can do more to catch these shattered pieces in our outstretched hands. And, although those pieces may never be reconstructed into genuine wholeness, we can maintain together the vision of wholeness which releases our empathy for those among us who are most broken.

In her poem, Locked Ward, Newtown Connecticut, Rachel Loden writes:

The years are mute. And yet
there is no end to the lament
of daughters, no end
to the sharp objects in the heart.

“The years are mute,” Loden tells us; must members of this community who are living in the midst of mental illness also remain mute? I hope not. We all love to laugh, loud and long and clear. And we should laugh, whenever possible, even in the presence of anguish.

But often, we need to wail, to lament, to gripe, to lay down our burdens, to throw up our hands, to be held, especially when we feel isolated, stigmatized and silenced.

We need the salve, the balm of community to soothe the wounds inflicted by those sharp objects to the heart.

We can listen to one another, abide with one another, hold one another’s hands, open our hearts, encourage, sustain, and even share joy. We can educate ourselves and increase our awareness of what mental illness is and what it isn’t. We can stop labeling and being irrationally afraid.

We can stop fooling ourselves that it happens to other families. And we can shelter those among us standing vigil to catch their loved ones, who are often crashing to the floor in freefalls of despair, confusion, and fear.

After the service this morning, I invite you to bear witness to mental illness by tying a ribbon on this wreath hanging in front of the pulpit. If you suffer from mental illness, if a loved one suffers, if you wish to show support for all those impacted by mental illness, come and tie a ribbon on this wreath. It is a circle of caring, a ring of respect and acceptance.

In a moment, we will sing these words in our final hymn: “This old world is full of sorrow, full of sickness, weak and sore; If you love your neighbor truly, love will come to you the more.”

In honor of Joel G. In memory of James K. So may it be.

Blessings and the spirit of healing on us all.