But Don’t Call the Casserole Committee

Janet Holden
Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois
July 10, 2011

One hot Saturday in late August, 1997, I found myself under my kitchen table. The series of events that culminated in my deciding that the safest place to be was under the table is too long a story for this sermon. All that’s needed here is to say that that day could have been predicted and avoided, but for many, many reasons it was not and so there I was.

What I was experiencing is what Forrest Church describes as the fifth of the five types of fear, dread. I was sure the something absolutely terrible was going to happen, I didn’t know what, I just knew that I didn’t want to be out there when it did. Rev. Church in his book Freedom From Fear, Finding the Courage to Act, Love, and Be, tells us that:

“Dread and anxiety distinguish themselves from all other fears by having no fixed object. They grasp at whatever straws may be available. Anxiety is driven by a sense of not being in control of our life and destiny and dread is anxiety’s darkest expression. When anxiety intensifies into General Anxiety Disorder, it can lead to a complete meltdown, like the story of the tiger that chases its tail around a tree until it turns into a pool of butter. Dread, however, draws us down toward the abyss.”

So, there I was under the table, dreading something unnamed, when my sainted husband did exactly the right thing. He sat down on the floor next to me (there was no room under the tiny table and I didn’t invite him in). He didn’t tell me I was silly, or thank heaven, crazy, just let me talk about what was happening, and when it died down a little, and luckily I now know that these attacks are almost always very quick, he suggested that I might be more comfortable if I got into my own bed and hid under the covers. I agreed and that’s what I did. By the time I got in bed, I realized that what I had experienced was just the last and the most extreme in a serious of events that had occurred starting at a very early age. Fortunately this one event finally was severe and debilitating enough that I was willing to go and get help. Now, I had been in therapy several times over the years, but each time a therapist would say, I think perhaps you should consider medication,… I absolutely refused. If I went on medication, I would have to admit I was crazy and while I was little confused, a little anxious, I was not crazy. The view from under the table convinced me that maybe I was.

I am happy to say that I was under the excellent care of a Family Physician who was in practice with a terrific psychologist, who sent me to a very astute psychiatrist, and I was one of the truly blessed who found the right medication on the very first try. I have been on it ever since, and it is very hard for me to relate today to that woman who went under the table.

But, I would like to take us back to that afternoon for a minute to finish the story of that day. I want to do this because many of you might be saying, well, Janet, that’s all very interesting, and Bonnie and Anne’s brave stories were also interesting, but why are we talking about them in church?? What has this got to do with me as a UU?

On that fateful August day, two wonderful friends of ours from this congregation, Ken Hooker and Linda Wyco, had invited us to join them at the Ascension Church, Concert Under the Dome, right across the street from our home. Now, just picture if I had diabetes and had had a close call that day, was still a little shaky, would I have shared what had happened with Ken and Linda? How about if I had fallen, been in a minor car crash, had just gotten a cancer diagnosis … the list goes on, you get the idea. Would I have said, you know this is what is happening right now, I’m sure you’ll understand, please be a little more caring tonight. And of course, they would have responded; perhaps asked if I needed the casserole brigade or a visit from the minister. But of course, I couldn’t possibly say to these folks that I had known for almost ten years, known them through my spiritual home, not work or kids, that I had just had a major panic attack and the thought of being with a large number of strange people was making me a little anxious, a little shaky.

It just “isn’t done”. Those of us who suffer from any type of mental disorder or disability are still very much in the closet. If our disorder doesn’t let us hide, if it’s written all over our face or apparent very soon after we open our mouths or by how we are dressed, we are very much shunned, ridiculed overtly or subtly, and as I have come to learn through research and study often denied the most basic of human rights.

For those of you who don’t know me, I also need to add a little perspective. At the time I went under the table, I was a part time Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois, a mother of two teen-agers, I’ve already told you I was married to a saint, was sister to four with all those family obligations, was on this and that national, state, Oak Park and of course Unity Temple boards and commissions and committees. I went to the PTO meetings, got the kid to the orthodontist, went to the Amoco executive retirement and holiday parties, in short, I was the typical 48 year old Oak Park professional woman of the ’90’s. I had it all, I was just crazy as a bedbug, but who could tell? I was well hidden.

The biggest problem faced by those who love and/or live with loved ones with mental disabilities, is that we loved ones are the last to know. There is now a name, a diagnosis, for those who cannot see that they are sick (one of those words I cannot pronounce). We are not being stubborn and manipulative, we just really and truly don’t believe we are sick. Twenty-five years before I went under that table, I had put myself in NYC’s Columbia Pres St Lukes emergency room with abdominal agony, and just two years before, in West Suburban’s emergency room after waking up on my basement floor in a puddle of blood, luckily with no broken bones in my face from landing on the concrete. The first time, in the ’70’s, I, of course, received Valium; the second, which happened about two months after my father died, I was given fatherly advice by the kindly cardiologist that I should just take it easy for awhile. It is easy to hide.

The American Psychiatric Association tells us that in any one year, one out of every five Americans will suffer from “a clearly diagnosable mental disorder involving a degree of incapacity that interferes with employment, school or daily life.” These folks aren’t living somewhere else, we’d like to think they’re all in LA, but no, what is meant is one in five of the people in this room will experience serious incapacity, while many more of us will struggle through, well hidden but unwilling or unable to acknowledge our real lives and our real needs. Many, many in this sacred space today are well hidden.

But once again, I need to take us back and make sure we are all talking about the same thing. If I asked all of you to define mental illness I would probably receive about as many definitions as there are people here, and that for once has nothing to do with the fact that we are in a UU worship service. The Rev. Barbara Meyers, a community minister in California, has developed wonderful resources for UU congregations to address the issue of examining where we are and working toward being a compassionate congregation towards those who live with mental disabilities and disorders. I am using her materials for my definitions.

First, what is mental health? We need to define it before we can define its absence. It is:

  • the successful performance of mental function, such functioning results in:
  • productive activities appropriate for age and place,
  • it also results in fulfilling relationships with other people, and
  • the ability to adapt to change and to cope with adversity.

How do we describe the loss of such functioning? A mental disorder is:

  • a psychological behavioral syndrome occurring in a person
  • resulting in a clinically significant impairment or distress,
  • not a response that could be expected to a particular event and
  • not a manifestation of cultural norms.

OK, what does that mean? First, it is psychological behavioral, it is not physical. You may think, well doh! But many people will tell you that the two often and easily get confused. It is a syndrome, a pattern or cluster of symptoms that tend to occur together. Feeling a little down today is not a syndrome. It is occurring in a person, an individual. We can say that our entire country is suffering from malaise right now, but we cannot say that the country is clinically depressed. For it to be true illness or disorder, there must be significant impairment or distress. As I was fixing dinner that day in 1997 I could have been extremely worried about my children, to the point of totally screwing up dinner, or just sitting down and not fixing dinner at all, we are having pizza again! That is not mental illness, that is life with teen-agers. Going under the table is not the expected response to worry, nor is it a cultural norm.

As the Cheshire Cat says, we are all mad, or we wouldn’t be here. So as we all fluctuate back and forth along that constant continuum between mental health and mental disorder, how do we be here for each other, recognizing when our abilities to adapt and cope are perhaps a little stretched, that perhaps someone is actually experiencing difficulty to the point of illness, and most importantly to me, is totally unable to reach out for help. Is our faith community a place where this should be happening? After all, this is family business. Don’t people deserve their privacy? Who are we to interfere, when should we interfere, how and what are the best methods to interfere? How do get past believing that what we are doing is interfering but rather recognize that it is standing on the side of love with this person and their loved ones?

The last time I was in this pulpit was in the spring of 2007. I was going off to spend a year at Andover Newton Theological School to study for a Certificate in Congregational Health Ministry. I was very excited and very naive. I thought I was going to some sort of MBA program, how to be the ultimate church lady, wasn’t I special, and learn how to set up and administer a program here at Unity Temple. The very first question in my very first class was, what is your theology of health?? It will be four years this September that I was asked that question, and I think I finally have some answers.

Why are the mentally disordered still in the closet, while many of the others who experience debilitating conditions have come out? Personally I believe it is because the religious myths by which we once explained all illnesses are still present. Many of us, deep down, really believe that these syndromes are due to some action by the person suffering from them; we may be too modern to say that they have “sinned”, but we still see them as morally at fault. Because they are often seen as violent, uncontrolled, unpredictable, even criminal, – they are easily stigmatized, seen as “the enemy” to the point that our reactions to them are militarized. In many communities if you make that 911 call for a suicide threat, you may get three squad cars, sirens blaring, officers leaping, guns drawn. A much less serious response, but just as aggravating for all concerned, is the … Why don’t you, (he, she, they), just snap out it! The mentally ill are still perceived as choosing to be mentally ill. The best misinformation is that mental disorders are untreatable and incurable, the worst is that they are God’s punishment, or we are not praying hard enough or correctly. When more of us really understand how such perceptions and misinformation are based on our dehumanizing another child of God, we can begin to change. We can begin to live a compassionate life, we can be standing on the side of love.

For many, the words of Jesus, that we cannot just love our neighbors, but to truly be part of the beloved community, we must love our enemy, are the most difficult to hear and to live. Those living with mental illness, who are different and difficult, are some of the hardest to love. The opposite side of the God’s punishment myth can be just as dehumanizing. The seriously mentally ill, those who receive messages, believe that they are the embodiment of some other being, were thought in many cultures to be divine. In some cultures they were well loved, respected, and revered; in others they were considered to be blaspheming and burned at the stake. We have come a long way, but a visit to a state funded mental institution will show you that we have a long way to go.

At the General Assembly of the UUA this year I heard one of the most powerful messages in the Sunday service that I have ever heard. Now, we have all heard that unless we recognize that people are looking for more than a debating society, a place to argue about saying the word God and that there are many kinds of prayer, we are not going to survive as a denomination. Those who come to us are also looking for a spiritual and religious home, a place to feed the soul. But this time, the message went a step further. One of the many cliches about UUism is that it is a denomination where we do not have to leave our brain outside the door. The Rev. Karen Anderson preached that we need to become the place where you also do not have to leave your pain outside the door. Amplifying the message of Andrew Harvey that we heard just a few weeks ago, we need to be so grounded on the side of love that we welcome, cherish and provide solace and support to those who find the destruction going on outside our doors simply beyond their ability to stay truly, fully, living in the world.

What would that welcoming look like? Once again, the Rev. Barbara Meyers has provided us with a guide and with the knowledge that we are far from alone in this struggle. There is a short list of resources in your Order of Service today and there are more out at the Social Mission table. My hope for us and my invitation to you is to become conscious of your response to the stories you have heard today. While I have made light of my story, I am sure you understand that this is one of those issues where we laugh so that we don’t cry. If allowing yourself to feel your reactions brings you pain, remember that our Pastoral Care team and ministers are here for you in the immediate, and we are all here for you in the long term, even the casserole team if needed.

As we slowly grow to understand the meaning of our denominational commitment to Stand on the Side of Love and to live out the demands of that commitment, may you, whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey, truly feel welcomed, supported, and loved in this place.

Blessed be and amen.