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The Journey: the UCC Mental Health Network Blog

Welcome to the United Church of Christ Mental Health Network (UCC MHN) blog, The Journey. Our weekly posts will explore mental health and addiction through the lens of our Christian faith. We will write about how our personal experiences affect our lives and how our spirituality supports our journey. Everyone who is living with a mental health or addiction disorder, or has a loved one who is affected by a mental health challenge or addiction, is on a journey. Together we can connect with each other and share some ways to travel the path of hope and wholeness.

Justice at 27 Below by Bob Griggs

written by Bob Griggs

While I was visiting with a friend who is living with schizophrenia, he told me that he had been having difficulty sleeping. I was concerned and asked him if his trouble sleeping was the result of going through a difficult time with his illness. He said no, not really, that wasn’t it. He said he couldn’t sleep because his apartment was so cold. As you can see from the picture, a couple of weeks ago we went through some severe winter weather here is Minnesota, uncomfortable even by our frigid standards.

He went on to explain that he has a subsidized one room apartment in an old building that is in disrepair. The windows in his apartment are old, ill-fitting, and rattle loudly when the wind blows. Even with blankets piled on blankets, it’s not easy to fall asleep when you’re shivering and the window is rattling. I know how hard he is working in recovery from his mental illness. The last thing he needs is to lose sleep and start the day already exhausted because his apartment is too cold.

I know a woman who was about to be discharged from the mental health unit of a local hospital. She had made good progress in her recovery, and the discharge decision should have been good news. It wasn’t. Her discharge meant going back to the same job where she had been sexually harassed. She felt that she had no other options for employment. Whatever harm the job was likely to do to her mental health, the economics of her life forced her to return.

These are examples of the economic challenges faced by many people living with mental illness. It would be easy to expand them with stories about people who are homeless, unemployed, and uninsured. Often these are people whose illness has resulted in checkered work histories and gaps in their work histories, making finding employment and escaping poverty extremely difficult. 

The lack of financial resources creates hardship and stress for people living with mental illness. Simple activities that might bring a little pleasure and respite from the daily grind are unaffordable. Transportation to go see friends, even go see the doctor, is beyond one’s budget. People stay home and stay isolated, never good for someone recovering from mental illness. In so many ways, poverty undermines progress in recovery, making it much harder to sustain hope that life can be happier and more satisfying in the future.

In the church we often think of ministry towards those living with mental illness as a ministry of caring - providing comfort, support, and acceptance to the vulnerable and marginalized. So it is, and so we need to continue and enhance this ministry. In our United Church of Christ, we seek to extend God’s welcome to all people, including these who are often stigmatized and excluded. It is part of our call.

Our ministry to this community is also one of seeking social change, part of what it is to follow Christ in preaching good news to the poor and working to bring God’s reign of justice to all people. The harm that poverty causes to those living with mental illness is a challenge for all of us who seek to do God’s will in the world. Our call includes changing our society so that the struggle for recovery is not exacerbated by the hardships of living in poverty. 

There are many ways of becoming involved in this justice work. A simple one is to google NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and your state’s name to find what current legislation is recommended by NAMI as helping to improve the economic situation of people living with mental illness. Shivering in bed or returning to a toxic job – we must make life better for those who need our help.
Ordained in 1973, Bob Griggs has served UCC churches in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota.   He is an Advisory Council member at Vail Place, a club house for people living with mental illness.  He is also the author of A Pelican of the Wilderness: Depression, Psalms, Ministry, and Movies.

The Story of the “Crazy” Son : the Prodigal Son through new lenses (Part 2) By The Rev. Dr. Tim Ahrens

written by the Rev. Dr. Tim Ahrens

Every parent whose son or daughter has left home in distress or run away from home has the same sick and sinking feeling in their hearts.  Is she alive?  Is someone out there caring for her? Is she dead in a ditch?  Is he in a homeless shelter?  Or has he found happiness and a sense of sanity?  Has he found a home – somewhere?  Anywhere?  Did some other woman or man look into his eyes or her eyes and see the hurt child that I see? And the wondering turns into a prayer – with the same depth of anguish and concern.  And the prayers are lamenting prayers, painful prayers. And the prayers are all you have. A cry to God for help. 

Finally, the son reaches what’s left of the family farm.  His father sees him first and runs to his side. The son’s speech has been muttering under his breath the whole way home. But as the son begins to speak only half of what he wants to say gets out of his mouth before his father declares in a totally unrehearsed way to all those who can hear: “Quick! Dress him with a robe, a ring for his finger and sandals. Get the fattened calf and kill it and we will have a celebration feast because my lost son who was dead has come back to life! He was lost and is found!”

Let the party begin!  Grace abounds!  Love has spoken. 

Not so fast.  Stop everything – again! 

Before we get too excited about the party, let’s remember the father has an older son, too. The older son comes home from yet another hard day’s work and hears the music playing and smells the unfamiliar, but glorious smell of beef cooking, and he asks one of the servants what is going on. (Which one of us would want to be THAT servant?)  “Your brother has come home, so your dad is throwing a party!” Big brother shares no delight in the return of little brother. His brain fills with visions, too. All he can see, and smell, and hear is a future of a smaller estate, harder work, sale of more of his future inheritance for his screwed-up brother. 

In every family, some are blessed not to be “as crazy” in the blood.   Big brother might have gotten the genes that didn’t make his mind muddled and his behaviors erratic.  It is hard to watch his brother come back and the cycle start again. Compassion is in the big brother – but it is buried really deep.  He has witnessed the pain caused to his dad and he has felt the pain, too.  He sees his brother now living off his inheritance. And he sees his father being played again.

Big brother has reached the end of his rope.  Baby brother has come home, not to penance, but to privilege. It’s bad enough that he has wasted father’s estate, but he isn’t required to change any of his actions for all the pain he has created.

One has to wonder - Is it possible he left in the first place because he couldn’t watch his successful brother get up and be normal every day?   But that is not a question to ask Big brother….

When the older son confronts his dad, the father listens to everything he screams. Unlike his younger brother who has rehearsed all his words there is nothing rehearsed in big brother’s explosion (although he must have thought these words inside his head a thousand times). He lets it all hang out. The dutiful son, the loyal son, the obedient son finally loses it!  The NOT SO “Crazy in the blood” son, has been good. He has followed orders. He has been faithful. He has done everything right - as opposed to everything wrong.

And dad takes it all in. He has no angry response. He has no lecture about honoring your father. He has lost his younger son to the afflictions of the brain and misbehaviors of waste and recklessness. Now he is watching his older son disintegrate in front of him - getting lost to anger and self-righteousness.  The father simply loves his oldest son in return. He says, “son, you are always with me. Everything I have is yours . . . but your brother was dead and is alive, he was lost and has been found.”

Grace abounds for the father of these two sons.  He finds a way to speak to each son.

Reading the texts through the lens of brain diseases and family systems helps us see that when one out of five people in a family system is afflicted with a brain disease, the other four family members are affected.  These may be our children, but they are also the siblings of our other children. 

I have also witnessed that sometimes parents forsake the child with a brain disease and circle the wagons around the other children.  I have seen denial of the diseases and disturbing amounts of rejection for the children in need.  While that may surprise some of you, I think it speaks deeply to the difficulties of admitting there are brain diseases in our family systems – “there is crazy in the blood.”   There are other times when the child who appears to be well and healthy runs away and does a shift geographically from the family – seeking to create a “safe distance” from the crazy in the blood. 

Can you see how complex brain diseases are and the effects of them on the one afflicted and the ones affected are far-reaching?

No matter where you are and how you read yourself in this story, I pray for return… for grace… for love. 

The Rev. Dr. Tim Ahrens is Senior Minister of The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio where he has served since January 2000.  Ordained in 1985, Tim is a lifelong member of the United Church of Christ.