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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.

A Witness to Recovery by Bob Griggs

A Witness to Recovery by Bob Griggs

As rubber duckies go, the one in the above photograph is not very impressive. It’s undersized and,
when floating in the bath tub, it has a pronounced list to the left. I’m not even sure of its provenance. I assume it belonged to one of our children, maybe passed down from one to the other, but nobody
remembers anymore.

I do know that it was a prop at a critical moment in my life. In the midst of a mental health crisis, I
was walking in circles, moving clockwise from our living room, to the dining room, and then on to the kitchen – over and over again. Convinced that I had ruined my life, lost in shame and beset by suicidal ideation, all I could do was walk rapidly while cursing myself. One thing though, I did have a companion. Somewhere in the midst of that terrible time, I had picked up our undersized rubber ducky and was carrying it, clenched tightly, on my circular journey. It’s a witness to all that happened that day.

I don’t know why I picked up the rubber ducky. I also don’t know why I paused in my circling to call
my wife, an act that may well have saved my life. I do know that I held the rubber ducky tight as she
drove me to the hospital ER, and that I only surrendered it to her for safe keeping when I was in my
room on the psych unit.

All of this happened in the spring of 2005 and was followed by another visit to the psych unit a few
months later. Since then, I’ve only been a hospital patient one time, briefly when I slipped on the ice
and banged my head, a common hazard during a Minnesota winter. This happened in the parking lot of a church where I was serving as an interim pastor, one of six churches I have served in some capacity since my hospitalization.

Meanwhile, the rubber ducky has stayed home, safe on a shelf in the bathroom, where I see it every
morning. Is this a good thing for me? Do I really want a daily reminder of such an awful time in my life? Isn’t having it there unhealthy somehow? Yes, it is a reminder of a terrible time. No, I don’t think having it there is unhealthy. In reminding me of that day, now more than fourteen years ago, it also reminds me never to take recovery for granted.

Based on my own experience, I am a passionate believer that recovery from mental illness is
possible. I don’t mean that it’s possible to make things again like they once were, like it never
happened. Why would one want that anyway? I know for me the crisis on that day was preceded by
months of deepening depression, a time of unhappiness for myself and the people closest to me. I don’t want to recover any of that.

By recovery I mean the return of what is best in life: joy, vitality, and purpose. It requires that one
unlearn old lessons about how to live, and learn new, more effective ways of coping with reality. At the heart of it is hope that such fundamental change is really possible.

As I have sought to understand all of this in terms of my faith, I keep returning to 2 Corinthians 5:17
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new!” (NRSV) This passage locates the hope for fundamental change in the heart of the
gospel. In other words, it tells us that recovery is possible.

I know this to be true, and I have a witness, the rubber ducky who was with me at the worst is still
with me now when my life is so much better. It has seen my recovery happen, knows how precious it is, and, as I wrote above, reminds me every day not to take it for granted.

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.

Down the Rabbit Hole By Rev. Dr. Tim Ahrens

Down the Rabbit Hole By Rev. Dr. Tim Ahrens 

The story begins with a bored and drowsy seven-year-old girl named Alice sitting on a riverbank with her older sister.  When a talking, clothed White Rabbit with a pocket watch runs past, Alice follows it down a rabbit hole. As she falls a long way down, Alice finds herself in a curious hall with many locked doors of all sizes.  She finds a small key to a door too small for her to fit through, but through it she sees an attractive garden. She then discovers a bottle on a table labeled "DRINK ME," the contents of which cause her to shrink too small to reach the key which she has left on the table. And so the weird adventure filled with peculiar anthropomorphic creatures takes off from here – at the bottom of a rabbit hole. 

Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” is considered one of the great examples of the literary nonsense genre.  It is a story my friends talk about when they describe their journey “down the rabbit hole” of mental illness with loved ones they have followed there.   They speak of times they have followed their children to work because they didn’t believe they worked there.  They tell unbelievable stories of made-up children who were burned to death in made-up fires.  They tell fanciful stories of men and women in their homes uninvited at all hours of the night – to hook up with their children. They tell stories of creatures they never saw who were as real as you or me to their schizophrenic spouses.  They tell of sons and daughters running away to faraway lands and returning to bus stations in other cities – sent home by people who found them and simply “knew something was wrong with them and then cared enough to help.”   They tell stories of calls from people accuse them of acts they would never imagine possible against their own family members.  They tell of lies and hurtful actions that all beyond belief.  

When people ask me about the specifics of mental illness, I often reply, “Do you really want to go down that rabbit hole? There is no way I can prepare you for what you will see there. You will hear stories you cannot make up about characters who are frightening in real life or in an imaginable world created by your loved ones.  If you go down that rabbit hole with me, you will never be the same.”  

Mental illness is not a literary genre of nonsense.  It may not appear to make any sense to logical, rational people.  But it is real.  

If you choose to follow a clothed, talking White Rabbit with a pocket watch down a rabbit hole, you will slide into a world that seems like make-believe but is frighteningly real.  Once you are down the rabbit hole, you may not be able to find your way back to the surface for a long, long time.  But, while you are there, you will meet some of the most interesting creatures and characters you will ever know.  You will be changed.  You will become more human in Wonderland.  

In one exchange Alice has with the Cheshire Cat goes like this: 
Alice asked, 'And how do you know that you're mad?'
'To begin with,' said the Cat, 'a dog's not mad. You grant that?'
'I suppose so,' said Alice.
'Well then,' the Cat went on, 'you see, a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. Now I growl when I'm pleased and wag my tail when I'm angry. Therefore, I'm mad.'
'I call it purring, not growling,' said Alice.”  

Down the Rabbit Hole in Wonderland you discover that purring is not growling.  You will also find that the ones that you follow down the rabbit hole will become your greatest teachers.  

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.