At long last, the eighth (!) issue of The Mockingbird is now available. Click here to get the one issue…or here if you’d just like to go ahead and subscribe. (If you’re already subscribed, help us out and spread the word on social media!)
To whet your appetite, here’s Ethan’s Opener and the Table of Contents.
There is a group of people whose entire lives have disintegrated because of an itch.
They share a rare, controversial illness called Morgellons Disease, where strange fibers grow beneath the skin, causing severe itching, which leads to more fibers, and more itching. The scientific term is formication—the sensation of insects crawling under the skin. While rare, Morgellons also happens to be extremely contagious.
Scientifically speaking, however, the disease does not exist. While it remains all too real for the sufferers involved—and for their loved ones—doctors are adamant that Morgellons is a figment of the imagination. They diagnose it as “delusional parasitosis,” a form of mental illness.
The essayist Leslie Jamison writes about attending a Morgellons conference in Austin, Texas. Sitting in a room full of anxious-maybe-delusional hypochondriacs, she fully expects to be able to suss out the real from the imagined. But she can’t. In fact, she kind of becomes one of them. The itch she has come to write about becomes an itch she’s pretty sure she has, too. “Itching that starts in the mind feels just like itching on the skin—no less real, no more fabricated—and it can begin with something as simple as a thought.”
After reading this I was itching for weeks! Can you feel it? Jamison argues that Morgellons, real or not, reveals the kinds of lines we draw between sickness of the body and sickness of the mind. But she goes further than that: when it comes to caring for those who are sick, we prefer bodily ailments. We prefer external agents of harm—germs, bites, viruses—because they are justifiable.
If someone is sick in the mind, though, the agents of harm lie within. Mental illness shows us an uglier side of illness: a person not only dependent upon outside help, but inwardly self-sabotaging. Rather than extend empathy for these crazies, we opt instead for moral litigation: only if someone hasn’t colluded with their misfortune are we willing to invest our care. Otherwise, no deal—which is precisely where Morgellons sufferers find themselves. Beyond the purview of doctors. Beyond the care of loved ones.
Jamison goes on to say that mental illness is a barb to the American understanding of self-reliance.
The abiding American myth of the self-made man comes attached to another article of faith—an insistence, even—that every self-made man can sustain whatever self he has managed to make. A man divided—thwarting or interrupting his own mechanisms of survival—fails to sustain this myth, disrupts our belief in the absolute efficacy of willpower, and in these failures also forfeits his right to our sympathy…
Jamison wonders if this fractured soul should not warrant more, not less, of our care. It also sounds an awful lot like a Romans 7 self—the kind in a perpetual state of civil war. Theologically speaking, this is the human being whose willpower is bound. Contrary to the American myth Jamison references, this divided self is the signature of Christianity’s across-the-board, sweepingly low anthropology: you are at odds with God, and at odds with yourself. Paradoxically, this sobering take on the human species is also the beginning of loving them.
Negotiating the divide between sick and well has proven to be the chief challenge in putting together a “mental health” issue. While we are quick to note the brain science, the aberrant trends reported by the APA, we simultaneously deceive ourselves about the ‘normal’ people, the mentally stable, i.e., me. In an effort to cover mental illness, we hoodwink ourselves about whom exactly that term defines. The Bible lays a wider net than the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual; as Nathan says to King David, “You are the man” (2 Sam 12:7). You, in fact, are the liar, the worrier, the narcissist. That line on the spectrum, which so nimbly dictates who is healthy and who is ill? Look closer. It is right there inside you.
I don’t mean to play down the diagnosable disorders with which many of us live. It is to say, though, that our diagnoses often prohibit the inclusive understanding of illness that might, in turn, include us. Jesus is perpetually doing this, flipping the script on who is and isn’t “ill.” The ones who “don’t need a doctor”—the ones who find themselves mostly capable, mostly virtuous, mostly sane—are for Jesus the ones who most desperately do need a doctor. Their virtue has obscured their need. For Christ, there is no distinction. If there’s a madhouse, we should all be living in it.
In the small town of Geel, Belgium, there are no madhouses. Geel has been the subject of articles and books for centuries for its revolutionary care of the mentally ill. Instead of cordoning them off, Geel citizens became famous for welcoming them into their homes, making them part of the family. The families who host these “boarders” do so on average for 28.5 years! What characterizes the success of Geel’s system, which has been around for over 700 years, is the unconditional acceptance given to its residents.
Lulu Miller, of the podcast Invisibilia, tells the story of one middle-aged boarder in Geel who habitually twisted the buttons off his shirts, forcing his host mother to sew them back on every night. When a visiting American suggested that she perhaps use fishing line instead of thread, the host gave a surprising response:
That’s the worst thing you could do…I will never use fishing line because this man needs to twist the buttons off. It helps him to twist them off every day…Accept these odd behaviors, don’t try to make them go away.
Geel provides us with an alternative to the usual classifications between what’s crazy and what’s sane: grace. As opposed to the world of solutions, for which these boarders have received caseworkers and medications and cognitive behavioral fixes, Geel gives them the opposite. They have “let go of the mission to cure.” Sounds crazy to me.
In the modern framework of “mental health,” it is radical to ask what might be healed by the radicality of grace. But, let’s ask it: what might be healed by the radicality of grace? This is where we plot our course in this issue. As you might have guessed, it isn’t light fare—the landscape of the human psyche tends to prompt questions about our lives we’d naturally evade. But Jesus asks these questions. As the Great Physician, he gently addresses the wounds we’ve long kept covered. But in doing so, he also administers healing. He shows us that our wounds are carried in his.
In this issue we cover everything from self-help to suicide. We have psychopathic children and their pathological parents; we have pathological churches run by pathological pastors; we even have pathologies of pathologies! We have great interviews with “Ask Polly” columnist Heather Havrilesky and self-justification gurus Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Poems from the masterful Gray Jacobik. And so, so much more.
So, welcome to the cuckoo’s nest! There’s no need here to be anyone but you—we wouldn’t want it any other way. And if you need someone to sew your buttons on for you, we know just the person.
Ethan Richardson, Editor
The Epidemic by DAVID ZAHL
Mockingbird Asks Polly: Our Interview with HEATHER HAVRILESKY
Confessions of Parental Recidivists by BRIAN & DEBBIE SOLUM
For the Record: Cures of Yore
Overmedicated, Under God: Help in the Age of Antidepressants by ETHAN RICHARDSON
A Poem by GRAY JACOBIK
Justifying Our Lives Away: A Q&A with CAROL TAVRIS & ELLIOT ARONSON
Schemers, Clingers, and Frank Lake’s Schizoid Self by SCOTT JONES
For the Record: Bookshelf, Non-Self-Help Reads, Mental Health at the Movies
The Laws of the Megachurch by JOEL GREINER
A Poem by GRAY JACOBIK
The Psychology of Attachment in Our Relationship with God by BONNIE POON ZAHL
For the Record: Know Thy Bias!
A Word of Acceptance: An Interview with JOANNA COLLICUTT
Notes from the Funny Farm by KATHRYN GOURLEY
A Poem by GRAY JACOBIK
How to Cope with the Modern World: A Short Guide by WILL MCDAVID
Life in a Dark Place: A Sermon by DAVID BROWDER
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