Where the Wood Drake Rests Not: Reflections on Mental Health Ministry

Visible and Speakable

Our congregation has conducted a Mental Health Ministry for the last six or seven years. Sharon Gresk was the original visionary behind this ministry. She remains one of our in-house experts on offering pastoral support to people with mental illness. The current leaders of this ministry are Sarah Karstaedt and Christine Joyner. I am grateful for their ongoing commitment. The Mental Health Ministry has sponsored a variety of programs and activities. We’ve held affinity groups for people with mental illness, for people in recovery, for caregivers. We’ve taught courses on mental illness. We’ve sponsored forums like this afternoon’s National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) event. We’ve hosted performances of the Free at Last Players. We’ve sought continuing education for ourselves. We’re connected to an emerging network of faith communities, mental health chaplains and mental health care providers exploring the role of religion in addressing mental illness in the greater Hartford region. Twice a year we hold a Mental Health Ministry Summit when we gather for community, spiritual practice, continuing education and planning.

The heart of this ministry has been making mental illness visible and speakable here at UUS:E. Visibility and speakability are not easy qualities to measure, but when people speak openly about their mental illness, their medications, their addiction or their path to recovery; when people speak openly about family members or friends struggling with mental illness; when people arrive at our summit and find a vibrant, supportive, welcoming community; when people are not afraid to share, “hey, I’m having a bad week,” “I’m feeling down,” “I need help”—it says to me the heart of this ministry is alive and well.  

This is how it should be. Mental illness is a difficult, painful reality in the lives of many people and their families. In past services we’ve invited you to stand if mental illness has touched your life, the life of someone in your family or the life of a friend. Virtually everyone stands. Yet, despite the reality that mental illness is very common, there is still enormous stigma attached to it; still subtle, but widespread discrimination against people with mental illness; still a lack of parity in funding for mental health treatment compared to treatment for physical illness. Faith communities are not innocent when it comes to perpetuating the stigma. In fact, faith communities are some of the worst offenders. For a variety of reasons faith communities are, more often than not, fearful, silent and unwelcoming toward people with mental illness. The reasons might be theological, cultural, social, economic. Whatever they are, it is my firm conviction that faith communities cannot claim to be welcoming to all, cannot claim to be ‘for all people, cannot claim to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person if mental illness remains invisible and unspeakable. Has our Mental Health Ministry been perfect? No. But have increased the visibility and speakability of mental illness? Yes, absolutely. Whenever a member or friend of this congregation with mental illness tells me this place feels like home to them because they do not have to hide this particular part of themselves, it is a moment of immense pride for me as the congregation’s minister. But it’s not perfect, and thus I’d like to share a few reflections on broad future directions for our mental health ministry based on what I’ve learn from people who participate in it.

Where the Wood Drake Rests Not, or Let’s Not Confuse Spiritual Care with Medical Care

Our hymnal includes beloved words by the poet Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” “When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water…. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”[1] I have preached from these words many times; I will preach from them again. They offer a remedy for fear and despair, for angst, anxiety, worry, panic, hopelessness, sorrow, melancholy, desperation, dispiritedness, despondency, depression. So often in response to any of these feelings the remedy we offer as Unitarian Universalists is some version of “go and lie down where the wood drake rests.” Reconnect with the natural world. As one of the Mental Health Ministry participants described it: “Go for a walk, smell the roses, write in a journal, visit a beach, be in nature, etc.”

Sylvia Plath was an American poet who committed suicide in 1963. Here death came just a few weeks after the publication of her novel, The Bell Jar, which is widely understood as the story of her struggle with mental illness.  Earlier I read her 1961 poem, “I Am Vertical.” It offers a very different take on ‘lying down’ in the natural world—a provocative contrast to “The Peace of Wild Things.” Where Berry offers ‘lying down’ as a spiritual practice to center, calm and reconnect oneself, for Plath ‘lying down’ is fraught. It reminds her, “I am not a tree with my root in the soil / Sucking up minerals and motherly love.” It reminds her, I am not “the beauty of a garden bed.” She craves that sense of connection and identity but it never happens. “Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars, / The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors. / I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.” There is sadness here, a sense of distance and isolation. The hardest thing about this poem, which we dare not miss: she imagines she is closest to connection when she is asleep, when her “thoughts [have] gone dim.” Only her death will bring anything close to the peace of wild things: “I shall be useful when I lie down finally: / The trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.”[2]

Reading Sylvia Plath next to “Peace of Wild Things” reminds me to stay vigilant about the difference between ministry and medicine. Neither of these poems make this distinction, but the contrast between them points to it. “Peace of Wild Things” offers a spiritual remedy. It says, “do something to connect with a reality larger than yourself.” For many people it is an effective remedy, especially if the angst, anxiety, or despair they’re experiencing is primarily spiritual in nature. But is it sufficient for a person with mental illness, especially a person whose mental illness is chemical in nature—not emerging from spiritual disconnection, but rather from an internal neuro-chemical imbalance? Spiritual dis-ease is not the same thing as mental illness. The two conditions may appear the same, may overlap, may occur simultaneously—spiritual dis-ease is often a symptom of mental illness—but they are not the same. Spiritual leaders and faith communities must be careful not to inadvertently offer spiritual remedies as treatment for mental illness. It can be quite problematic to gloss over mental illness with a purely spiritual assessment.

For example, sometimes medication is the only treatment that keeps a person’s mental illness under control. In my experience, the more severe the illness, the more this is true. If clergy and congregations only ever address mental illness in purely spiritual terms—which, in a more fundamentalist setting might be the assessment that one is possessed by demons; and in a more liberal setting might be the implication that really all you need is a dose of the great outdoors—there is always a risk that a person on medication may hear the message that their medication is unnecessary. If they’re looking for an excuse to not take their meds, there it is. Go lie down where the wood drake rests. My instinct is that this kind of lack of compliance will be relatively rare here, but it happens. We need to send a clear message: spiritual remedies complement, but do not replace, medical treatments. As a church we don’t and can’t provide medical treatment, but we can make sure the spiritual remedies we offer support and affirm the  medical treatment people are receiving.

Another example. A person living with mental illness might take the minister’s spiritual advice to heart—might take that walk, spend time outdoors, lie down where the wood drake rests, pray long and hard. It might even have a positive impact. But their mental illness remains unchanged. The risk is that they may begin to feel they aren’t doing their spiritual practice right, that there’s ‘something else’ wrong with them, that they aren’t faithful enough, that they aren’t a good Unitarian Universalist. Because this is hard to admit, they may not talk about it. They may pull away, become more isolated at precisely the time they need their congregation most.

Another example. Sometimes spiritual practice just isn’t an option. As one caregiver said, “I can’t stop and smell the roses, I can’t go for a walk, I can’t take time to myself.  Every single moment of our existence is about keeping everyone safe and managing the disaster.  The roses might as well be on fire, and who has time to care if they are?” Again, the result is disconnection and isolation.

Hearing and understanding these concerns brings much more nuance to the way we address mental illness theologically and spiritually. I’ve learned that mental illness can make access to some of our typical theological language and spiritual practices difficult. Not everyone can lie down comfortably where the wood drake rests. Mental illness challenges all of us to think more broadly about the scope of our welcome, the limits of our inclusion. It pushes us to examine the gap between our words and our actions. It demands that we pay close attention to its medical dimensions as we address its spiritual dimensions. I don’t yet have answers to this challenge. But in the coming years I’d like to see us think and talk and pray our way into theological language and spiritual practices that take the reality of mental illness more fully into account. Spiritual practices for those who are vertical!

Weep–You Are Not Alone

I’ve been hearing the first line of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem “Solitude” my entire life. “Laugh, and the world laughs with you.” I never knew the rest of the poem until this week. “Weep, and you weep alone…. / “Sing, and the hills will answer; /Sigh, it is lost on the air; / The echoes bound to a joyful sound, / But shrink from voicing care. / Rejoice, and men will seek you; Grieve, and they turn and go; They want full measure of all your pleasure, / But they do not need your woe.”[3] Apparently Wilcox was not writing from a place of compassion for depressed people. She was a proponent of ‘positive thinking,’ and with this poem she was essentially saying, “don’t be sad, because no one wants to be around sad people.” I don’t agree with her, but she’s speaking a hard truth. Most people don’t readily choose to spend time with those who are depressed, down, anxious. We do it when someone we love feels this way. But it’s not typically our first choice. We want the full measure of all your pleasure, but we do not need your woe.”

Nobody knows this truth more keenly than people who live with mental illness—their own, or that of a family member or friend. When I asked participants in our Mental Health Ministry what message they wanted the rest of the congregation to hear about mental illness, by far the most common response was isolation. Some comments stand out:

“Mental illness is not something people like to talk about because you can’t tie a pretty bow on it and make it better.  People often have advice like … ‘take time to myself, [go for a walk, smell the roses] … I just need to be able to take a shower…. I need company. I’ve had to give up so much. I am still isolated.  I am afraid to rejoin things because I know it’s going to happen again.” Another members says, “not talking about mental illness increases the stigma and makes those living with it feel invisible, unworthy, and left out.” Another says, “the isolation can be painful and dangerous. Isolation caused by shame or even by simply not knowing where to find like-suffering people compounds the problems.” Yet another says, “as a caretaker is that the situation is very isolating. Caregivers really need time with non-ill people, and I think you could remind the congregation of this simple fact.”

Visibility and speakability are important but not sufficient. A more robust compassion and presence come next—Mental Health Ministry 2.0. Building a congregational practice of deep compassion and presence at the heart of our Mental Health Ministry will lessen the gaps between our words and actions, and reduce peoples’ experience of isolation. Mindful of that, I felt called to write a new version of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s “Solitude,” a version that has at its heart compassion for and presence with people with mental illness, a version that welcomes the full range of human emotion and human psychiatric realities, a version that meets us fully not only in our joy but in the mess, the disaster, that sometimes unrelenting, unfixable despair. I call it “Multitude.”

Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Weep—you are not alone; / For the good green earth, though it knows great mirth, / adopts your sorrow as its own. / Sing, and the hills will answer; / A sigh rides high in the air; / The echoes bound to a joyful sound, / But they’ll come around voicing care. / Rejoice, and all will seek you; Grieve, still they won’t let you go; / They want full measure of all your pleasure, / But they’ll not abandon you in your woe. / Be glad, and your friends are many; Be sad, and you’ll lose not one, / There are none to decline your nectared wine, / But they’ll stay through your bitter draft’s run. / Feast, and your halls are crowded; / Fast, and the world is not shy. / Succeed and give, and it helps you live, / And dear, tender souls help you die. / There is room in the halls of pleasure / For a large and lordly train, / And that is why we’ll all tarry on, / Together in our deepest pain.

Of course this is aspirational. We are not there yet. But it is time for Mental Health Ministry 2.0. Let’s move beyond visibility and speakability to a more tangible compassion and presence, a more nuanced theology and spirituality, an in-depth understanding of the medical dimensions of mental illness, and an ever-expanding sense of home for all who enter these halls.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Berry, Wendell, “The Peace of Wild Things,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #483.

[2] Plath, Sylvia, “I Am Vertical” in Hughes, Ted, ed., The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (New York: Haper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008) p. 162. See: http://www.neuroticpoets.com/plath/poem/vertical/.

[3] Wilcox, Ella Wheeler, “Solitude.” See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45937

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