I have had to watch a number of people wrestle with the side-effects of various forms of pharmaceutical medications (anti-psychotic drugs being the most complicated in my experience). I have listened to people talk with real feeling about how they wished they never had to take ‘mind-altering’ substances. Their desire for what I will loosely refer to as ‘regular cognitive functionality’ was great indeed. And wholly understandable. And absolutely heart-breaking.
I am sure that some of the readers of this post will know what it is like to deal with family members who function well on their medication, but who do not function at all well when they stop taking whatever it is that they are supposed to be taking. The stress and grief that can be caused is incalculable at times.
Charlie Parker was a phenomenal jazz musician who – having developed a heroin dependency – needed to get high in order to actually feel normal. But the terrible legacy created by his drug habit (and those of other jazz luminaries) was essentially driven by a total failure to understand the truth of my previous sentence. So on the basis of sensory perception (i.e. what they could see), younger, impressionable jazz musos see him (and others) doing two things:
a) playing jazz to an extraordinary standard;
b) using illegal drugs on a regular basis (hence ‘drug habit’).
They then fall headfirst into the worst possible type of syllogism (google if necessary!) – namely:
- (for example) Charlie Parker (‘Bird’) is an incredible jazz musician.
- Bird is a monster heroin user.
- Taking heroin will help me to become an incredible jazz musician.
The tragedy is that it wasn’t too long before jazz musicians found out that shooting heroin didn’t – and couldn’t – make you a better player, but by that time they had become addicted and so the tragic cycle was perpetuated. And over forty years later, as an aspiring professional jazz musician, I personally discovered that this same myth was still alive and well…
In case you were wondering if this was a mad digression: the point just made is that the narcotic substances did not take one ‘beyond’ regular human experience to interstellar space where creativity reigns. They facilitated a level of ‘normality’ on the part of the musician in question. Now, a ‘normal’ person should not have to take (let’s say) antidepressants; and a mentally ill person wants the truth to be that they are not mentally ill (deliberate focus on the ‘negative there). Taking the medication means that they are ill, but they don’t want to be ill. They want to be ‘normal.’ But sometimes really bad things happen when they don’t take their medication which causes pain and grief to their family and carers. So they also need pharmaceutical (in this case, literally mind-altering) substances to be ‘normal.’
The sadness of some of these people who have to depend on mind-altering substances to be able to function in the ‘real world’ has stayed with me. And that brings me to the crux of this post.
It has been a source of both heartbreak and anger for me that so many Christians that I have met in many denominations really do not think rigorously about their faith. But now I want to speak specifically about my experience as a member of a church in which our UK membership is over 80% black (although this is not in any way part of our constitutional and theological identity). There is a brokenness of language which has led to a brokenness of actual thought. There are all sorts of different social and ethnic and cultural groups who all use and abuse the English language in their own specific ways as part of their respective group identities. But I have grown up in a cultural and racial and religious community with thought-values and language values that I have had to conspicuously reject for my own sanity.
As a result, although I have never left my church or committed the kind of major ‘sins’ that make you a pariah in church circles, I experienced a type of socio-religious disenfranchisement that has meant that most of my closest friends do not share my religious beliefs. I have been able to enjoy honest fellowship with them despite some quite radical differences in terms of ideology – because all parties have done their best to be honest. And honest disagreement has always been better than dishonest agreement. Indeed, we could go further and say that difference, per se, is essential to actual relationship. For if there is nothing different about any of the people with whom we associate, our very friendship network is an exercise in narcissism!
It is not that we must all think the same way on the same issues. And it is not that everyone must think the same things that I do (please don’t take that to mean that I am a religious pluralist or a liberal Christian, for I am neither; I do, however, acknowledge people’s right to be both of those things and more if that is what they choose). But so many of the reasons for religious and Biblical belief that I hear week in and week out are so vague and nebulous that the very words ‘vague’ and ‘nebulous’ sometimes seem kind indeed. So many people in my community are blessed with better mental health than some others, but for more of us than could ever be ideal, our patterns of thought and reasoning often lead to unusual and cruel consequences – not least when it comes to judging others.
Many of us Christians are the quickest to condemn a person (Christian or otherwise) who falls into psychosis for their ‘lack of faith’ or ‘secret sins in their lives’ or to castigate their parents as spiritually underpowered – to say nothing of the classic ‘demon possession’ argument. Now, I am a Bible-believing Christian and I believe in the supernatural – for sure. But we cannot always know what is wrong with someone who has a mental health problem and if we are as quick as my own eyes have seen to judge a person harshly as opposed to showing them the love of Christ, small wonder that the UK is full of self-identifying Christians (2011 census) who are living their understanding of that Christian identity as far away as possible from the churches themselves. This kind of reasoning is just as bad if not worse than that encapsulated in the syllogism I gave you earlier – and totally unjustified (Biblically and theologically!).
This is a seriously weird way of showing gratitude to God for good mental health and sentience. Instead of using it to think spiritually and creatively about how we can help those less fortunate than themselves, far too many of us have taken those very gifts of mental health and sentience that we believe to be God-given (because we are Christians) and thrown it straight back into God’s face. Willful ignorance of mental health issues leads to poverty of thought; itself a mockery when one claims to worship the God who is the author of life, cognition and language – each of which are indispensable to actual thought (not to be confused with vague and vacuous mental flutterings).
There is absolutely no point in having the gift of good mental health if you are going to abuse it and abuse others with it.
This means (of course) that it is not just religious people who have a case to answer for in terms of stewardship of mental health. If you are someone who has no such problems, then this could be a great time to pause for a moment and take stock of all the reasons to be thankful that you are not in the NHS system as a mental health service user – not least because the number of ‘preventable’ deaths in this area of the NHS is higher than would be ideal. Let’s all make a decision to be more understanding of these people and those who care about them.