On Mental Illness and Having the “Mind of Christ”

For 30 years, I cycled between incompatible episodes of elation and mind-whirling creativity and then lows so deep that I couldn’t imagine living any longer, including a severe yet undiagnosed postpartum depression following the birth of my son, diagnosed post-traumatic stress syndrome, gender dysphoria that refused to be suppressed any longer by my mid-30s, and unrelenting physical and emotional stress in my work and personal life. I tried counseling sporadically with no long-term success, because I couldn’t find good matches with therapists; most of whom were deeply invested in a religio-spirituality that ultimately could not see the elephant crushing my chest.

After moving to Colorado, starting a new job, and sending my only child off to college, I figured I would try this counseling thing again after experiencing a two-month downturn which I described as “sleepwalking.” I went to our campus Pride Resource Center and got a list of pre-screened medical and therapeutic professionals. [**I am indebted to all the queer and trans folks here who put themselves on the front lines to find out who those people were, no doubt with more failures than successes.] With the support and help of two dear friends, I took a deep breath and called the counseling place that was on the list. I unloaded all the issues I knew I had at the time in a breathless race to get to the end before I aborted this mission. I was met with grace, compassion, and a determination to get me the help I was finally desperate enough to search for. The therapist who took me on was actually listed as not accepting new clients. For some reason, Jennifer decided to take me on.

Through talking with her, I realized that there was a pattern to my ups and downs (3 weeks up, followed immediately by 6 to 8 to 12 weeks of intense down). She suggested that I seek a psychiatric evaluation. A psych eval? Although I have been steadily working to recognize, interrogate, and dismantle my internalized ableism concerning mental illness, my first thought was, “That’s for crazy people. I’m not crazy. Am I crazy?”

I went online to my health insurance website and checked for in-network psychiatrists. I gathered up the courage to call a place that specialized in bipolar and depression. I made an appointment. I filled out a 30-page survey of my mental health history and that of my family, which includes two diagnosed schizophrenics – one who was in Viet Nam and victimized by our government’s use of Agent Orange; the other who has been institutionalized since he was 18 after setting his mother’s apartment on fire. I went to the appointment. I was honest about my life. After listening to me for 15 minutes, Dr. K told me that yes, I had a Bipolar disorder, Bipolar II not Bipolar I. He told me I had been carrying an elephant on my back for 30 years. He was amazed I had manage to accomplish so much despite that fact. He told me I would likely need medication for the rest of my life to manage my illness. [I know there are folks who would counter that and say other therapies would work just as well and I don’t need lifelong pharmaceutical intervention. To that I say, you do what’s best for you.]

I was crushed. Somehow it was one thing to have Major Depression, but something entirely different to be Bipolar. Once again, those internalized ableist narratives came out – that means you’re crazy. The stigma of years of public and religious narratives flooded my mind. I am working to counter this and accept as Carrie Fisher wrote in her memoir:

“One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside). At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of. They should issue medals along with the steady stream of medication.” —Wishful Drinking, her 2008 memoir about her mental illness and prescription drug addiction

I was raised in a Black Christian household, a Black Christian community, and was sent to Catholic schools despite the worry I would be contaminated by a religious perspective that most the people in Black eschatological-charisma at the time were convinced was a glorified cult if not outright demonic. I am the granddaughter of a woman who founded and pastored a Black Pentacostal storefront church, Lazarus House of Prayer, in Harlem at a time when Black women preachers – heck women preachers period – were not only an anomaly but anathema in most Black charismatic Christian denominations – heck most Christian denominations period, despite the fact that there have been Black women preachers and congregational leaders since forever. I remember playing the washboard in that church as a very young child. [If you don’t know what that means, check this sister in the black top in this video.] When I was 8 or 9 years old, I “gave my life to Christ” and became “born again” at a revival in Madison Square Garden held by Rev. Frederick K. C. Price. I have been in and out of ministry training, alternatively running from a pastoral calling, embracing it, and now, restructuring my entire religio-philosophical framework.

In other words, I was taught and constantly wrestled with the assertion that mental illness is rooted in demonic possession at worst and failure to fully receive the healing of Christ at best. That prayer was the best medication. That daily meditation on God’s word (the Bible) was the only necessary prescription. Many today scoff at these beliefs and declare them backwards and destructive. And. For a people whose lives were so full of stress from living in a racist society, whose access to quality healthcare was next to nil, whose neighborhoods were devoid of mental health centers beyond the liquor stores, the reefer man, and the drug dealers, what other resource did they have? In the absence of other means, God was always present if you just called on him in the midnight hour.

Not too long ago, about a week ago in fact, I got a text message out of blue and unconnected to anything specific I had shared with this person. This person loves me as best as they know how and wants nothing but the best for me, is distressed to see me in pain. This person sent a text that read simply, “You have the mind of Christ.” I had probably been tweeting some days before about my mental state – one of my strategies to squash the internalized shame and stigma has been to be open and transparent about my illness. I don’t really know though what this person’s text was responding to as it had no follow-up and I did not ask because I did not want my peace disturbed or to ruffle this person’s peace either. I simply responded, “Thank you.” But this text has been on my mind for the last several days, demanding attention.

“You have the mind of Christ.” This phrase comes from the Bible, what has been ascribed to the Apostle Paul as his first letter to the newly founded Christian community at Corinth. It’s actually a derivation of a longer sentence found in 1 Corinthians 2:16,

For, “Who can know the LORD’s thoughts? Who knows enough to teach him?” But we understand these things, for we have the mind of Christ.

And this verse is actually part of a longer passage where Paul is basically defending himself to the Corinthian church against some smooth-talkers that had come through since his initial visit and filled their heads with all sorts of nonsense. He tells them 5 key points: 1) that he and his crew had come to them humbly with no motive other than to share the good news of Jesus the Christ; 2) that they didn’t use slick words because they didn’t need them; 3) that the mysteries of God are rightfully incommensurate with human wisdom; 4) that if you are interpreting the world through a materialist, power-hungry lens, you ain’t qualified to be dissing the good news of the gospel; and, 5) that therefore although God’s mind is so high we can’t climb it, so broad we can’t traverse, and so deep we can’t see its bottom, that he and his crew have managed to do all the above, because they have absorbed and transformed their minds to ones that have internalized a Christo-centric paradigm that rejects materialism and worldly power. [I’m not a theologian or seminary-trained, but this is what I have always gotten out of this passage, this portion of which is from verses 1 through 16.]

As per usual, this verse is not only taken out of context but has nothing to do with dismissing and demeaning mental illness or asserting some super-spiritual resolution to dealing with it. For years in church settings, specifically Black ones, I’ve heard this phrasing of this partial verse from 1 Cor. 2:16 used in exactly these ways: “Don’t you dare lay claim to such negativity! You have the mind of Christ!” Christ’s mind being presented as completely whole and free from the possession of anything so ungodly as mental illness.

However, I think there’s something else in this proclamation that “[I] have the mind of Christ” that’s worth holding on to. My first response to that text was irritation and frustration in response to what I assumed was being said [and admittedly, may not have been]. Then, I started thinking about Christ’s mind – really Jesus’s mind as recorded in the written testimonies we have from his followers. I remember a man [Jesus was fully divine and FULLY HUMAN so don’t @ me] who is consistently described as performing great miraculous feats, giving lengthy speeches that had to come from a mind racing with thoughts, and strutting through Jerusalem and Galilee like he was the baddest man on the planet, cavorting at parties with sex workers [let’s call a spade a spade] – and then, going off by himself to the desert, refusing to eat or drink, wanting to die, distraught to the point of total despair at the passing of a close relative (John the Baptist) and a dear friend (Lazarus), and rejecting the praise and pull of others to do for them again and again and again – and then, going back to those highs only to descend again into the lowest of lows.

I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I recognize that history and pattern of cycling. I’m not saying with certainty that Jesus was Bipolar, but…I mean, I’m just saying.

So, maybe I do have the mind of Christ. And if Christ shares this mind with me, then as Carrie Fisher said, I’m in really good company with a dude that had some serious balls and managed to speak truth to power in the form of government and plutocracy, and change people’s lives for the better, and challenged others to do the same within their spheres of influence, and deserved to be heralded at the end of his public life with all the parades and celebrations forever and ever.


Setting Ourselves Free

I firmly believe that one of the things that keeps oppressed people oppressed is when we collude with the systems of privilege that deny us our full humanity. One example of this is when queer people accept second-class citizenship and agree with practices that say that we and our relationships are not as healthy, secure, and meaningful as those of heterosexuals. We, whether part of a privileged group or not, have all been socialized to believe these fictions and consequently, we, whether part of a privileged group or not, need to consciously, consistently, and courageously confront the fictions that maintain bondage and strive for liberation.

Another way that I believe that oppressed groups collude with their oppression is through creating defense mechanisms that celebrate cultural resiliency and strength, yet still deny people in the group full humanity. Embracing one’s humanity, means recognizing and acknowledging both frailty and strength. One example of this is the oft-repeated line that “black folk don’t commit suicide, don’t get depressed, don’t have mental illness.” I’ve heard variations of this for other racial and ethnic minoritized groups as well.

By passing mental illness and clinical depression off as the luxuries of privilege – something only White people can afford to deal with – people of color deny ourselves our full humanity, which still colludes with the systems of oppression that undermine our humanity. The denial of our humanity shows up in the prison industrial complex, in the hypersexualization and asexualization of our bodies, in the deficit thinking that says we can’t raise our children to be successful without intervention from others. It also shows up in the “superwoman” complex that allows others to continue to put more and more work on our backs until we become, like Zora Neale Hurston’s “Nanny” spoke in Their Eyes Were Watching God, “the mules of the world.”

Strength is not the denial of weakness. Strength is  not the absence of complaint. Strength is admitting frailty and vulnerability and seeking help with those frailties threaten to overwhelm us. I’m not an expert on depression or suicide, but I have dealt with both throughout my life. At critical junctures when my mind’s inability to self-correct, to restore the delicate balance of hormones and chemicals in its brain, threatened my well-being, I reached out. And I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t have the strength that I have today if I had denied my full humanity – a humanity that includes frailty and vulnerability.

Check out this video clip from a group of folks who are trying to help Black folks get free, really free:

Black Folk Don’t: Commit Suicide

See you Monday!