Mental Health and the Priesthood, in honor of Blogging Against Disablism Day

I am a priest and I live with depression.

I am a priest and there are days when it takes every spare ounce of energy I have to not drive over the guardrail on the bridge.

I am a priest and I have been institutionalized.

I am a priest and I once tried to kill myself.

I am a priest and I have told no one these things are true.

I’m not supposed to talk about it. My ordination process involved two serious psychological evaluations and I lied my ass off on both of them, describing limited periods of depression in high school and then later, during my parents’ divorce, instead of describing the depression and agoraphobia with which I live. The ordination process was so traumatizing and so horrible, and it had been made clear to me so many times that being honest was punishable by getting kicked out of the process. Getting kicked out wasn’t an option: my heart had been claimed by God and I knew that I was called to facilitate the Eucharist or die. So I lied.

But lying means that I am now professionally employed in a system that doesn’t recognize my health needs. I am now professionally employed in a system in which my health needs in fact make me suspect.

I wanted to write a post about how I was not at all equipped to deal with different kinds of ability needs that parish ministry requires. I wanted to write a post about how my seminary was not an accessible space: there were physical barriers to participating in the full life of the seminary, if you were dealing with strollers, wheelchairs, walkers – anything at all that meant you were not 100% capable of managing giant endless stairs on your own two legs. I will write that post someday. But this is personal for me, and what kept being written was my story, and the intersection of my brain and the ordination process.

Here are things I’m not supposed to talk about:
1. My baptism matters not because I have a lot of flowery things to say about it being a sacrament that Jesus instituted but because at my baptism I promised God that I would not take (nor ever again try to take) what God gave me: my own precious life. This promise has literally saved me. That promise to God means that there are several bathroom floors that my friends, lovers and family members did NOT find me on, dead and clutching two bottles of aspirin I swallowed.  Sometimes the promise of salvation is actually that: a promise of being saved.  In my case, from suicide.

2. The ordination process was actively retraumatizing. I am a sexual assault and abuse survivor, and the process involved things like the diocese requiring I submit copies of my Pap smears. It involved a slick, rich Upper East Side psychiatrist eyeing me up and down and asking me if I had any tattoos he  couldn’t see, in addition to the visible ones he stared at and grilled me about. It involved living without health insurance while doing my field placement, which landed me at a Planned Parenthood in central Washington where I was asked a horrible series of detailed questions about how my trans partner and I fuck – questions completely unrelated to the concern I came in with. All of this served to solidify, to calcify, to entrench the trauma of being abused, to entrench the sense that my body is not, in fact, my own – that my body belongs to other people. And all the rhetoric around being a minister supports this – that I must give until it hurts, that I must prioritize every single person’s needs before my own or else I am a BAD CHRISTIAN, that I must follow Jesus to the point of crucufixion or I am a BAD PRIEST. This is, of course, compounded by the fact that I am told these things anyway, as a lady in the world, and ladypriest means those expectations increase exponentially. (It also means I’m supposed to spend my downtime baking birthday cakes for the staff, supposedly, but that’s a whole other fucking issue for a whole other post.)

3. I don’t know if I’m sick. Mental illness. Am I “ill”? I have this friend who lives in my brain. I have this friend who lives in my brain with whom I am very comfortable. It’s only just now dawning on me for real that not everyone (including my partner) lives with a friend in their brain who often encourages them to eat into oblivion, drink to oblivion, puke to oblivion, cut to oblivion, and/or throw themselves off high buildings. Not everyone has this friend who tells them to stay in bed all day, who tells them that their body is too horrible and horrifying to leave the house, that kids will throw things and scream. But I don’t know if I am “ill”. This is just the way my brain is. This is just the way I am. I have to talk with this friend a lot, and yes, that’s tiring. But in the meantime, I do manage to get a huge amount of work and life done.

We do not live in an ideal world. This means that my brain is something that would disqualify me for ministry. It would be a tipping point, added to my liberal use of swear words, too much lipstick, the lack of a dick not made of silicone, and not being 50 years old. Right now, people who know me in real life are reading this, and thinking to themselves that they no longer have to take me as seriously as they used to – my criticisms of the church and of the world used to get me labelled “bitch” (even by sensitive progressive dudes who tend to contain this particular word to the resounding silence of their own minds). This news about me adds a layer, ratcheting me up to “crazy bitch”, in which case they no longer have to listen to anything at all that I say. Do you see why I tell no one?

If we did live in an ideal world, I would be able to stay home on the days my friend wants to eat my brain and consume the rest of me. I would be able to say “I am sorry, but it is taking everything I have to not dismantle my razors and take them to my legs. Could I just come in for the two pastoral calls I have and then go home and take a 8 mile walk? Because an 8 mile walk will fix it.”

But I can’t. So many, many days go by where I push all the feelings down, down, down and then have no idea how to answer people when they ask me how I am.

It doesn’t help that rich white Christianity is mad crushed out on the power of positive thinking. Church makes us HAPPY GODDAMMIT. We are HAPPY HERE. I once told our faith community nurse how much difficulty I have sleeping, that I get incredibly anxious, and she said, “Wow, really? Because you have Jesus in your life.”

My Friend The Illness is invisible. If you see me at the supermarket, you can’t see my friend.  If you see me preside at the Eucharist, you can’t see my friend.

For a while this winter I was doing a 6 a.m. liturgy at my church. It was sparsely attended, in part because many in the group quit when they learned I, a dyke, would be touching their Communion and giving it to them. I am someone who does not, who cannot, sleep, unless I have a regular sleep schedule, regular exercise, and sleeping pills. So I would go to bed early on Wednesday night, not sleep, not sleep, not sleep, nap for two hours, do the liturgy and Bible study, and go home again, and try to eat and drink myself into some sort of sleep before having to be back at church again in the afternoon. Then I would not go to the gym, sleep only a little the next night, go to work, eat to stay awake, and then end up on a hell cycle of not sleeping (which leading to not exercising, which leads to binging, which…you get the picture)  where I would only get myself back onto some kind of reasonable livable brain place by the following Tuesday. Then it would start all over again. I started wanting to kill myself after 2 weeks of this. It was bad. My partner had to stay home from work one day just to make sure I wouldn’t self-harm. My boss, the rector, didn’t care. Or, rather, he told me he would take care of it, that I no longer had to say this Mass. Until he realized that then he would have to do it, at which point he brought me into his office and he scolded me for not having a doctor and essentially that I needed to go get myself medicated: this wasn’t his problem. It was my problem for not zoning myself the fuck out to make myself more productive. Thanks, boss. When I finally told the people themselves that the Mass was hurting me, I had some incredibly kind people pray with me, understand, lay hands. I had others who told me I had no work ethic, that the world used to be full of people who knew how to work, and it’s too bad young people today have no idea what it means to work.

I am a very, very, very good priest for those who also live with these friends in their brains.

I am a very, very, very good priest anyway. I am simply a very, very, very good priest who doesn’t respond well to antidepressants. (I do respond incredibly well to anti-anxiety drugs, which doctors won’t give me because I have multiple piercings and they think I am going to sell to my friends. At least that’s my theory. I have tried to tell doctors that anti-anxiety meds work really well for me – and yes, I know this because I have borrowed them from friends because doctors will not give them to me – and I get every evasive answer in the book).

I am a very, very, very good priest who has some specific needs. I need exercise. I need sleep (at least 8 hours per night). I need yoga. I need time alone. These are the bare minimum criteria for me to be someone who does not kill herself. These are the bare minimum for me to not eat pounds of pasta and ice cream and throw them up again night after night. This is it. I wish with all my heart I could simply say this to a new congregation, simply say this in an interview. “I will work my heart out for you. I will be there when your daughter dies of cancer, I will say a funeral Mass for your dog, I will preach with my whole being, I will encourage you to grow into the fullness of your whole self, I will advocate for your human rights, I will march in the streets and scream in protest when I see your life being violated, I will feed you with the bread of life. In essence, I will be your priest. Please know that in order to do this, you must leave me alone for small amounts of time. You must not give me dirty looks for leaving church during a 13-hour working day to attend a 1 hour yoga class. You must treat me with the kindness I will show you. You must let me advocate for myself.

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24 responses to “Mental Health and the Priesthood, in honor of Blogging Against Disablism Day

  1. As another person who struggles with depression (and has a lot of tattoos), I would be proud to have you as my priest.

  2. Defying Gravity

    I’m in seminary and many of these things are true for me too. I have no idea how it’s going to work in parish….

  3. Thank you, Rachael.

    And at DG, it *does* and *can* work in a parish – it’s just harder in some ways. Also, though, it’s important to keep talking about it – even if (like me) you have to blog anonymously for fear of recrimination. The more voices people hear, the less stigma.

    One of the things you’ll find is that you can talk to parishioners who live with depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts in ways that they’ve never been talked with before – many of them have only experienced clergy who give them easy answers or platitudes or do the active listening nod and say “That sounds hard.” It’s different to actually be someone who knows what it feels like – and people appreciate being ministered to by someone who doesn’t patronize them.

  4. This is so powerful, thank you.

    I too am a priest who lives with mental illness (PTSD and bipolar) which is why I am ordained in the tiny and tentmaking independent Catholic movement. I am only now realizing how much the PTSD, as well as being a mother and like many having to move for spouse’s job, affected me negatively in the often abusive TEC process (though I passed the screen without having to hide anything).

    I am part of a women’s spiritual blogging community, RevGalBlogPals, that is largely a good place though sometimes ableist. Would dearly love to have your voice with us too.

    Time to send in my own late BADD post. Bless you, sister.

  5. Hi again.

    Just reflected on my own defensive need to state that, though I wasn’t ultimately accepted for mainline ordination, I was able to pass the psych screen with full disclosure (of what I knew then). I am now realizing it could have been hurtful and wanted to apologize if that was how it felt to you, or other readers.

  6. Thank you for this beautiful, heart-wrenching post. Many Blessings to you on your journey.

  7. Thank you, Maggie.

    Thank you, Sophia, for sharing. I am glad you were able to survive the screen while disclosing – I was not hurt by that comment, but thank you for apologizing in case others were. The TEC process is often abusive, and I know several women who are survivors who have experienced the process in that way. I want desperately to at some point join the Commission on Ministry in my diocese to try to make it less so – but it’s too soon still. I would be glad to contribute to RevGalBlogPals if others in the Special Communion blogging collective were also invited. God bless you and keep you as well.

  8. What a beautiful post! I found you through BADD but will definitely be coming back here to read more.

  9. Thanks, locustsandhoney. There are two formal ways of participating in RGBP: visiting and commenting on the daily posts on the main blog (revgalblogpals.blogspot.com), and having your blog linked as part of the ring. All the members of Special Communion who would like to visit and comment are most welcome to do the former–a variety of perspectives is mostly welcome and IMHO needed. Anyone who individually blogs and would like to join the ring on that basis, and/or the group blog if you all discern that is right for you, are welcome to apply for membership. Because of a lot of people who started up blogs, joined, and quit blogging immediately a blog has to be up and running for three months before it is eligible. And they reserve the right to reject (or eject) blogs that are considered “disruptive,” which only happened once to my knowledge, but tragically–to a dear and holy friend, because she was in a faithful polyamorous relationship. Also almost happened to me because of my strong commitment to feminist theology, specifically because I use God/dess language on my blog. I hung in though and have made some great connections and gotten wonderful support from some folks and, I think, made some out of the box contributions as well. (Not sure if this was a great advertisement but it’s the whole story!)

  10. queenbae:)

    i love you dearly, loved reading your heart in this post, and hey–think you will like anything by henri nouwen. (i think he & i are soulmates to some degree.)

  11. Thank you, Scrumptious.

    Sophia, we’ll talk about whether or not we’re ready to collectively participate with RGBP – thank you for extending the offer. One of us blogs independently, and I’ll let her know she’s invited as an individual to participate too. I wonder, though, how long we would survive before being considered “disruptive” – we’re pretty fucking mad a lot of the time! Who is it that makes the great decision from on high about who’s “disruptive”?

    Thank you, Queen Bae (I can’t believe I never thought to call you that!). I love you dearly, too. Miss you so much it hurts. And Henri Nouwen is a dear.

  12. There is a board of directors who made these particular decisions — I think there is now a membership committee which evaluates applications. Not sure which would be involved, or both, if a probably unlikely case came up of judging disruptiveness. Good people mostly, but many are conventionally employed in ministry and very fearful of official perceptions of them and their associations. When these ejections/inquisitions happened several years ago they were also starting to gear up to try and apply for grants, and worried about people that might be controversial or upsetting to typical denominational bodies or financial sources. Nothing since has happened to my knowledge, and by now I have actually become something of a leader in the community despite popping up with strong opinions that probably annoy some folks. So it’s probably not a major issue, just something I felt you had the right to know (not to mention that, as in all cases of spiritual and other abuse, it’s profoundly healing to speak out about it. The most devastating thing about my “heresy trial” was being forbidden to disclose it, and I still haven’t on my blog).

  13. This is a very moving post – I am so sorry that your needs are being ignored by the people who are supposed to support you. I was particularly taken aback (because of my own personal experiences), by the comment about having Jesus in your life and still not being happy – I don’t understand faith anymore, and have had people – people I love and trust – tell me that that is the cause of my chronic illness, that if I just had FAITH, I would be well. I know it’s not true, but if I could have faith, if I did have a priest, it would have to be a priest like you, who understands that pain isn’t something you can wish away, or that having made a promise – to god, to someone, to anyone – can be someone’s saving grace.

    I really wish you well, and I hope that you find the support you need.

  14. Thanks so much, Sophia.

    And thank you, NTE. I can’t quite figure out why the church in particular is so hostile to those of us who live with any ability issues. The church tells us that the process is designed to keep out pedophiles and sexual abusers and they are trying to keep their health care costs down by subjecting us to invasive physicals…but it is SO apparent that many of the people who get by in the process are people who end up hurting other people. People who lie well and without remorse get through. Young white married cis men with doting fertile wives get through, no questions asked. Most men get through, frankly. And the church deals with sexual misconduct case after sexual misconduct case after sexual misconduct case. While people like me are discouraged from seeking ordination, because we’re too much to handle, or whatever. (You’d think people with high levels of self-awareness would be *welcomed*!) It’s so wrong.

    And a a representative of the church, and as someone who has sworn her life to God, let me tell you that your chronic pain has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not you have “faith”, that believing would not make you “well.” I hope with all my heart that you too have promises in your life that act as lifelines for you, that you find places of grace and advocacy and strength in your life. Much love.

  15. I just got a chance to read this post–I’ve been reading them out of order. I am awed by your strength in living out the demands of the priesthood–I don’t mean to imply you feel strong; I’ve been pushed to the brink from the demands of others before. But to carry on and keep going as you have–wow. Yes, you do need breaks, and I don’t understand why people think those giving care to others (clergy, doctors, moms, teachers) don’t need breaks. That’s selfish of them–when people have used up all their energy, they can’t keep going on an empty tank. Not only is the seventh day for rest, but people can’t work endless stressful days.

    As far as not telling them everything goes, I am not so sure that they have a right to all your medical information. I could be wrong, but this seems to run afoul of the ADA. Especially asking for your medical exam results–they can’t as a condition of employment ask questions or give an exam that’s not very specifically related to a work task. A pap smear would never be. So you are darn right that they are violating people, and this makes me angry for you. I am a huge supporter of medical privacy.

  16. They are not even allowed to ask anything about psychologic or medical issues until an offer has been made, though now that I think about it, medical schools do the same (though that may be covered differently since that’s education rather than employment):
    http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/preemp.html

  17. Coming back to this and hoping I don’t have too much to say: I’m not sure it is a lie to not disclose the answer to an illegal question (and such questions are illegal even post-employment offer); it doesn’t bode well in most instances for someone to point out that the question is illegal either. While the church may not acknowledge your health care needs, I know by being in it that you’ll be able to show others more sensitivity and help them more than others who don’t understand will. And will be able over time to teach others more understanding, whether you disclose your own condition or keep it private.

    If you minister by preaching, you could always talk about how everyone needs time for replenishment–so that they don’t stop being able to function. By speaking up for the many moms, doctors, teachers in your congregation, you’re also speaking up for yourself.

  18. Thanks so much for your care and support, fridawrites. One of the problems is that it’s not illegal to ask me any of these questions: religious organizations are exempt from the federal employment laws – they do not have to be EOEs. (This issue is a huge and thorny one, and I should probably write a post about it later.) They can ask me about my sex life, my desire to have children, my medical history, whatever they desire. It’s part of the protected status of religious organizations. An example of this is the fact that a person cannot sure the Roman Catholic Church on grounds of gender discrimination because they don’t hire female clergy: they are protected – they are allowed to discriminate based on religious conviction. Same thing: you can’t sue an Episcopal church for not hiring a rabbi. Likewise, my denomination is permitted to discriminate against me for whatever reason they deem necessary. And ableism collides with them talking about how they are “just trying to keep medical costs down” by discriminating against anyone who is not the prototypical young white cis married temporarily able-bodied dude.

    I do preach about self-care, and I am pushing the congregation to start noticing that “normal” is not a category that’s helping anyone. If ministry teaches me anything, its that every single person is going through or has gone through something that belies the “we’re all white and able-bodied and normal here” narrative of this place. Once we start being honest about those things together, we will be much better able to minister to one another with understanding and tenderness, and it will become a holier place. I’m working on it!

    Much love for all your help and concern, again.

  19. I had not realized the religious exemptions went so far–they are abusing it in my opinion.

    Your congregation is lucky to have you. I’d certainly rather talk to a clergyperson who’s been through difficult times and can offer some very good advice on how to make it through than someone who’s made it through life a bit more smoothly.

  20. Pingback: links for 2010-05-14 « Embololalia

  21. Wow. Found you through BADD, and I’ll be back to read more.

    I consider myself a (pretty incompetant but continually starting over) Christian but I currently don’t have a faith community. It was OK at university – people were pretty accepting of my moods because I was a student, and I didn’t have a formal mental health diagnosis. Since being diagnosed with moderate depression and an anxiety disorder, things have been trickier – I left one church because of the ‘if you’re a real Christian you will be happy, your depression/anxiety disorder are because you aren’t a real Christian/don’t trust in God’ attitude from various people including my ‘pastoral worker’ and then, on trying again a few years later, I left after being politely ignored throughout several months of sick leave for ‘stress-related’ health problems.

    I struggle with this in my own work, I’m an academic and anything affecting the mind is seen as affecting your intelligence. It must be even harder in your work… thanks so much for sharing.

  22. JaneB, I’d just first like to say that I’m so sorry to hear about your wrong and terrible experiences with faith communities.

    I think that if we’re honest, all Christians are perpetually starting over – or at least we should be. Getting complacent is deeply unfaithful. Much love to you.

  23. Thank you, I am going to share this with a good friend who needs to hear this as well.

  24. thank you for sharing…i often reference this in my journey when I feel like i’m the only one who is struggling. Thanks for being such an encouragement.