As I made my way to the group time, I could see we were a ragtag bunch. Some patients walked in; some straggled in; and some were wheeled in. We were a study in various forms of consciousness. On one end was the jittery and manic and on the other end was silent and catatonic, and in between was everyone else. At first I thought this was a joke, like this was how they welcomed the new guy, but then when no one laughed, I realized it was for real.
When everyone was seated, the therapist (not Nurse Ratchet, thank God) gave us an assignment. We had to introduce ourselves, say what kind of day it was for us, and explain why. My toes curled and I buried my face into my hands: Why do I care how other people are doing? I thought. The therapist asked for a volunteer, but when no one jumped in, she volunteered Manuel.
Manuel was a tall and skinny Hispanic, and looked to be in his mid-forties. With a smirk, he retorted, “I knew you were thinking of me,” and patted his thighs as if to welcome her to sit on his lap. This was curious because I didn’t know people here had a sense of humor. I didn’t know it was allowed. When no one reacted to his response I realized that Manuel was possibly the only funny person in this joint, and if I had to meet a patient, I would meet him.
When I finally did, Manuel did not disappoint me. He was friendly and laughed easily, and had an interesting spin on life. He took me around and told me which doctors were nuts—most of them were nuts—and which patients were faking it—most of them were faking it. He was convinced that all the catatonic patients were putting on a show, so he would talk loudly into their faces to break them down. It never worked.
It was hard to figure out why Manuel was in here. He seemed fine, maybe even someone I’d be friends with on the outside. Maybe he was faking it, confessing his own game by accusing the other patients of theirs. But why would he fake it? He talked often about getting out one day. Turns out he had been here a long time.
“Manuel,” the therapist said, “What kind of day is it for you?”
Manuel smirked again, and I braced for another smart-alecky comment, but instead he cooperated. He answered the question, rather sincerely, and soon others chimed in. I couldn’t believe it. With no pulling and no prodding, the patients were actually opening up. One by one patients said their names, what kind of day it was, and why. Not only that, they seemed to enjoy it.
Some patients’ reports were more memorable than others. Ken’s for instance, I remembered. Ken was short and stout and always wore sunglasses. I assume he had eyes, but I never saw them. I also never saw his hair. He always wore a gray sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. With his glasses and hood he looked like the Unabomber.
Ken was supremely suspicious of people, which is ironic because his appearance made you suspicious of him. He had two particular habits. One was placing puzzle pieces behind every picture that he passed. There were framed pieces of art nailed to the wall, and when I asked him what he was doing, Ken answered, “Each picture has to have one puzzle piece.” I guess it set Ken’s world in balance to have one piece in every picture.
The other habit was checking behind people’s backs to make sure they weren’t holding a butcher knife. He was convinced they were. I guess it kept Ken’s world safe to check behind people’s backs. So when Ken told the group it was a good day because the government’s plot to brainwash the American citizens had failed, I remembered it. That would be a good day, I reckoned.
I don’t remember what Mike said, but I do remember Mike. He was a nice young man (younger than me), the kind that gave you his attention and spoke softly. But he was utterly unpredictable. One moment he would be the kind of chap you’d like your daughter to date, and the next, he’d fly into a rage and go ballistic. The staff would put him in the “act-out” room to cool him down.
The act-out room was padded on all sides with no windows. A video camera hung high on the wall so the staff could monitor the patient in the room. Mike would get naked right in front of the camera and then slap his behind while jumping up and down. I wondered what he was so angry about.
And then there was me, a middle class college boy. At group time, I muttered something that would not lead the therapist to ask probing questions in front of the group. I wasn’t comfortable with this group stuff. I didn’t like admitting weakness in front of others, didn’t enjoy putting my pain on the table. I had, after all, grown up in church, and this wasn’t the kind of thing we did. In church we were put together; here we were falling apart.
That much was obvious from my ragtag group. I didn’t know what made Mike so mad, Ken so paranoid, and Manuel so stuck. Furthermore, I didn’t know what was up with the others. But I did know we were at rock bottom. It couldn’t get much worse.
There was something freeing about this. We had no one to impress, no one to judge, no one to compare. We called out our names and we admitted our feelings, and even though it didn’t always make sense, it somehow felt brave. We took time to gauge the day’s effect on us and then announced our findings: the day sucked or it was okay or even on rare occasions, it was good. Sure, we acted in peculiar ways, but we faced no shame because of it. We didn’t apologize for our condition or make excuses for it. In short, we owned our desperation. I wish I could have done this in church.
Truth is, Jesus seeks the desperate. He invites them to come to him: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11.28). The problem is, often church isn’t the place to admit your desperation. Especially not after you’ve found Jesus.
After you become a Christian, you’re allowed a little time to sort your stuff out, but it better not take too long. If it does, they’ll doubt whether or not you made a “true” conversion, and you might be asked to accept Jesus again. You certainly won’t win any awards, won’t be promoted to leadership, won’t be featured in the next “Look What God Can Do” campaign. A desperate Christian is simply bad marketing. No one wants to see one of those. After all, we have God’s reputation to protect.
I wish I could have healed in church, but the healthiest place was among the sick. It was among a ragtag bunch of patients: ones who flew off the handle, and suspected ridiculous things, and got stuck in treatment. It was among brave desperados who knew their condition, and helped me accept mine.
What’s worse than a desperate Christian? A Christian who’s not desperate. The church is full of them.