I was the only daughter in a neighborhood of boys who thought it was cool to scare me. They cued up horror movies to the jump scare, called me over and hit “play” right as I walked in. I was terrified of demons, vampires and that alien from “Signs.” So the first time someone described my bipolar disorder as my “demons,” I flinched at what a terrible metaphor demonic possession is for mental illness.
For years, stories of demonic possession have conjured images of severe mental health diagnoses. Mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and personality disorders are misunderstood, and we allow stereotypes to reinforce our fear. Similarly, we don’t understand demonic possession, and that makes it easy to equate the two.
Despite all of this, one of my favorite Bible stories is about the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). We perceive it as scary — but in truth, Jesus models how I want to be treated as someone with bipolar disorder. We know how frightening this scene might have been because we confront someone who has no clothes and lives in the tombs. Still, Jesus is tender and unafraid. He asks the man, “What is your name?” He recognizes the humanity in this person, even before the man is healed.
This story is one of healing, and healing is important for all of us. When I read it as someone who is bipolar, I can’t help but think that I don’t want to be healed. Living with a mental illness is hard. There are times when I can’t be a good friend; there are times when I struggle with being even a good person. But I am always fully human.
In my reimagining of this story, the folks who need healing are not those living with severe mental illnesses.
At the end, after the man has sat at Jesus’ feet and been healed, he asks to go with Jesus — but Jesus sends him back to his community. I wonder what Jesus was thinking. This community is gripped with fear when the demoniac is healed, and I think that this community needs healing before they’re ready to accept the man back.
We emphasize destigmatizing mental illness, but I don’t think destigmatizing goes far enough — I need radical acceptance. I need the understanding that I bring something beautiful to the church when I am depressed, when I am manic and when I am stable. I don’t want a world that thinks parts of my mental illness are less than ideal — I want one that sees every part as beautiful and good and holy.
For mentally ill folks to flourish, we don’t need to be healed. We need a world that leads with grace and compassion for everyone. We need a world where therapy and psychiatrists are readily available without cost. We need a world where people do not equate severe mental illnesses with words like “dangerous” or “violent.”
What do you need to heal from in order to recognize folks with severe mental illnesses as good and holy?
When Jesus asks this man for his name, the demon responds by saying “Legion” — the name of the demons.
When you are asked what your name is, how will you respond?
Are appearances what possess you? Keeping the “wrong” people off the street?
Is capitalism what possesses you? Productivity at all costs?
Is fear what possesses you?
What keeps you from recognizing people with severe mental illnesses as holy? When you encounter Jesus, will you be able to name what possesses you? Will you let yourself be healed so that you can respond out of your full humanity?