A few years back my depression flared up again, and it became necessary for me to make the long-practiced, but always demoralizing trip to the hospital to regulate my medications and in so doing stabilize my illness. The hospital close to my apartment had no beds available, but the law indicates that those who require hospitalization for any reason must be taken somewhere, no matter how far away that may be. After waiting for several hours, an ambulance arrived for me and I ended at a psychiatric hospital that I eventually came to discover was very badly managed and severely understaffed. Daily existence was trying enough, particularly when in such an emotionally vulnerable state, but I reached my breaking point when it came down to separate into groups for discussion. Substance abusers headed in one direction, and psychiatric patients went in another.
Before that instant, I had no idea I was about to have a spiritual awakening. This setting would seem the least likely of all regarding spiritual insight. To be taught a lesson with application well beyond the immediate was something I recognize now I needed desperately. The most potent image that stuck with me most was that of sitting in a room with ailing people, many of whom were clothed in the barest of scrubs, some of whom did not have their own clothes to wear. The nominal leader began a rambling devotional which then moved unskillfully to a denunciation of the sins of humankind. It was not until well after it concluded that I realized the leader was not a staff member, but was a fellow patient. As this delusional prophet spread a message of hellfire and brimstone, I saw heads droop lower and lower to the ground, believing that God must be punishing them for having mental illness. There was a time, and not that long ago that those with psychiatric disorders were seen as being either possessed by demons or being cursed by the Devil.
It took an experience that viscerally jarring for me to get the point. At that precise moment I vowed that I would never stand for such a thing ever again. The God I believed in then and believe in now was a God of love and a cool healing touch. I regret to mention how uncomfortable I had been in the presence of so many souls whose poverty and crippling condition rendered them a truly pathetic sight. Now, my heart was filled with pity and concern, as well as anger at the man who had encouraged them to curse themselves for a condition which they did nothing to create themselves. The world is full of much ignorance and much misguided advice, but since that day I have vowed that those who attack the most vulnerable among us for whatever reason must be challenged and ultimately defeated. That I had allowed my own prejudice to judge unfairly and harshly these people who had taken me outside of my comfort zone I regret to this very day. They lacked the intellect and the privilege I took for granted regarding how to advocate for themselves and how to even form the words needed to aid the doctors assigned to treat their case.
The story also highlights the shortcomings of our supposedly world-class health care system. The hospital upon which I was a patient had clearly seen better days and much of its dysfunction was due to the fact that it had close to twice as many beds as it did staff to manage the load. I saw a psychiatrist for no more than five minutes per day, at which point I had barely enough time to describe my symptoms and have my medication regimen modified. Those who could afford to leave did so, and those whose insurance or lack thereof would not pay for something better were stuck there. As for me, I claimed a miraculous recovery to escape after having been there a mere three days. For many, however, three days was but a drop in the bucket. Psychiatric hospitals are often merely a way station for the severely ill to remain until the court rules whether they should be committed to a state-run institution. Once there, a patient lingers for several months, upon which he or she is turned back out into society. Yet, few only manage one tour of duty in this whole sordid process. The homeless or the desperately poor spend years in and out of hospitals with such a variance in quality of care that it is no wonder this revolving door is the rule, not the exception.
I recognize how lucky I have been, but I know also that my role is to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. Though whatever means I can manage, the indelible impression left on me by this story and others I have experienced in the course of several hospitalizations have allowed me to recognize that I have an obligation to serve those with limitations that would otherwise leave them worse for wear.
Some are fond of stating that we are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, but what often gets obscured is the original context in which this quotation is found. It is in Genesis, shortly after the the world’s first homicide. Cain intends the phrase as a childish retort full of scorn, but the phrase has often been taken literally.
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.
It would be just as easy then as now to refuse to look out for the vulnerable ones among us. Christmas, promising goodwill to humankind just passed us, a New Year yet to come, it is easy to forget high-minded ideals once the halls are un-decked and the time comes to roll up sleeves again and dive into work. If we are really to do the season justice, it would be for us to recommit ourselves to the process of reaching beyond our own selfish preoccupations. That it took my own direct observation to take into account the completely needless shame and fear felt by fellow patients only renders me exactly like the throngs of Doubting Thomases with whom I associate regularly. It is this gift I wish I could impart to those who have opposed reforming our broken health care system. It is this experience, horrible though it is, that opened my eyes and I feel certain it would do the same for many others.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.