As I sat listening to our pastor describe the plight of people with leprosy during Bible times, I began to listen more intently. Not that I did not know already from my own studies, but in that moment there was an epiphany. What I heard about the person with leprosy in the first century had an uncanny similarity with what I have experienced as a person with a mental illness in the 21st century.
A person with leprosy – which included far more skin diseases than what the modern “Hansen’s Disease” diagnoses, together with mold on clothing and in houses – was immediately cast out of the community. There was no quarantine period or time given to put personal or business affairs in order. Instantly the person was told to leave his home, family, job, and city. He was condemned to live alone or in the company of people who had the same illness as he. Not permitted to live in any walled city – the equivalent to our metropolitan cities – and outside any town or village, he was left to live in a separate dwelling, in caves, or in the open air. The religious orders of the day banished him from the temple or synagogue and it was often thought of as punishment from God. In his Middle Eastern culture, a greeting involved an embrace and a kiss, but no one was allowed to touch him nor could he touch anyone because he was “unclean.” This is why it is sometimes referred to as the disease that shuns. The day that he was told that he had leprosy EVERYTHING changed.
Yes, I understand that most people with a severe mental illness do not experience extreme measures, but notice the similarities. As a person with a severe, recurrent major depressive disorder, I isolated myself at first. I did not want to be around people. That demands energy and I had none to give. But, as my illness progressed people did not want to be around me. After all, who wants to be around a person with depression? What fun is in that?
People with mental illness – for more reasons other than that they are not always the life of the party – are often shunned because people do not understand mental illness and are poorly prepared by our society to communicate with people who are so afflicted. Still others think it is “all in your head” – which is ironic since that is exactly where the problem lies. And, there are still ill informed or misinformed religious leaders that proclaim and congregants who believe that it is all a punishment from God for sins we have committed. We are “plagued” and therefore, isolated. It can be a lonely existence at times.
I experienced the loss of my home, going homeless a few times. After 34 years of marriage, my wife abandoned me because she could no longer deal with the effects or extent of my illness. Two of my children turned their backs on me for the same reason. One job discharged me for my inability to carry out my assignments. Another demoted me twice until I gave up and quit. Yet another broke my heart when I resigned because I recognized that I could never again carry out the responsibilities of that position. I reinvented myself twice and am now trying to do it again as a writer. My story is an all too common scenario among we who have a severe mental illness. Sometimes we are stripped of our rights and given a guardian or assigned a conservator to look out for our affairs. Others of us are sent to a mental facility to live out our lives, out of the sight of the community at large, or allocated a spot in the world where we will not be a bother. We, too, lose home, family, job, and city.
A man with leprosy in the first century had to proclaim to all his disease. Whenever people approached him or he approached people, he had to cry out in a loud voice, “Unclean, unclean!” He had to show the world his disease by rending his outer garment, keeping his hair unkempt or be bald with his head uncovered. His beard and upper lip was to be covered by his mantle when in the presence of people without leprosy. Around others he appeared to be in a constant state of mourning as if wailing about his impending death.
Many of us with mental illness understand the posture of such a man. Although not required, we sometimes appear unkempt and sloppily dressed. It is because the task that calls us into public requires a focused effort and we cannot be distracted with peripheral things. But, often we are put into that box of “publicly proclaimed separation” by society.
When I was a boy, a diagnosis of cancer was almost always a death sentence. You did not want to be around that dying person; there was an associated fear that hovered over them. If you were, you did not know what to say or what to talk about. One rule was clear though; never say the word “cancer” to or near them. They were going to die; the stench of death reeked from every pore of their body and we were told to be silent about it. Thank God, times have changed for the cancer patient. My doctor told me I had cancer in 2015; I hardly blinked an eye, took my treatments, and have been cancer-free for 18 months. Many others tell the same story.
Today, mental illness is the cancer of yesteryear. We do not talk about it in polite society. None of us volunteer our diagnosis to others and they do not ask. And, it would be totally uncouth to actually have a conversation with someone about their illness. We have a forever disease whose symptoms can be treated, but whose cause is incurable. People fear us because they do not understand us or the nature of our illness.
Jesus did not follow the first century rules concerning leprosy. He touched them, which as I mentioned above included an embrace and kiss. These banished people flocked to Jesus in large numbers because He welcomed them and was not embarrassed or afraid to be with them. He was not put off by the missing fingers, toes, noses, and ears that were often a result of their disease or the brilliant white spots that threatened to destroy their ethnic identity. In multiple instances throughout the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus had compassion on these ostracized people, healed them, and restored them to a life free from shunning.
Although I am no Jesus (far from it), I have great compassion for we that struggle with mental illness. One of the reasons I am so open about my depressive disorder and the effects it has had on my life is to help someone else feel not so lonely and misunderstood. Another reason is to educate others about our disease. You and I have intrinsic value, dignity, and worth. We are not our disease. There is hope. We who suffer and society at large are redeemable. Let us carry that message to the masses.