Hello, everyone! You might have noticed I took some time off the blog after my January post about mental health. That’s because I was hospitalized in February for thirteen days after my schizoaffective disorder got worse. Although I’ve been home since February 27th, I still haven’t felt well enough to write about that experience. My psychiatrist tells me post-psychotic depression is quite common for patients like me who’ve been hospitalized for serious psychosis. Once they recover from their psychotic symptoms, their brains get overwhelmed by sadness and fatigue. But in spite of this obstacle, I feel it’s time to share the amazing things God did during my stay this February.
My story begins with me being admitted to a nicer hospital than I had been for my first three times. (This was my fourth hospitalization in five months.) A mental health hospitalization usually begins with the patient checking into the ER for some psychotic or otherwise dangerous symptom. (In my case, I hear voices commanding me to do bad things.) After check in, the ER transfers the patient to whichever mental health facility has the first available bed. This can happen very quickly or very slowly…my records are 3 and 30 hours, respectively. As I said, I was at the same hospital the first three times. Although the doctors were competent, living conditions were Spartan, facility hygiene was debatable, and the staff’s respect for patients was minimal.
Thankfully the new hospital was completely different. It felt like a twenty-first century hospital instead of an institution from a different era. Nurses behaved like nurses instead of prison guards. Unlike my previous stays, patients were generally calm and well-behaved.
“How can I serve you here, Lord?” I whispered one night at the beginning of my stay. It was one thing to reach out to people who knew they’d hit rock bottom. How could I connect with patients who still felt like they had a measure of control over their lives? God’s answer appeared in the unlikeliest of places – a secular meditation class.
Instead of leaving us to while away the hours with nonstop TV and elementary school coloring sheets like the old hospital had, this new facility filled our days with classes. Most of the classes educated us about managing our disorders, but some were recreational, like art class or Friday Jeopardy. Meditation class was the universal favorite, however. It ran after dinner from 6:15-6:50 and consisted of an all-unit meeting in the dimly-lit rec room. The meditation coach would ask patients what positive self-affirmations they’d like to hear, then recite the affirmations in a soothing voice while everyone lay prone on yoga mats, soaking up calming music and inhaling delicious scents from a diffuser in the corner.
I was personally uncomfortable with the self-affirmations since, as a Christ follower, I’m called to follow Christ’s example. We’re told that
“Though he was God,
he did not think equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
He took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on the cross.” ~ Philippians 2:6-8
I’m obviously not called to sacrifice myself to save the world, but I am called to live a life of humility that glorifies God, and I’m not sure how asking someone to tell me I’m awesome, or beautiful, or powerful is compatible with that calling.
Nevertheless, meditation class proved to be the key to reaching my fellow patients. When the meditation coach announced she was taking a four-day break for President’s Day, everyone was crushed. And that’s when God prompted me: What if I volunteered to lead a meditation class? Meditation is part of the Christian spiritual life, even if Christian meditation is the opposite of what we were doing each night in the rec room. All I had to do was get the patients in the same room with me, then let God do the rest.
But there was the problem of the nursing staff: was a patient even allowed to lead a group session? By God’s grace, the nurse on call that night happened to be the most adventurous one on staff, and was happy pushing boundaries to help patients have fun. When I asked about leading a meditation class, he even offered to help me set up the room like the regular meditation sessions and lend me his phone to play relaxing music. Why not? I thought. The attendees were about to be exposed to something completely new. It couldn’t hurt to keep the environment familiar.
Patients began trickling in at 6:15. I wasn’t surprised to see some of my friends, but the group didn’t stop there. The nurse finally closed the door after we ran out of yoga mats for people to lie on. Father, please help me, I prayed as I took off my mask.
“Thank you for coming, everyone.” I hoped my voice was loud enough. “Today I’d like to read you a Psalm that describes how closely God cares about each one of you.” I flinched at the revelation that this was not a normal meditation class. No one reacted. “Before we get started, does anyone have any needs?” There was no way I was doing self-affirmations like the meditation coach, but I’d wondered if I could get anyone to share prayer requests since they were used to sharing self-affirmation requests at the beginning of class. Sure enough, hands raised all over the room, sharing hopes and worries and everything in between. I scribbled furiously on a piece of scratch paper, then tucked the sheet in my Bible for the end of class.
Finally it was time for Psalm 23. I read slowly and tenderly, personalizing the verses just like I sometimes read the Psalms as personal prayers for myself. When I finished, I paused for a few moments to let the words sink in, then began praying through our list of needs. And just like that, class was done. My heart was pounding and I was breathing hard as my fellow patients filed quietly out the door. What now? This was not the meditation class they’d been expecting. What would they think? What would the nurse do? Had I violated some sort of Kaiser religious policy? Somehow I knew God was pleased with what I’d done, even if I only got to do it once.
I was on my way back my room when one of my friends stopped me in the hallway.
“Thank you so much for class,” she beamed.
“Oh, well, glad you could come.” I was surprised she was so enthusiastic – and unsure I should take credit for something that was so clearly from God.
“You’re doing it again tomorrow, right?”
I was stunned. It had never occurred to me that people would want to come back and do another Scriptural meditation, especially since I’d skipped the self-affirmations.
“Well, I’ll do it as many times as you want,” I stammered, “but I don’t want to force it on people. Maybe we should do a headcount first.” The headcount justified the class.
In fact, it justified many more classes. My meditation class became so popular that it continued even after the secular meditation coach returned: She would run her class at its usual time and I’d start mine an hour later, at 7:45. Those evenings taught me the word of God truly does not return void. Several people told me that they weren’t religious or didn’t believe in God, but they still showed up to listen to me read Scripture every night. God was also very gracious in giving a high level of attendance. The hospital had 16 patients while I was there; my smallest class was 8 and my largest was 14.
I’m amazed at how powerfully God answered my original prayer that night in the hospital. I think his answer, combined with my previous experiences sharing God’s truth at the first mental health hospital, continue affirming that I’m called to do some sort of ministry to this population. There is so much red tape around accessing hospitals unless you’re admitted, and patients’ lives are so volatile that it’s hard to connect with them unless you can empathize with their experiences. But these are things God is equipping me to do. I don’t know how or when the next phase in this journey will come, and I’d dearly like it to come without more hospitalizations. But I’m praying that God would give wisdom and direction, and give me the courage to accept wherever he leads. In the meantime, I have the privilege of staying connected with several friends I made during those two grueling weeks in February, and seeing how God continues to work in their lives and mine.