As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. –Luke 8:27
My church family lost a precious member to depression last week. I am not a mental health professional, but my father had, and one of my siblings still struggles with mental illness – specifically, bipolar disorder. What follows is an image that is helpful for me in contemplating this perplexing disease.
This circle represents my reality. Everything that is real to me exists within this circle. While I know there is much that exists outside of my circle, it is not part of my reality because I either cannot perceive it or I cannot understand it. The colors of the light spectrum my eyes cannot detect is an example of a reality I cannot perceive. Similarly, I cannot understand nuclear physics – I do not have the mental capacity or training to grasp the concepts and allow them to exist in my circle of reality.
Here is a view of reality within a community. Everyone’s circles are different – some larger, some smaller. The shaded area represents the shared reality of the community, or that which everyone agrees to be real. Most people have areas that are either not perceived or not understood by others in the community and, thus, are not real to everyone, but there is a significant amount of shared reality.
The causes of mania and depression are not well understood – brain chemistry certainly plays a part. Stress and self-image, alcohol and drug abuse can also contribute; but something triggers a shift in a person’s circle of reality away from that of others. When mental illness strikes, my illustration looks like this:
A person whose circle of reality once fit with his or her peers’ shifts, and the circles of reality no longer intersect, or only intersect partially. We often label this type of episode as psychotic. Paranoia and unclear thinking are common, as are hearing voices no one else hears and seeing visions invisible to others. Actions and thoughts are difficult to understand or explain because they originate in a reality we cannot grasp. What a person experiences in this state is not real to the rest of us. They may not run around naked and live among the tombs, as did the man with the demons in Luke, but their reality has definitively shifted. Unfortunately, it can be challenging to recognize anything is significantly wrong until the person’s circle of reality has moved enough to make them nearly impossible to reach. Severe abuse of self or others may result, even from those who are typically loving and gentle.
Sadly, I do not have wise counsel for how to deal with mental illness. When we suspect someone is experiencing a mental shift, it is sometimes helpful to do what we do with others when they suffer – keep in touch, ask questions, encourage them to seek help, follow-up, and reassure them. Perhaps our love and attention can help draw a shifting circle of reality back into our shared realm. Sadly, we cannot bring everyone back; but we can maintain tight communities, like churches and support groups, where those who are suffering can feel welcomed, safe, loved, and accepted.
Come home to church this Sunday. Expand your circle of reality.