How are you known? What are the labels you and others use to describe you?Are those labels real or just words, someone else’s choice of words allowing them to categorise and relate to you?
We live in the golden age of diagnosis. Doctors of all disciplines have a name for almost anything that may afflict you, and based on that diagnosis you are typecast and treated, not as an independent being but as an example of that label. Psychiatry has a bible of diagnosis called the DSM V – all treatable and notable mental illnesses are included in this document. It is where the professionals go to negotiate a treatment path based on the descriptions there in.
If you cant be find in this document whatever you have does not exist. In fact, you may not exist!
We have become so addicted to labels that we often rejoice when someone gives us a label, as if getting a label is the guarantee of a cure. In fact it means very little in terms of cure. It simply means people now have an excuse for exposing you to certain treatments and pumping your body full of the latest miracle money earner for multinational drug companies.
Yet the truth is that many are impacted by disease – disease of body and disease of mind. Mental illness is not a just a statistic nor is it a stereotypical event. It is the domain of both society and the individual and the truth is that both are intertwined in a way we are yet to fully recognise.
The story in our Gospel reading recognises this and its deep connection to identity. The man when questioned identifies himself with his illness.
“Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.”
The individual had disappeared and whatever afflicted him had become all there was. No individuality, no self-actualising identity, no separate person; he was simply his illness. He was the demon possessed man living rough in the place of the dead, not unlike many of our homeless who live in a similar place; on the edge of life on the darkened streets and backwashes of our city or those relegated to doss houses or institutions where they have ceased to exist as real people and become just another statistic to be removed from our view.
The word legion points to the impact society have on individuals. In this case it refers to the occupying Romans forces for the word legion refers to a group of Roman soldiers. The soldiers were the visible presence of a regime committed to breaking the spirit and disrupting the life of the individual. This man was just another statistic who could no longer manage the expectations of the occupiers. In our modern world we suffer the same issue. Many people who find themselves labelled as marginalised are people who can not fit into the expected roles of consumer and producer in a market driven culture. They are people who’s predilections and makeup make them unable to fight the good fight and maintain a sense of self in a world which strives to either harness self for economic gain or to eradicate it altogether if it does not fit.
Today is Mental Health Week and as Beth Scibienski says, “Perhaps this is the week to begin an honest conversation about mental illness and the love of God.” And it is disturbing that we have to have this conversation at all for it is not an issue that separates of God. God so loved the world, all the world and all in it, and we are asked to do the same, even those who are differently unbalanced to us.
Differently unbalanced to us – this important to understand. All those present at the place of the dead in our reading were unbalanced by the impact of the Roman occupation, by the way society was for them at that time. Each one of them was dealing with a struggle for theirs and their society’s identity and each were dealing with grief & loss, pain and depression and the mental dysfunction that occurs when you are an occupied country. It was just that the manifestation of their mental dis-ease was different to that of the man in the tombs. They were unbalanced.
If we are honest with ourselves, we too are unbalanced to some degree. We may have come to a point where our unbalanced self is deemed to be ok and normal but we too are dealing with mental dis-ease. The pressure of fitting into a fast changing and insecure world, of dealing with accumulated loss and grief, the disappointment of failure and lost opportunities and the monsters that keep us awake at night all keep us struggling to maintain our identity and a sense of ease.
In this way we all share the pain with those who are labelled as mentally ill and perhaps through sheer luck and hard work we have managed to stay above the issues that have brought others down. We are all differently un-balanced or dis-eased.
Therefore we are to love each other, not the labels. We are to move beyond labels and to let others do the same. We are to find ways to not use the labels as excuses for victimhood but to identify the real person who was there before, is there now and will be there always despite the labels.
Mental illness, being differently un-balanced or dis-eased, may in many ways be a challenge to those of us who think we have it all together. Am I actually making a comment on the so-called normal people when I find myself unable to visit Chadstone shopping centre, mix in large un-wieldy crowds, sit in a picture blackened theatre or react with anxiety and fear at loud noises, loud people and words and gestures that demean others or comments about my race and the history of this country? Yes I suffer from Childhood trauma, PTSD and the effects of generational trauma – labels – but it maybe more about how what is deemed normally unbalances me, not because I am sick, but because what we have come to accept as normal is sick.
Mental illness does not preclude God nor does it preclude God’s love for us. In our coming forth from our hidden country God saw that all he created was good. There are no exceptions. It is time to recognise this and to find ways to confront our own dis-ease and the disease of others not as an illness to be treated just by drugs and therapy, but as a response to a world committed to separating us from our home country, the kingdom of God where all are loved and welcomed, a place where labels simply don’t exist.