Friday, March 10, 2006

Divine love in a bruised reed

A coke machine and a psychiatric hotline

My first trip to a mental hospital didn’t go all that well.

I was only 14. My pastor father went to visit a person in the local State hospital; however, with his polio condition, Dad needed someone to assist him in walking. So I went along to be his extra “crutch,” accompanied by my friend Kevin. And while Dad consulted with the patient, Kevin and I were free to roam around – within careful limits!

Down the hall from the consulting room was a snack area with a Coca Cola machine. And so, naturally, we gravitated there to grab a Coke. And I’ll never forget the trauma, lol. Oh, the emotional turmoil! :-) I put in the coins and pushed the Coke button. And voila! out came a Root Beer!

I stared at the can in my hand, and then at the button – can, button, can, button –; then I looked at Kevin and said, “If I wasn’t crazy before, I’m crazy now!” It was just one of those moments. We started laughing, gathered our change and tried more buttons: it was a “push one thing, get another” machine! Every different thing that came out we’d laugh all the more.

Truly, if a person was on the edge, wondering about his or her connection to reality, and tried that machine, it wouldn’t help matters in the slightest!

It was about as helpful as the infamous psychiatric hotline. Need help? Call 1-800-I MIND ME and this is what you’ll hear: “Hello! Welcome to the psychiatric hotline.”

  • If you are obsessive-compulsive, please press 1 repeatedly.

  • If you are co-dependent, please ask someone to press 2.

  • If you have multiple personality disorder, please press 3, 4, 5, and 6.

  • If you are paranoid-delusional, we know who you are and what you want. Just stay on the line so we can trace the call.

  • If you are schizophrenic, listen carefully and a little voice will tell you which number to press.

  • If you are depressed, it doesn’t matter which number you press. No one will answer.

  • If you are delusional and occasionally hallucinate, please be aware that the thing you are holding on the side of your head is alive and about to bite off your ear.

Some of you are probably thinking, “Loy, where’s the love?” “How can you laugh at a topic like this? How can you offer compassion to people needing emotional and mental health?” Well, just stay on the line, lol.

A man named Andy

I’ve learned that persons struggling with emotional and mental health are often the ones closest to God. “God’s power encamps on weakness,” Scripture says. And for those honest enough to be themselves before God, for those strong enough to actually admit their weakness and dependence on Him, God draws near to them. God reveals himself to them and through them. Some of the most brilliant shafts of divine light have come to me through people struggling with issues of wholeness.

Such was the case several years later at that same State hospital.

When I returned to my home area after college, I began taking youth over to this same hospital to use their gymnasiums and take part in volunteer programs. We’d play basketball or volleyball on Friday nights and then several of us would volunteer as assistants for special events.

It was the occasion for one of the most profound events of my life.

I volunteered the youth group for one of their hospital picnics – a picnic on the grounds on an idyllic September day. The patients well enough to participate were treated to hamburgers, chicken, fruits, salads, and an array of confectionary treats. A band played music and balloons floated on the breeze.

Our part in the event was to help with supervision and feeding. Some of the patients couldn’t feed themselves, others just needed someone to hold their hand or put an arm around them, or just to laugh and talk. So we mixed and mingled and shared love and laughter and a helping hand.

It was a powerful experience in itself, yet after the picnic they asked for volunteers to assist patients back to maximum-security wards. Against my ‘better judgment,’ I volunteered again! But this time I was on my own…the youth waited in the parking lot.

My task was to take patients from the transport vans and walk with them or wheel them to their secure areas. The building itself was secluded and the inner ward could only be reached through three sets of locked doors, each guarded by staff who would automatically open and then lock them behind us.

The first trip behind these doors chilled my soul…

Past the third set of doors I entered a common room – a room clouded with cigarette smoke and reeking of staleness. Listless inmates lounged around and watched blurry TVs, alternating between boredom and random questions, seemingly managing obsessions and passing time. These were the serious people who had not been allowed at the picnic…their eyes spoke of deep despair: hollow, lifeless and unfocused.

A heavy spirit of depression hung in the air. The atmosphere hit me like a physical force.

I immediately began crying out in my spirit: O God, how can anyone live like this? Where is grace? Where is hope?

Frankly, it staggered me. I continued to bring patients in, and greet other patients in the common room. But it ate at my soul. I tried to offer kindness and hope…yet the sense of despair overwhelmed me – it was contagious and undeniable.

In my mind I envisioned a flower wilting in an airless, sun-starved room. I couldn’t see how a human could be human in there…

However, the last person to be brought in was an elderly man in a wheelchair. I walked out to the van and the assistant said, ‘This is Andy.’ I looked down to see a grizzled face and hunched back, and a gray-haired man nodded at me from behind coke-bottle lenses. The van assistant winked at me: “Andy has a stash.” I looked, and sure enough, in the corners of his wheelchair and under the blanket covering his lap lurked boxes of cookies and candy bars and goodies he had stashed from the picnic. It was a pile of stuff! “Good for Andy!” I thought. “This guy has it together! He’s looking out for himself and saving stuff for a rainy day.” Something told me he probably wasn’t allowed to have all that contraband in the ward, but I wasn’t about to say anything to the nurses! My heart wouldn’t let me. I had already seen where he was going. He needed all the encouragement he could get…

Andy was quiet when I pushed his wheelchair back to the ward. He didn’t say much. I had mixed emotions: I was glad that Andy had scrounged some goodies, but I was half afraid that the nurses would see the huge stash and blame me. But we passed the first set of doors, the second, and then the third set of doors swung upon to his ward…and closed. We made it past the nurses!

And as I pushed Andy down the hall toward the common room, a cry went up from someone: “Andy’s coming!” Then another: “Andy’s coming!” Instantly, the cry echoed throughout the ward: ‘Andy’s coming, Andy’s coming!’

The room so listless and depressed now sprang to life. Smiles appeared on faces, and people stood up and cheered. They were actually smiling! Now I was doubly shocked: I’d have thought that only our Lord himself could have lifted that atmosphere. Yet here they were standing and cheering a hunched, gray-haired man in a wheelchair. “Andy! Andy’s here!”

Surprised isn’t the word.

My mind tried to process. But the information wouldn’t compute. “What is so special about this handicapped man?” I thought. Then, I saw. As I pushed him into the common area, Andy smiled a smile that would have won the world. He pulled back the blanket from his lap, and began handing out goodies, right and left. He gave away every single thing he brought back from the picnic.

These things weren’t for him at all.

He meant them for others. In his own way, he tried to bring back a bit of the picnic, a bit of the light and air and share it with them.

And he succeeded.

He touched them with a love that transcended time and space, brokenness and despair.

I walked back through those locked doors with a new perspective. A gentle, quiet Voice seemed to say, “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these…you have done it unto Me.” And then I realized that it was our Lord who had lifted that room. He had come in the hands and feet of one gray-haired man, a bent over, broken man who willfully chose to give of himself to meet the needs of others – even in a hopeless situation.

I had tears in my eyes when I walked out into the sunlight and air. The sunlight and air were gifts from Him, gifts in which I was free to move, to live and laugh and love. Yet how often had I not shared these gifts? How often had I kept them to myself?

How often had I not shared of my life, so rich and so blessed in the highest ways? How often had I let impossibility define me, instead of just giving away the gifts in loyal, self-giving love?

Andy reached me that day. He reached me with the love of the One I call my Lord. In living color he showed me the meaning of the words, “Greater love has no one than this, than that he lay down his life for a friend.”

And, you know, in this story, that act of love goes on. The memory of Andy is blessed.

Andy has reached out of those imprisoning walls, across the years, and touched you – you who read this story – with the love of Christ.

Will you look above your own impossible circumstances and receive this love? And will you dare to pass it on?



PeacefulLady said...

Thanks for sharing the story of Andy... the picture of how the atmosphere changed was moving.

Loy Mershimer said...

Thank you, Peaceful Lady!

Indeed, it was moving -- a "miracle" of self-giving love. And we know where that kind of love comes from...


It moved me, that's for sure.

God bless,