A memorial of mental illness

My relationship with Joe had always been a bit awkward. We would occasionally meet for coffee; sometimes, he would unexpectedly drop by my office to talk. Joe had a deeply inquisitive mind, and was keenly interested in the Scriptures. I could count on him having questions for which I often didn’t have the answers. No matter; Joe was ready to follow the next train of thought wherever it led. Our conversations ranged far and wide. They could be quirky, but never dull.

But eventually, it was time to go. I needed to head home, or go teach a class. And my parting from Joe would always follow a similar script. I would tell him in advance when I would need to leave, and it was difficult to tell if what I said registered. He didn’t respond. He just kept going with the present conversation.

A few minutes later, I’d repeat that I needed to leave soon. A minute or two later, I would stand up — and he would remain seated, still talking. I would take a few steps away, slowly, and he would stand and follow, still talking. It was not until I forcefully interrupted the conversation, looked him squarely in the eye, and said, “Joe, I have to go now” that it would sink in. He would fall silent, stare at me for a second, then spin on his heel and walk away without a word.

Was he angry at me? I don’t think so. Was he being rude? I don’t see it that way. Though I hesitate to use diagnostic language, I suspect that Joe suffered from Asperger Syndrome, a neurological condition on the autism spectrum. People with Asperger’s have difficulty picking up on and responding appropriately to the social cues that non-Aspergians take for granted. Because of this, they can come off as strange and out-of-sync, frequently rubbing people the wrong way.

Joe, in many ways, was quite “high functioning.” Unfortunately, though, he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

Recently, his wife invited me to speak at his memorial service: to tell the truth, but in as balanced and sensitive a way as possible. I listened as others before me spoke. They told fond stories of Joe’s quirks, hinting around the edges at deeper and more painful feelings.

Then it was my turn. I spoke honestly but lovingly of my experience of Joe. I specifically stayed away from the term “Asperger’s,” and instead spoke of how some people struggled mightily with social cues. Could we understand Joe that way, as someone who had psychological challenges, but loved Jesus and was loved by him in return? Many heads nodded. And I know from my conversations with the family after the service was over that their perspectives of Joe had begun to shift in a positive and healing way.

Sometimes, in my ministerial role, and especially at memorial services, I find myself as both an insider and an outsider at the same time. As an insider, I may be personally connected to the deceased, and have my own stories to tell. As an outsider, however, I am not a part of the family. I do not directly share their loss, their pain.

But I also do not share the same strictures on what I can safely say. And with that extra leeway, I can sometimes say things that the family has a hard time saying for themselves.

Like bringing up the subject of mental illness.

It must be done gently, because there is always the risk of stigma. But there’s also the possibility of new insight and understanding. Some Aspergians speak of the tremendous relief they found in a formal diagnosis: Oh, that’s why I’m different. And there are other people like me.

Moreover, a diagnosis can shift how others judge the person who suffers the illness. What once were seen as character defects become symptoms of a neurological struggle instead. Thinking, “He’s angry again, and I didn’t do anything” leads to one response. But thinking “He’s trying to quiet the chaos in his brain” can lead to a more patient and charitable one.

I know: it’s difficult to speak honestly and compassionately of mental illness in many congregations and families. But sometimes, as pastors, we need to help people find the words. 

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