A Sickness of the Spirit


Written by Tochi Onyebuchi.

My late father was deacon at our old church, and charming, and a member of numerous associations. Accordingly, ours was a Biblically-robust household. This was a worldview both he and my mother had brought with them from Nigeria. There are tribulations and there are blessings. Angels and Demons.

Demons in the Old Testament are an externality. But in the New Testament, exorcisms abound. In Matthew 4:23-25, Jesus performs: “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people. And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatick, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them. And there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan” (23-25, KJV).

The woman Jesus meets in Luke 13:10-17 has “a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bowed together, and could in no wise lift up herself” (11, KJV). Jesus lays a hand on her, and she is healed, made erect, cured of her lethargy. Of what looked to me, when I read the passage as an adult, like clinical depression.

Mental illness is captured by the language of the community. Among the greatest difficulties faced by those suffering from it is its indescribability. On one end lies purely clinical terminology: major depressive episode, hypomanic state, suicidal ideation. On the other lies analogy and metaphor and imagery: dark night of the soul, walking the Black Dog, riding on a pink cloud, wrestling the Leviathan. Une maladie de l’esprit. My Christian upbringing painted mental illness as something to be prayed away.

My mother is a nurse now. As she prepared to enter the profession, words like manic-depressive illness and borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia, depression and substance abuse, had acquired test-taking urgency and clinical understanding. Her work involves seeing the human condition in extremis. My first sister is also a nurse, and the youngest works in a crisis center where she is witness both to legion horrors but also a multitude of miracles.

The language of the King James Bible describes what appears to be mental illness in the language of terror, and the realm of medicine casts it in impersonal clinicalness. In each is a genre of terminological deceit.

My mother and I talk about mental illness differently now. It colonizes the body and the spirit. It implicates responsibility. It does not lend itself to empathy. No foot is amputated as with the severe diabetic. The body isn’t bombarded with radiation, as it would be for the person nobly battling cancer. The disease is invisible and so is the fight against it. And when no one around you understands the language being spoken while you’re in a manic or depressive or mixed state, a disease like bipolar disorder augments the crippling sense of loneliness experienced by sufferers. She knows this.

Where others may see willfulness and irrationality, selfish behavior and self-destructive acts, my mother now sees symptoms. Where others may see sloth and weakness, irritability and over-reaction, even exuberance, she now sees the opportunity for medicinal intervention. Where others may see demon possession, she now sees a lethal, incurable, terminal medical condition.

And sometimes, that is enough to raise me, like the woman in Luke Chapter 13, up out of sickness into a moment of health.

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