From Psychology to Psychiatry

After my first year of seminary, I married my best friend from college.  Paul was a seminary student as well.  He planned to be a church pastor.  But with his “radical” beliefs (consistent with mine), we knew that securing a pastorate was a long shot.

Paul and I both had to work to make ends meet.  My first jobs were at a health food restaurant, a book store and a clothing store.  Paul worked as a psychiatric aide at the State psychiatric hospital just outside of Louisville, Ky.   He worked with significantly impaired patients and with significantly abusive co-workers.  I admired his courage.

I hoped for more meaningful work that was also more lucrative, i.e. paid more than minimum wage.  During one of my daily reads of the want-ads, I ran across a position for a part-time psychiatric aide at a local private hospital.  It was very tempting, but I was fearful.  Could I deal with unpredictable, perhaps violent, individuals?  Paul encouraged me to give it a try.

Becoming a psychiatric aid was my first foray into the professional world, and I found it fascinating.  I assisted patients with illnesses that ranged from personality disorders to major depression to schizophrenia.  I took every opportunity to learn from doctors and nurses about psychiatric symptoms, causes and treatments.

A couple of experiences stand out as instructive for my future work.  One evening, a young woman was brought to the ward by the police.  She was so out of her head that she had to be physically restrained.  The woman had reported thoughts of putting her new born baby in the oven.  Her preliminary diagnosis was post-partum depression, with psychotic features.  The doctor called the staff into the lock-down room for assistance.  “Watch this,” one of the nurses said to me.  The doctor gave the woman tied down on the bed an injection of sodium pentothal.  In just a few minutes, the woman was sitting there having a cogent conversation with the doctor.  Wow!  I imagined her brain before drugs and after drugs.  Sometimes your brain on drugs is a good thing.  The woman was able to return to her baby in just a few weeks.

The second experience was my observation of an electroshock therapy session.  The patient was, like me, a seminary student.  He was deeply depressed and had grandiose religious delusions.  We had had some conversations on the ward about his religious views.  Sometimes mental illness draws upon what you believe to be true and amplifies it.  Now the student/patient lay unconscious, strapped down with electrodes connected to various parts of his body.  As the electricity was turned on, the nurse pointed to the man’s ankle.  His flesh was vibrating.  The room suddenly seemed very hot.  For the first time in my life, I thought I was going to faint.  I excused myself.

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Abnormal

In college, I majored in religion and in psychology. I found the subjects equally fascinating. With psychology, I was particularly intrigued by abnormal psychology — the study of why some of us, either occasionally or consistently, act outside the bounds of socially accepted behavior. As with any typical psych major, my family was the primary group on whom I applied my new found education.

Mama was in a fragile state for much of my college years. Her life fell apart when my stepfather disappeared with their 5 year old son, my half-brother. He picked David up from daycare and kept going.  Mama also lost her job at a local hotel. She moved in with her parents (Grandmama and Granddaddy to me) in their double-wide trailer.  Grandmama was very sick from decades of cigarette smoking and was not expected to live much longer. Granddaddy was a disabled WWII veteran.  These were, needless to say, very dark days.

Psychology was useful for me in understanding my dysfunctional family, but Mama did not take well to any psychological analysis. Nonetheless, to her credit, Mama pulled herself through the nightmare, relying in large part on the strength she found in her conservative religious beliefs.

Mama was determined to find my brother and to bring him home. She became a sleuth, sometimes wearing disguises to get the information she needed. Mama finally found David in Pensacola, Florida, where she and my stepfather had met. She brought David home, just in time to see Grandmama before she died. Mama soon found a new job and a new man, whom she later married.

I remember talking to Mama on the phone one night. I told her that none of my friends in college had parents who were divorced. “None?” she asked in disbelief. “None,” I confirmed. I was abnormal.

Changing the Fundamentals

I was only 17 years old when I left home for college. I was not well-traveled, well-read or well-coiffed, but I did have determination, strength of character, and an open heart and mind. Well, my mind was at least partially open. Having an open mind was not something encouraged by my family or my church.

I was a self-proclaimed fundamentalist. Prior to Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority, fundamentalists were suspicious of Southern Baptists.  Based on my experience, they had good reason to be suspicious, for my values and thinking were challenged head-on at Carson-Newman, a Southern Baptist College.

My professors, and at least some of my classmates, challenged my black and white worldview, pushing me to think more critically about how Christian values play out in the world.  I was introduced to men and women of incredible faith who had sacrificed everything to empower others.   I began to see the civil rights and the women’s movements in a new light, bringing into focus the cruel injustices that inspired a generation of activists, as well as the now unacceptable prejudices of my home community. I embraced feminism and, ironically to some, discovered the feminine face of God.

In addition, I discovered explanations for the inexplicable, most notably in the area of psychology.  I learned how the experiences in our childhood shape our personality and our worldview; how the brain is a mysterious machine that can tragically malfunction; and how social groups shape beliefs and actions.   And while such discoveries have led some to question the very existence of God, I found reassurance in the recognition of the equalizing effect of the frailty of the human condition.

By the time I left Carson-Newman, my sense of calling had been refined. I would not just serve others, but I would serve the poor, the dispossessed, the “least of these” — whoever they are.