Mary of Magdala, Seven Times Out of Her Mind

Eight years ago, this was the inaugural post on Unorthodox & Unhinged. In April of 2015, it inspired the Story District production of Unhinged: True Tales of Living with Mental Illness — first performed at Emmanuel Episcopal Church.

Mary of Magdala had her own name. She was attached to a town but not attached to any man. She was a woman of means –perhaps a weaver, a seamstress, a merchant.  We know not — only that she was NOT a prostitute. And out of her purse — she among others — paid the traveling expenses of the itinerant preacher – Jesus of Galilee.

Why?   Because she was a woman gone mad in seven different ways. Seven times she lost her mind. Seven times she got it back. Seven demons the Lord cast out. We do not know their names. But just imagine… Losing a home… Losing a child… Losing a lover… Losing your livelihood… Losing your friends…. Losing your anchor… Losing your soul….

Mary of Magdala is by far my favorite saint for so, so many reasons. But most of all she is my favorite saint because she loses her mind these seven times. Biblically speaking, Mary of Magdala gets hers back in just a few verses. But very truly I tell you, this is not how it usually goes. And how do I know this? I know this because, like my favorite saint, I have lost my mind five times. Five times I have found myself a patient at Dominion Hospital. Inside of three years I was admitted five times over. And it is that first time that I remember the most.

They do not lock you in on the cancer ward. They do not lock you in on the cardiac ward. But if there is something wrong with your brain, society believes you have to be restrained. Hearing the nurse turn the key in the lock that seals you off from the real world is surreal. And the truth be-told — a very small number of folks like me can be a danger – mostly to ourselves. And that is how I bought my ticket to Dominion. Having crashed and burned as rector of Holy Cross, I did not want to wake up anymore. So I answered all the questions and filled out all the forms. I handed over my shoelaces, belt and keys and then a psych tech led me to my bed. And on that bed, I prayed that my manic-depressive demons be cast out. Deeply depleted and despondent, I had no earthly clue how this would happen or how long it would take.

It took ten days.

I took a ten-day cruise on the luxury liner, the good ship Dominion. This is the itinerary. Wake up call at 6:00 am. Shower and dress by 6:30 am. Breakfast at 7:00 am. Community Meeting at 8:00 am. Group Therapy at 10:00 am. Psychiatrist at 11:00 am. Lunch at noon. Fresh air and exercise at 1:00 pm. Art therapy at 2:00 pm. Social worker at 3:00 pm. Yoga at 4:00 pm. Dinner at 5:00 pm. Free time from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm. Safety check at 9:00 pm. Off to bed at 10:00 pm.  Bed check, bed check, bed check every fifteen minutes. And then get up the next day and do it all again.

Believe it or not, I loved it. It was like heaven to me. I might as well have been staying at the Hilton — but not like any Hilton I had stayed in before. The meals were of course mediocre but I did not have to make them. The accommodations were basic but all I had to do was make my bed. The activities director choreographed all our days. Dinner companions, sparring partners, and newfound friends and foes were all provided – at no extra cost. All I had to do was show up. And showing up was just about all that I could do.

My first few days were a bit of a bipolar blur. I remember standing in line and getting little plastic cups with little colored pills. I remember eating with a spoon because I couldn’t be trusted with a fork. I remember chocolate milk being the highlight of my day. I remember trying to sleep when so many demons seemed to stay awake.

On a psych ward you are never alone. Surrounded by staff it can be a bit suffocating. There are psychiatrists, social workers, psych nurses, and therapists of every kind. There are EEG and EKG and ECT techs. There are orderlies dressed in white. There is a safety check every morning and a safety check every night. Three times a day you get escorted to the dining hall. Twice a day they strap your arm in a blood pressure cuff, listen to your heart with a stethoscope, and take your temperature. As if all our moods could be measured thus.

And then round and round we’d go to group after group. The room would change. The leader would be different. We’d sit in different places all with the same faces. Like a game of musical chairs, round and round we’d go with different melodies playing in our heads. Dizzy and disoriented, not knowing just where to stop.

Yes, it was all a bipolar blur, except for the art room. I could barely wait each day to go to the art room. There was no talking in the art room. There were no awkward therapeutic moments in the art room. There were no embarrassing secrets to reveal in the art room. While the group therapy rooms were claustrophobic, the art room was bathed in light. Most of the rooms on the psych ward were as dull as dishwater. Not so, the art room — it practically danced with color. And when I could barely string two words together, I could string beads in the art room. When I was sure that my brain was broken, I could make a collage in the art room. When I had no idea how dark my moods were, I could still color Crayola style in the art room. When I could barely pick myself up, I could pick up a paintbrush in the art room.

Discharged after ten days, the art room was no more. At least I thought it was no more. But I was blessed to spend the next ten days under the roof of a very dear friend. And the very dear friend had a church on the edge of the Rappahannock River. And the church had a watercolor class where I spent part of each of my days. My art supplies were simple indeed. I had three brushes, a plastic box filled with squares of paint, and a cup of water. I pulled a book off the shelf and it being a church it was filled with saints. So day after day, I painted the saints one after the other. It seemed just a bipolar exercise  — until I painted Mary of Magdala.  And so my favorite saint became the  patron saint of my moods and my madness.

Mary of Magdala lost her mind seven times and seven times she got it back. And so with me, five times I lost my mind  and five times I have gotten it back. I got it back by the grace of God, God’s gift of medicine, God’s gift of therapy, God’s gift of love. This is good news, good news indeed.

“Do not look for the living among the dead” the angel said and Mary of Magdala ran from the empty tomb to tell the others.

And as a “mental health” evangelist – like Mary of Magdala who came before me  – I am called to proclaim the same.

Pax vobiscum,


Mental Health Spirituality Storytelling The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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