05/16/2012 05:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Beast of Mental Illness


After countless yards of duct tape, a few bodily injuries, and many false starts, I finally finished him. My creation. My vision of Daniel's vision. The beast.

A few months ago musician and seminarian Phill Eason asked me to make a prop for a musical. But this was not your average musical. This was funkadelic, other-worldly, and really, truly extraordinary. In part, because it used cosmic, apocalyptic images from scripture. In part, because it was set in a modern-day mental-health ward.

Summer before last Phill ministered to folks hospitalized with acute mental illness. That same summer he was writing songs based on the biblical book of Daniel; a book about an exiled hero who faced many battles and beasts of his own.

After long days ministering with those in the hospital, Phill spent his nights scratching down lyrics to off-beat tunes. What emerged was the musical Daniel: End of Days.

I had confidence Daniel would be well executed. Phill was a gifted musician with a creative spirit, talented cast, and committed crew. Not only that, but all proceeds from Daniel were going to benefit the New Jersey branch of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Good music + apocalyptic scripture + advocacy for an important cause = something I could get behind. How? Apparently by creating a massive beast. That was my task. And I was totally into it.

I knew mental illness can be a real beast. As the late Maurice Sendak put it, these wild things "roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible claws."

I've cared for those living in the very belly of the beast: those suffering from debilitating depression, unwilling or unable to find proper care; those struggling with paranoia and panic; those self-medicating because they can't afford treatment; those afraid that if someone finds out about their illness, their reputation will be ruined and they may lose their job.

I've sat with others when they slip into that dark, wild, terrible place. I know the feeling of the horrible helplessness, when it seems there's nothing more to do. I'm all too familiar with the beast of mental illness and its minions of stigma and shame.

I even knew some of the beasts personally. Depression. Anxiety. Attention Deficit Disorder.

I've learned ordinary words can't speak into some kinds of suffering. Plain prose can't reach those in the bottom of the pit. Something else is needed. Something like a song. Something like a musical.

For all these reasons, I was fiercely committed to my charge, and commenced Operation Make-A-Beast.

I stapled, stuffed, pasted, pulled, crammed, and crunched until the beast took form. And with every strip of paper, and every rip of duct tape, I prayed. With every cut, and every crumple, I prayed. I prayed for those without the medication and counseling they need. I prayed for those who are uninsured and underinsured. I prayed for those feeling trapped, fearful, hopeless, alone.

And I prayed for those who felt nothing at all. Just empty. Hallow. Numb.

Strip by strip, layer by layer, hour by hour, I prayed. I lamented. Hell, I even begged.

I begged for God to be The Healer. The One who makes a way out of no way. I begged for God's Spirit to break more fully into this world and be the Peace in the panic, the Calm in the storm, the Tamer of the beast.

I held vigil with the beast for several days and two sleepless nights. And on Sunday May 6th, 2012, he made his grand entrance. It was the final act of the show -- a parade scene.

Following three other apocalyptic creatures, the beast and I rolled on a dolly cart towards the front of the audience. All the while, I joined the cast in singing, "If this is the end of days, somebody ought to be having a parade..." Once up front, I took it all in.

Beasts and drumbeats, mental wards and music, scriptures and songs, all mysteriously mingled together. Crew and cast, musicians and audience, all sang with one voice in the face of the large beast. It was as though we were making a collective pronouncement, "Know this beast: You will not win in the end."

For me, it was an "apocalyptic" moment. Hidden things were uncovered. Secrets were revealed. Strange and holy things were made plain.

In that moment I had a sneak peek of that final, end-time heavenly parade; that day when death and depression, panic attacks and pain, and illness of every kind will be no more. In that moment, I caught a glimpse of that day when we can freely laugh in the faces of our beasts, knowing they are nothing more than a paper tiger, a hollow prop.

But until that day comes, I will continue to seek new ways to prayerfully create, mindfully craft, and sing songs that defiantly spit in the face of the beasts we battle.