On Being Sane in Insane Places

By Never Going Back

In college I was required to study a book by Lauren Slater called "Opening Skinner's Box." One of the chapters called, "On Being Sane in Insane Places," discusses a psychiatric experiment performed by Dr. David Rosenhan and his friends and colleagues from around the country in the early 1970's. If I remember correctly, the experiment was to see just how well psychiatrists could distinguish between the truly insane and those merely posing as such. A "patient" would admit him or herself into an asylum and claim to be hearing a "thud." This "thud" was the only odd thing about them. There were no other distinguishing characteristics that would give them away in their everyday life. Without a hitch, each of the eight patients were deemed crazy despite the fact that in every other way, they would be considered healthy and sane.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how this experiment compares to my sixteen year relationship with Jesus and the "saints." These otherwise normal people were labeled insane simply for hearing a "thud," and yet Christians and religious people can claim to hear the voice of God, angels, demons and the like and are considered healthy individuals by friends, families and the professional community.

What? Are we serious?

A Christian can writhe on the floor, babble in "tongues," pray to the ceiling and swear they are getting a response, even if the answer is "No," take a book chock full of fiction, parables and proverbs and claim it to be the very breathed word of God, be martyred for their dead man-god, obsess their whole life over original sin, convert heathen around the world with the threat of a fiery hell, and we continue to allow them to walk around in the free world?

When mental patients claim to hear voices, they are deemed nuts and given the appropriate dosage of psychotropic drugs. When a Christian claims to hear the voice of God, the community holds him up to be a prophet. When a mental patient begins babbling, we laugh him off and assign his odd behavior to his condition. When a Christian babbles in an "unknown tongue," we praise God for him being "baptized in the Holy Spirit." When a mental patient claims to see visions, we lock him up, but a Christian thinks it completely logical for Jacob to have wrestled with an angel and to have seen a ladder reaching all the way up to Heaven with angels ascending and descending.

Stepping into church near the end of my coming out experience was very uncomfortable for me. I felt like one of Rosenhan's experimental patients hoping to not be detected for what I really was while I was there: a fake. Standing there and mouthing the words to the age-old hymns, watching the display of greed by the pastors and gullibility by the parishioners, cringing at the sight of grown men and women shaking their tambourines and writhing on the floor, foaming at the mouths and crying hysterically, I couldn't help but to feel sane in an insane place. Luckily, for me, the gig is up, but just like with Rosenhan's patients, I was never detected, I gave myself up.

It's a relief to be free of that asylum now, but I wonder how many others are trapped behind the doors of that mental institution begging to get out and just how many fakes go undiscovered every week.

I am healthy now. I am sane. The doctors are always trying to tell me otherwise, but I know better. The "thud" is gone, and in its place is the voice or rationality. Like John Nash, I have learned to discern the difference between reality and fiction and am living a fairly functional and productive life, this side of the barbed wire.

Thank "God."

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