Book Review: Wrestling With Our Inner Angels - Faith, Mental Illness and The Journey to Wholeness by Nancy Kehoe
Wrestling With Our Inner Angels - Faith, Mental Illness and the Journey to Wholeness - by Nancy Kehoe – Jossey-Bass Publishers San Francisco, CA Copyright © by Nancy Kehoe 2009.
A Book Review by Bill Dahl
I cried, began to float, said “wow” and “aha,” wondered, was angered, dismayed and finally --- encouraged. This book is a barrier-busting contribution from a compassionate caregiver who has given her life to this work. I always find it fascinating that just when we think we have everything figured out, along comes an author who exposes our ignorance – shining light on and giving voice to an issue that we have relegated to the silence of the shadows. As another author has recently said, “When we reach the end of the bookshelf, it’s time to write another book.” As Kehoe demonstrates, the “end of the bookshelf” is simply an illusion, just as many of our attitudes, perceptions and knowledge about the relationship between faith, mental illness and a journey to wholeness.
Nancy Kehoe is a nun and a clinician whose work is well known with the mentally ill. She is also a clinical instructor in psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the Cambridge Health Alliance – an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.
The stories of Kehoe’s work with her patients is written in such a way that the reality - “patients are people” whose faith dimension in their lives (beliefs, history, values, practices, doubts, fears and experiences) is fundamental to the approach to their wellness. The history of mental health professionals, clinical psychology and psychiatry is one where patients have been fearful of even broaching the subject of sharing the faith dimension of their lives. Some professional caregivers have even stigmatized those who do as evidencing signs of even deeper and more complex “illness” than originally diagnosed. Thus, there has been a two-sided taboo about broaching this subject, let alone developing clinical approaches to explore it. As Kehoe writes, “Many who suffer from mental illness live with a personally defined “dual diagnosis: “mentally ill” and “sinner”; They have two “disorders.” --- Conversely, mental health professionals deal with the illness of the clients but not with their sense of sin.”(p.88). Whether one accepts the Judeo-Christian concept of “sin” or not, the universal human experience of guilt, shame, fear, having wronged another or self, coupled with the yearning for forgiveness, peace, acceptance, understanding and confession are paramount to the journey toward wholeness --- as this book clearly points out.
Kehoe’s work in this arena illuminates the terribly valuable essence of the following: “I have rethought the value of religious traditions. When they truly serve us, they take us out of ourselves and link us to something transcendent, fostering a new sense that we are part of a larger whole.” (p.87). It is my hope that this book with provide the essential “permission” to explore and incorporate the methods that Kehoe freely shares with us.
In a world that seems to be rather smug about our current state of intellectual prowess, and, in too many cases, “comfortable” about our worldview or what we think we know, Kehoe’s book provides a bridge to a place our ignorance and lack of courage has prevented us from going. This is a book that needs to be read, discussed and acted upon by further explorations into the necessity of developing clinical and therapeutic approaches to the mentally ill that embrace the realm of the spiritual life as essential to not only relief, healing and wholeness, but the prevention of certain forms and degrees of mental illness. As Kehoe succinctly points out:
“When the voices of parents, ministers, teachers and caregivers fall on the ears of people in a vulnerable position because of their illness, they have the potential to be as harmful as internal voices. The voices of others can limit us, define us and instill guilt and fear.” (p.104). Translation – This book is for you --- people who consider themselves “normal” or “healthy.” Buy it. Read it. It’s a heart-changing, mind rearranging story. The truths revealed in this book, particularly through the way Kehoe shares the stories of her patients, is riveting. This is a book about courage, hope and inspiration. As Kehoe writes in the final sentence of the work: “The voices of others can inspire us, encourage us, and give us hope.”
Well, that’s exactly the impact this book had on me. I recommend that you will choose to read this book and experience the same. Perhaps it may be through works like this that the “normal” will be changed sufficiently to revise their approach to “understanding the abnormal” --- and in doing so we can become more compassionate with one another --- bursting through the illusory taboos --- mythical barriers where our own smug ignorance prevents us from exploring.