Sunday, October 14, 2012

On "Airbrushing" Sin: "Contemporary Faith" Takes Psychology Back 50 Years.

Fresh ink yesterday. In weighing my male companion options, or lack thereof, I informed Luke that he would be accompanying me to The Tattoo Factory yesterday afternoon. (The neighborhood's not nearly as scary during the day, and much easier to park/navigate, with Luke as my wingman.) The studio nearly empty, and with a big sign on the door saying "No One Under 18 Allowed," I waltzed in with my 12-year old anyway. They're SO nice at the Factory that they let Luke sit on a stool right beside me as I got the tattoo, which took a good hour or so. It's a cliche, an overused term, but my son actually DID throw up a little in his mouth when he was watching the whizzing needle interject permanent ink into my skin. (I think, at that point, he turned up his iPod to avoid the noise. And he was a little pale and green.)  Luke thought this was a total impulse decision, when in actuality, I'd been thoughtfully planning Tattoo Two ever since I got my OM and cross in March.

I have a dictionary of sacred Sanskrit words, largely Hindu and Buddhist-based. For my tattoo, I decided on the word "Smriti," which is defined as the following:
"From the verb root smri ("to remember"). Translated as "memory," and "mindfulness." In the Yoga Sutras (Chapter 1, verse 20) Patanjali lists smriti, or mindfulness, as one of the five essential elements of the yogin's successful journey to self awareness."  
"The others are sraddha (faith or trust), virya (vitality or energy), samadhi (contemplation/integration) and prajna (wisdom/knowledge)." (Sacred Sanskrit Words, p 188)
Mindfulness and the concept of self-awareness in the changing of bad or negative schemas into healthy and positive schemas, whether that's by meditation, prayer, therapy, open's all one of the cornerstones of cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the many psychological theories I am studying in grad school and certainly, having been a CBT patient for several years, it has always meant something to me personally. And I certainly wasn't going to get a tattoo of Carl Jung's head. My son might call me crazy for "becoming a weird old tattooed lady" later in my life, but I have zero doubt that I'd ever regret any of my tattoos.

It's a little bigger and bolder than I originally anticipated, but no less awesome. It hurt a LOT more than the first tattoo, because it was deeper and far more detailed. The physical pain of this particular tattoo wasn't unlike the cold-blooded rush I'd feel when I would deliberately cut myself. It stings. Badly. I reached my hand out for Luke's but he was too busy not trying to throw up to be of much moral support. It's the thought that counts.


Every week, my church (part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) publishes a leaflet in the church bulletin called "Contemporary Faith." It's typically some societal hot-button issue like politics, or abortion, or the average Christian's defense against non-believers and saving them from the pits of hell. As per usual, I tend to disagree with whatever their weekly diatribe might be. Why was this week's literature any different?

It attacked, small-mindedly, and Pastor Dave agreed, the subject of "secular psychology." My profession. It's called "Airbrushing Sin." Effectively, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod regressed the taboo or stigma of mental health or mental illness back about 50 years. (Believe it or not, Pastor said that there are other synods within the Lutheran church more conservative than ours, who'd have long ago kicked my orthopraxic ass out the door for what I believe and practice. But Dave said, "We won't do that. We love you." Furthermore, it wasn't *me* who was checking the microphones by saying "OM" into them over and over again, Pastor...)

When I first read the leaflet, I was highly agitated and brought it up with my guitarist, Jake, who's VERY Biblically driven and reverent towards God and the church. Barring any sort of concept of the purpose and value of psychological counseling, which isn't his fault, he said something like, "Can't you just tell the patient what the Bible says they should do? Or remind them about Jesus?"

In a word, NO. I can't. Why not, you ask? Because unless I declare myself , further in my career, as being a Christian-based clinical practitioner, my religious views have absolutely no place in the therapy room. It's irresponsible and unethical practice. If a client has an emergent issue of faith, or wants to discuss something about his/her religion, the most honest thing I can do, if I'm not a Christian counselor, is to refer them out to someone who is well-versed in applying Biblical principles to the foundation of counseling. I can exhibit an understanding of and compassion towards a client of ANY faith, but I cannot, again, ethically, impose my personal religious views on my clients.

As my Psychotherapy professor was telling us, she is a practicing Christian herself, unashamedly, and has had clients who've asked her to pray with them. She can't. She politely tells the client that if he/she wants to pray, she will quietly listen but will not participate. That's sound practice, regardless if she is a Christian or a non-Christian.

In "Airbrushing Sin," the reading Lutheran is no-doubt frightened and erroneously considered to be a committing a sin by statements like this:
"One of the more subtle yet growing threats that often goes unnoticed and, for many, becomes an alternative to Christianity is secular psychology...Our concern however is that it be Christian counseling, growing of a Biblical understanding of human beings: everyone is plagued by sin and its consequences; everyone needs to know Jesus as Savior from sin; everyone must know what forgiveness is and how it relates to self-understanding and self-esteem."

Further, the faith leaflet proceeds to literally provoke or incite fear of doing something wrong into the average Lutheran, by implying that  mental illness and defect is really just plain "sin. " Specifically noted were "neuroses, compulsive behaviors and character disorders." While the paragraph below doesn't overtly imply anything, it explicitly says that the need for Christian psychologists outweighs that of those of us who look upon our profession a a science. That being said, the whole reason I went into psychology was because I felt it was my calling from God,  to help others facing the same sicknesses from which I suffer. Psychological counseling is a science as much as it a spiritual tool, as counselors help clients navigate the vast conundrums in their lives in the most effective way possible.
"The methods of psychology, of analysis and counseling, can be used properly and acceptably in the hands of understanding Christians who are well versed in the Bible and especially if they know the fundamental biblical teachings of sin and grace. We need to train more Christian psychologists and social workers (as well as pastors and teachers) who know who we are and what God through Jesus Christ has done, so that we do not airbrush sin but confront it and cope with it." 
In talking it over with Pastor Dave, I did understand that the viewpoint (about which I agreed) was very narrow-minded and poorly executed as "advice" for the contemporary Christian. Hey, chickie babies, if you want to see a Christian-based counselor or pastoral counselor, by all means, see one. If you want someone with whom you can spend your therapy time debating God and Satan and Heaven and hell, it's your time and money. Just don't walk into my office and expect, though I will acknowledge your faith and God and Jesus and all, and expect me to impose my personal value system upon you, regardless of how strongly I feel about Christ.

I am a member of the American Counseling Association. They composed a code of ethics in 2005 by which ALL practicing counselors, both students and the degreed, MUST follow, ethically and legally. It's sound practicality. Below are just a few snippets of the American Counseling Association 2005 code of ethics by which I MUST abide:
A.4.b. Personal Values
Counselors are aware of their own
values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors
and avoid imposing values that are inconsistent with counseling
goals. Counselors respect the diversity
of clients, trainees, and research participants.

B.1.a. Multicultural/Diversity
Counselors maintain awareness and
sensitivity regarding cultural meanings
of confidentiality and privacy.
Counselors respect differing views
toward disclosure of information.
Counselors hold ongoing discussions
with clients as to how, when, and
with whom information is to be

C.5. Nondiscrimination
Counselors do not condone or engage
in discrimination based on age, culture,
disability, ethnicity, race, religion/
spirituality, gender, gender identity,
sexual orientation, marital status/
partnership, language preference, socioeconomic status, or any basis proscribed
by law. Counselors do not discriminate
against clients, students, employees,
supervisees, or research participants
in a manner that has a negative
impact on these persons.
So there you have it. "Secular psychology" isn't a vehicle used by Satan in order to usher away Christians from their respective faiths. To use such a glib term as "airbrushing" mental illness as being the product of sin. What a gross insult. If my client comes in and asks me, "Why do I have schizophrenia?" I'm most certainly *not* going to tell him/her it was because Adam and Eve irretrievably screwed things up in paradise, thereby condemning all future generations to original sin. If, in the context of that therapy, the client draws on his/her faith, I can expound through self-disclosure up until a certain point, or have empathy towards that individual's struggle, but I just can't call a client out as being a "sinner" and passing that off as being the origin of a mental disease diagnosis.
While I am a member of a division of the ACA on Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling, as well as a member of the divisions of Creativity in Counseling and Addiction and Defender Counselors, when creating my curriculum vitae last week, my advisor urged me to remove such affiliations from my CV. I still don't understand why or how that relates to my "employability" for next semester's Community Service Practium, when I think it shows that I'm a well-rounded student counselor. But I suppose it goes back to the separation of ethics in responsible practicing in counseling and the threat of imposing my personal values up on those whom I work with or treat in the future.

But for the Lutheran church to reduce mental illness as a sin? That's utter lunacy. The old guy in the congregation who slipped in a puddle of water and broke his hip didn't break his hip because he's a sinner. I see no clear dichotomy between treating mental or brain diseases any differently than repairing a broken bone. Neuroses, character disorders (which I guess you could lump bipolar into) and OCD's are all as much medical conditions as they are mental illnesses.

It's such a huge leap backwards for the stigma of mental healthcare that any less-than-"mindful" Christian could read and, if in therapy, begin to question whether or not the therapist was making a sin-endorsing proclamation in his/her therapy treatment. It could be the catalyst for any number of theoretical disagreements, introduces an element of distrust between the counselor and the client, and lays out an agenda in which the client becomes a "victim" in need of "saving," if one is inclined to believe what's total crap that sin is the origin of illness. Yes, illness sucks in any form. But one of God's many blessings has been the development of scientists (medical and mental) who can diagnose, treat and care for sick people. Practicing medicine or psychology is referred to as being in a "helping profession," I guess a lot like a minister, but with a totally different bent.

Ethics are tricky. Someone I know sees a social worker as her therapist. (Don't even get me started--social workers' jobs are to reintegrate the less fortunate or socially/mentally inept into becoming productive members of society, not to perform long-term psychotherapy. They're not licensed psychological counselors. Good Lord.) This social worker tends to impose her own personal judgments and theories (both mental and physical) onto her clients. From what I understand, she is the Queen of Countertransference. She went so far as to reduce the client's ear ringing, depression and other medical problems as being sourced by an overgrowth of candida yeast in the client's GI tract. A) She has no business imposing medical advice in order to reconcile mental illness or the symptoms thereof. B) Let's say something goes horribly awry in the client's body and, God forbid, she gets really ill as a result of following the social worker's "candida removing advice." What's that social working looking at in that scenario? A BIG, FAT, HUGE MALPRACTICE SUIT.  "But my social worker told me to..." sets a stage for an ethical and legal bitchslap towards that social worker that could result in the removal of her licensure.

The same can be said of "secular" psychologists. If my client comes to me with aspirations to quit smoking, and my advice, though well-intended, ultimately lands my client with a case of lung cancer? That can be construed as being MY fault. I think the mere moniker of "secular psychologists" gives us a bad rap in the first place. There is and never will be anything wrong with employing the science of psychology into counseling practice. As a clinician, I will be respectful and understanding about my clients' faiths. I am well-versed in not only Christianity, but also several other world religions, all of which I respect and wouldn't deliberately deny those believers in an attempt to convert them to Christianity. That's not for what they're paying me an hourly rate. The counselor is an ideally unbiased party who has nothing emotionally vested in the client's life other than to teach them practical skills to change maladaptive behaviors, to comfort, to being a sounding board, to dissect conflict and NOT TO JUDGE.

As we were taught on the first day of Psychotherapy Skills class, our job is to "listen with our hearts." That's certainly true. With the ACA code of ethics in the backs of our minds, we have to maintain neutrality and act in the manner best serving of the client, who was brave enough to come to you for help in the FIRST place, while employing empathy, compassion and a listening ear, capable of reflecting back to the client thought-provoking and behavior-altering suggestions and assistance.

Shame on this article's author for implying the equation of mental illness with that of sin. Unless I have a strong rapport with that client, we've established a relationship and THEN this client chooses to employ his/her religious beliefs into our counseling environment, I cannot and will not impart my personal values onto my clients. Therapy isn't a Benny Hinn faith-healing spectacle. It's a dialog between a couple of people (or a family) who've come to you because the therapist has specific training and expertise/competency with which to help heal the wounds of the mind and soul which cannot be remedied by medications alone.


Lorri said...

So I'll send folks your way for counseling, and you can send any to me who want to explore/pray how God is at work in their lives in the midst of it. Sounds like a win-win to me! :)

Andrea Miklasz said...

That does sound like a win-win to me, Lorri! I'll just make sure all of my progress notes are written in Sanskrit.

Don't misunderstand me; I'd love nothing more than to witness or speak to my clients on their own spiritual level and assist them with their journeys walking beside God.

I just can't, either ethically or legally. I have to remain neutral, fair and impartial. Plus, I'd like to keep my malpractice premiums down to a minimum. :)

Lorri said...

I get that . . . and reading over your post has really helped solidify that counseling, at least for right now, isn't the direction where I'm being called. But you'll do a great job at it, and I'm glad that the specialized help that you're training for will be available for those who need it.

Andrea Miklasz said...

Thanks, Lorri. It ain't all bubbles and butterflies..not with my target population...but we shall see.

Anonymous said...

I love your tattoo and the idea behind. In Sanskript there are several ways to write mindfulness so how did you know which one to choose? I plan on getting the word mindfulness tattooed as well.

Andrea Miklasz said...

Thanks very much. In the cold Chicago weather, I sort of forgot I had the big tattoo, which would've come in handy, because too often, I forget to be mindful. When spring actually springs, I'm sure I'll be in a much calmer mind set altogether.

The definition and illustration of "mindfulness" in Sanskrit came from a book, "Sacred Sanskrit Words: For Yoga, Chant and Meditation," by Leza Lowitz and Reema Datta, 2005. Available on Amazon.

Anonymous said...

That is one BADASS tattoo. Looks fantastic! You should post pics of all of your ink.

Courtney P said...

Hi Lorri,

I've been looking all over the internet for the perfect representation of the Sanskrit word smriti for my next tattoo, and what you have is exactly what I'm looking for. I love it. I was wondering if you have the image of what you used for the tattoo artist handy. Figured it wouldn't hurt to ask before I go find a Sanskrit dictionary at a bookstore.

Thank you! My e-mail is courtneynp [at] gmail.

Andrea Miklasz said...


See above comments on where to get the book with the Sanskrit word in it. There is an illustration, if you haven't already gotten the tattoo.