Tuesday, June 28, 2016


Paranoid schizophrenia is one of the most devastating conditions that a person can have, and it's far more common than you might think. It affects one out of a hundred Americans, and its victims can even include children. It can be even harder to endure if the person who has it is unlucky enough to have loved ones who believe, as I used to, that this well known condition is actually demon possession. 

Here are six things I tried that were not only unhelpful, they needlessly prolonged the suffering of the person involved: 

  • Telling the person that they are demon possessed.
  • Telling them they need to get right with God.
  • Telling them that taking anti-psychotic medications will hinder their relationship with God.
  • Fasting and praying and telling them to fast and pray.
  • Arranging for an exorcism.
  • Suggesting mega-vitamin therapy or some other "natural" treatment. 


Q. Why shouldn't you tell a person with schizophrenia to get right with God?
A. Because paranoid schizophrenia is not a punishment handed out by God. It's a biological condition that can happen to anyone, and its symptoms respond to treatment.

Q. My pastor says that the voices and visions and shaking limbs are demons. 
A. Your minister means well, but he is misinformed. Persons with schizophrenia exhibit well-documented symptoms, and these symptoms respond to treatment. Besides, there is no medically documented evidence of demon possession.

Q. My pastor says that anti-psychotic drugs don't really work; they just make the person stoned so they won't be as bothered by the demon possession. 
A. Again, he is misinformed. Newer medications are even more effective and don't make the person feel drugged. You might be surprised to know that many people with schizophrenia, once properly treated, have been able to make happy, productive lives for themselves, lives that include rewarding careers, love, friends, and family. Read Elyn Saks' memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey through Madness.
Q. Shouldn't we fast and pray and arrange for an exorcism, just in case? 
A. You can if you like, but anti-psychotic medications and therapy work much better, because this is a biological condition, not demon possession; besides, people have been known to suffer physical harm and even death caused by over-zealous exorcists. Read about documented instances of this in Dr. Paul A. Offit's book, Bad Faith.

Q. Anti-psychotic drugs are made from chemicals. Aren't there alternative remedies available?
A. Everything is made from chemical elements (including us).  As humorist and musician Tim Minchin notes, "You know what they call alternative medicine that works? Medicine."

Here are six things you can do that will help:

  • Take them to a competent medical doctor or a hospital emergency room and have them tell the doctor what they are feeling and thinking. The doctor will readily recognize this condition and can help them.
  • Encourage them to take the medicine just the way the doctor prescribes it.
  • Once they are stabilized, encourage them to meet with therapists. These folks can help them in a number of ways.
  • Encourage them to stay connected with others, and by that I mean others who care about them and understand that they are suffering from a biological condition. 
  • Maintaining a close relationship with a person who suffers from schizophrenia can be difficult. Consider joining a support group yourself.
  • Educate yourself about the disease. Here is an excellent place to start.And here's another: Elyn Saks's TED Talk.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

In the News: Vaccines & How to Tell Good Science from Pseudo-Science

The question of whether to vaccinate children should have been settled long ago. But many today see a correlation between vaccinations and autism that makes them think vaccines cause autism.  How can we know that it doesn't? 

This week's The New Yorker magazine prints the text of Atul Gawande’s commencement address at the California Institute of Technology, on Friday, June 10th. Gawande explains reasons for our tendency to mistrust science and suggests ways to test whether science is good or or bad (pseudo-science).

He also acknowledges that once pseudo-science gets a toehold in popular culture, it’s very difficult to refute it. But, he says, we can point out why the scientific community doesn’t think vaccinations cause autism:

People are prone to resist scientific claims when they clash with intuitive beliefs. They don’t see measles or mumps around anymore. They do see children with autism. And they see a mom who says, “My child was perfectly fine until he got a vaccine and became autistic.”

Now, you can tell them that correlation is not causation. You can say that children get a vaccine every two to three months for the first couple years of their life, so the onset of any illness is bound to follow vaccination for many kids. You can say that the science shows no connection. (emphasis mine)

I was vaccinated as a child in the 1960s because my father was not a member of the fundamentalist church that I was raised in. Still, for a long time I believed what my church taught, and when my children were born I did not have them vaccinated—at first.

But I eventually learned that the eradication of diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, polio, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), measles, mumps, and rubella was mostly because of vaccinations.  There are risks associated with vaccines, but the benefits of an adequately immunized society far outweighs those risks--except for certain children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. We put those children at risk when we refuse immunizations for ourselves or our children.

Gawande's text includes a link where you can learn more:  IMMUNIZATION SAFETY REVIEW

Sunday, June 12, 2016

IRS Publication 502 (2015): What Medical Expenses Are Includible?

IRS Publication 502 (2015)
What Medical Expenses Are Includible?
"You can include in medical expenses fees you pay to Christian Science practitioners for medical care."

* * * * *

Q: What sort of medical care does a Christian Science practitioner provide? 
A: Christian Science Practitioners practice a sort of argumentative prayer. The prayer argues that disease does not really exist, since God is good and would never have created anything that was not good. You have to pay for these prayers, but you can use pre-tax dollars to do it.

Q: What? Why would the IRS allow payments for prayer as an includible expense? 

Adults may rely solely on prayer when they are sick because they are old enough to choose to live (or die) with the consequences. But they don't have that right on behalf of their minor children, because children are too young to assume the consequences, even if they think otherwiseChildren can and do die or are disabled when their parents reject appropriate medical care on their behalf. 

When public funds (Medicaid and Medicare*) pay for "spiritual healthcare" and the tax code permits taxpayers to use pre-tax dollars to pay for a Christian Science practitioner's prayers for their healing, the United States government is endorsing prayer, especially the prayer of Christian Science practitioners, as a legitimate form of medical care. 

A government must serve the best interests of its citizens, especially those who are most vulnerable. When it suggests, implicitly or explicitly, that prayer is a legitimate form of medical care, it unwittingly supports parents in rejecting competent medical care for their children. 
*The Affordable Care Act does not pay for prayers.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Karen and Harriet

My Aunt Karen was born with a muscle wasting disease that the doctors said was like Muscular Dystrophy, but for some reason they couldn't name it that. They told my grandparents that she would probably not live beyond the age of seven, a prognosis they later changed to age sixteen. My grandparents did everything they could to give her a good life, taking her to medical specialists, revival meetings for healing prayers, and always providing a happy, positive, and energetic environment for her grow up in. When she was fifteen, they became interested in the teachings of a particular church. Its ministers told them that God promised to heal the sick and that Karen could be healed. Although the church normally only baptized adults, Karen was baptized at the age of fifteen. Then the ministers anointed her with oil and prayed for her healing.

She wasn't healed, but she didn't die at age sixteen, either. She graduated from high school and opened her own business, typing papers for college students from the schools near their north Portland home. Her reputation for speed, accuracy, and reasonable rates brought her plenty of work, and she was soon on the schools'  "Blue Book" lists. This meant that she typed only theses or dissertations of graduate students. Her business thrived and her general health remained stable over the next twenty years until her late thirties or early forties when she was hospitalized with diverticulitis. As a result of having her wrist and hand immobilized for an IV line, she lost the ability to type, which forced her to close her business. She told me how humiliating it felt for her to apply for Social Security Disability, which she referred to as “going on Welfare.” But she remained interested in life, kept busy with various hobbies, and always looked for ways to be useful to others despite gradually declining health and increasing discomfort.  She died of breast cancer in 1998, four days before her fifty-fourth birthday.

I was at the public library one day in 2005 when I came across a new book, Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life, a memoir by Harriet McBryde Johnson. Like Karen, Johnson was born with a muscle wasting disease, and she grew up thinking that she would die young. But she decided at that if she was going to die young, she might as well die doing something that was important to her, beginning with going to kindergarten. She became an attorney and joined the fight for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Along the way she discovered many others like herself, people with muscle wasting diseases who also lived "too late to die young,” most of them living into their fifties. Harriet died when she was almost fifty-one. Unlike Karen, Harriet was an atheist. She never asked to be healed.

After Karen's death we told each other how her doctors had said she would die young, and we said how thankful we were that God had extended her life. When you want to believe something, it's only natural to interpret events to fit those beliefs. There’s even a name for it: confirmation bias. But the more I thought about the last fourteen years of Karen's life, the harder it was to reconcile the idea that a loving, merciful God had prolonged her life by decades only to let her suffer the indignities of a colostomy, increasing and continuous pain, a loss of financial independence, and struggles with depression before she finally died of breast cancer.

It seems more likely that Karen had the same type of muscle wasting disease that Harriet McBryde Johnson had. Not everyone in my family agrees with me about this. They think that God had some higher purpose that we can’t comprehend, and that "everything happens for a reason." That’s comforting if you don't think too hard about what "everything" is. It’s not that everything happens for a reason; it's that sometimes terribly unreasonable things happen. And despite what it says in the Book of Job, there not much to be gained by thinking that it’s God’s will.

What does all this have to do with children whose parents deny them medical care? It's just this. There's simply too much ambiguity about purported instances of healing for parents to put their faith in prayer to the exclusion of seeking competent medical care for their children. If you think that Karen's extended life was an answer to prayer, how do you explain Harriet McBryde Johnson's additional years (which, incidentally, were far healthier than Karen's)? And what of the many others, like Harriet, who also lived too late to die young? The simpler answer is that the doctors were mistaken, not realizing in the 1940s and 1950s that some strains of muscle wasting disease don't kill people when they are young. And if there was no healing, there was also no divine refusal to heal, or lack of healing because someone lacked faith.

If God is good, why would He ever want to see your child needlessly suffer or die? No God worthy of worship would demand such a thing, especially of a child. How can we?

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Call for Personal Stories--II

Readers, do you have stories about your experience in a church that teaches its members to avoid medical care?  Please share them here, especially those that involve children. Make them as long or as short as you like, just so they stick to the subject of faith healing and the avoidance of medical care. I am also interested in sharing stories about group pressure to avoid medical care.

Please note that this is not a forum to run down any church, its leaders, or its members, including any parents who may have denied a child medical care because of their faith. There are plenty of online forums where people can vent their feelings about negative experiences in various churches, but this is a forum to help parents free themselves to seek competent medical care for their children without worry that they are failing a test from God when they do so.

From my own background, I believe that churches who teach the avoidance of competent medical care are acting out of ignorance and terribly misguided good intentions.

Personal stories can help others find their way out of darkness by letting them know they are not alone, that their doubts about avoiding competent medical care are not wrong, that a church that proclaims spiritual authority over its membership in these matters has none. Personal stories can also be a way of redeeming what are otherwise just painful memories. If one child is saved from needless suffering and death because her parent reads about your experience, then you have redeemed that experience.

Friday, June 3, 2016

What Is This Blog About?

Hi, Everyone:

This blog is to help parents who feel trapped by their church's teaching that they should reject competent medical care in order to rely on God to heal their ill child. 

I grew up in such a church. It later moderated its teaching, saying that ministers should encourage members to trust God alone for their healing, but that members who sought medical care would no longer be excommunicated. But sole reliance on the prayer of faith was held up as the ideal, and there was pressure to live up to that. While I respect the sincerity of those I knew who believe this way, I long ago rejected the idea that a loving God would want parents to let their ill child needlessly suffer or die. 

If you are a parent with a seriously ill child, or if you are an ill minor being denied medical care because of your parents' beliefs, please reach out to someone you can trust to help you. 

Readers are invited to post personal stories about this in the comments below. Comments are moderated to the extent that none will be permitted that pressure parents to avoid medical care for their children. Shared personal stories can help parents understand that they are not alone, that while there may be consequences for rejecting your church's teaching to deny medical care to your child (or yourself), those consequences must be faced for the sake of your child.