Once upon a time, in the far depths of internet time, back when the Lynx browser was pretty much the standard, I signed up to be a ‘Humanist Priest of the Universal Church’ or some such.  Don’t ask me why, I think it was set up so that Americans could get tax-breaks.  Not much use for myself who (a) wasn’t American, nor (b) as a student wasn’t paying taxes at the time.  I printed off the certificate. laughed about it and forgot about it.

If only I’d known that I’d end up working on an ambulance I may well have paid extra (that is paid anything) to get the Advanced certificate.  Let me tell you why…

Every so often we get sent to ‘person behaving strangely’, sometimes this is an adult and sometimes it is a child.  When we reach the patient we are told, with a straight face nonetheless, that the patient is possessed by ancestors/spirits/demons*

*Delete as applicable.

Despite being (currently) an evangelical atheist, I have to take this sort of thing seriously, there is however a problem – our training guidelines pull us in two directions.


Direction one – We should respect the culture and traditions of our patients.

Direction two – We should never collude, or reinforce the delusions, of someone who is psychotic.

(Psychosis is defined as ‘irrational beliefs not shared by the patient’s traditions or culture)


You can see the problem that we have.

I have been to a thirteen year old boy who has been possessed by spirits and, when the police arrived, ran off like Linford Christie.  Of course they reckoned without the police van coming around the far end of the street.

I’ve been to a teenage girl who has been ‘protected’ from demons by some wall hangings, but that they may have found a way through and this is what is making her sick.

I’ve been to mothers who are channelling spirits in order to drive out the evil ancestors plaguing her daughter (who, unsurprisingly perhaps, has mental health issues).

I’ve been to evangelical Christian cults who have been trying to drive evil spirits out of their elderly relative by throwing salt at them.

I’ve been to countless people who have believed that they were possessed, and have had near superhuman strength to prove it.  I’ve seen them ‘levitate’ off beds despite their father sitting on top of them.  I’ve seen them running down the street naked, covered in their own excrement all in order to fulfil some direction from God.


So where do I stand?  Do I respect the culture and agree that ‘yes, it might be demons’, or do I not reinforce their delusions by reminding them that a urine infection can cause similar symptoms?  More importantly, where does madness end and religion begin?

38 thoughts on “Possession”

  1. Just want to say that I think you're response, or lack of one, was amazing. To recognise that in that particular circumstance it wasn't important what was causing her visions. I learned something from that. Thankyou

  2. I'm not really a very interesting person.Don't feel bad about that. My life is remarkable in the sheer lack of interesting/exciting people that I know and things that I see/do. Even my wife has more interesting stories to tell.

    Then again, I've met a well-respected session guitarist (Shane Fontane) because of my wife, so I'm not quite so boring any more.

  3. My ex-girlfriend (and her sister!) here in Sweden swore blindly to me that the reason for me having my mental health condition was that God was punishing me for Straying From His Chosen Path and that the Devil is responsible for causing mental illnesses – everything from mild depression to schizophrenia apparently. Now, in principle, I am usually all for respecting an individual's personal belief system but hello…….where does it end? Needless to say it was the final nail in the coffin of our relationship and subsequent counselling has hypothesised that one of the reasons for me becoming ill in the first place was the constant pressure applied by her religious fervour and adamant opinion that I was being possessed/punished by forces I apparently refuse to recognise! As if things aren't bad enough in society when it comes to stigma (worse in the UK)……..I'm sure they mean well but surely they should recognise when to back the hell off…..Thankfully there are professionals out there like Tom Reynolds who take a more humanist approach – “You unwell – me health care professional – priority = your well-being, regardless of how many levitating purple hedgehogs you see.” Nice one πŸ™‚

  4. It is indeed a very difficult line to tread!I am a student nurse and a Christian, and it's often hard to reconcile a lot of my job views to my personal views.

    For (a rather crude) example:

    I agree we should respect other people and their particular beliefs or faith, but as a Christian this can be hard because I believe other people are *wrong* when they want to respond in certain ways to events. That is to say *wrong* in the sense that it's not in line with what my faith makes me think is *right*.

    Then again, being a Christian can help when working with people who have different beliefs and faith, because there is a mutual understanding of the importance of faith in decision making etc.

    As for supernatual things (real or imagined) I don't think I'll ever know what to do.

    I know I believe in the spirit world and it's ability to affect things in our lives. I have experienced spiritual attack and have responded in prayer and seen changes. I've been ill and responded in prayer and been healed. I grew up with one leg shorter than the other, causing me alot of lower back pain. Last year, a man prayed for my leg and it grew! My legs are now the same length (previously there was about an inch difference) and the back pain has disappeared. I can't explain that, except to say God healed me. My nurse brain finds that difficult to be believe/understand, but I can't deny the evidence of my leg growing (I could feel it stretching), the measure tape that proves and the absence of pain.

    But I don't subscribe to the belief that every bad thing, every cough or cold or mental illness, is directly related to the spirit world and I definitely don't believe that everything is a punishment or judgement sent from God. The Bible doesn't say that, so why make it up?

    I guess it's all very grey.

    I don't have any answers, I don't think there are any.

  5. “mothers who are channelling spirits in order to drive out the evil ancestors plaguing her daughter (who, unsurprisingly perhaps, has mental health issues)”As you illustrate here, the trouble isn't just the person with beliefs/delusions, but the effect on the health of those they come into contact with.

    Here's my one: as a teenager, I was raped. One day less than six months later, I was out with my mum and a couple who were “friends of a friend” of hers, when I saw my rapist walk past. I had a panic attack and then fainted. The couple insisted I must be possessed and offered to arrange an exorcism. To shut them up, mum gave the very brief explanation I've just given above. This only made them more excited – they then decided I must be under evil influences to have “led on” the boy to have done such a thing, and should see their priest as a matter of urgency…

    Mum decided that “respecting their culture” was secondary to protecting her mentally vulnerable daughter from being seriously affected by having to hear any more of that rubbish.

  6. a Christian emailed me a while back after seeing that I was disabled and thinking that she would do me a favour by spreading the Word. I was daft enough to respond asking her to please, believe whatever she wanted, but not try and proselytise to me.Apparently this was the nicest response she'd ever had and so she said that she and her prayer group would pray for me to get better. She was very enthusiastic about this, writing personal emails and keeping up with my blog and all sorts.

    I'm not better, and neither are any of the other people from my support groups who have had similar experiences, family members praying for them, etc. There's one or two who weren't getting prayed for who have improved quite a bit, mind.

    Sometimes Things Just Happen, with or without divine intervention, is my reckoning.

  7. I can't believe they thought that was a fair response to what they'd been told?! That's just SO wrong.It's that sort of thing that makes people rubbish the spiritual world.

    Nobody that gets raped (abused, attacked, murdered…) did so because they “led on” someone to do it to them.

    Sorry, I'm just in shock that someone would say that to you. Stuff like that makes me embarrassed to believe in the spirit world because you might put in the same box as them. I want to apologise on their behalf, that is just ridiculous…

  8. Please don't think I'm trying to convert you, or whatever. It's not my style to jump right on into the mess of other people's lives. Even if they aren't a mess, me jumping in blabbing a way would surely create some!I don't think all things are changed through prayer. Otherwise, no one would be sick and no one would die. If prayer “worked” everytime then we'd all be doing it.

    Actually, I don't think all things we think to pray for, we should we pray for. There can be so much misunderstanding.

    I have a few Deaf friends, who would be grossly offended if I ever offered to pray for them. Who am I to say that their disability is a bad thing (maybe you view yours negatively, but alot of Deaf people don't)? And I wouldn't ever force that on anyone.

    I can't explain why I got healed (or however you want to view it), or why some people don't. And I know if someone told me it happened to them I'd find it hard to believe. I just know that I'm changed. Take it or leave it.

  9. Hi Tom,I find your blog very entertaining so I try to check my natural scepticism on the way in (yes I accept not always successfully) and go with a little artistic licence but without empirical evidence Im struggling big time with levitation. So please for the sake of my mental health, will you define levitation for me in the context of your blog?



  10. Very interesting question, I work on the PTS (short for Patients Transported in Shitheaps/on a Shoestring/in their own Shit – You decide, took a patient home the other day who claimed to have been psychic for 7 years and proceeded to tell me all the visions she'd experienced. Coincidentally she'd had cancer for 7 years which had now become quite aggressive leaving her with 2 years left to live. In her case i dont think it mattered wether she was mad as a box of frogs or about to be canonised because she seemed very at peace with her prognosis and the visions had made her unafraid to die. I considered the madness versus religion debate, having been dragged to chuch every sunday myself to watch fire and brimstone priests slowly unravel and was going to ask if the visions could be illness realated but i realised she didnt want my opinion and it wasnt important. She wanted to be made comfortable and listened to (a tad difficult with a noisy engine, speed bumps, and a partner who is very aware its nearly the end of the shift) only jokin he did a great job.PS Great Blog by the way

  11. No, I don't think you're trying to convert me, and I'm not trying to convert you πŸ™‚ just having a debate.My point was just that medical conditions improving without explanation can happen with or without prayer. Who knows what the deciding factor was, or even if there was one?

    Disability a bad thing… well, for me it's mostly cos I'm generally in a lot of pain. And probably also cos the first twenty-odd years of my life I was totally fit and healthy and active and now, well, I'm not, and that frustrates me. But I get what you mean – I know various people with disabilities (particularly who have had them since birth) who feel that the fact they're missing a hand or whatever is actually part of their identity, and if they could magically be “cured”, they wouldn't go for it cos they wouldn't feel like them any more.

  12. otherwise known as the “yes dear” approach, works in all areas of life…I suppose that's where EMTs, paramedics, you lot with the PTS and so on are onto a winner – you're not going to be involved with the patient for more than, what, an hour, tops?

  13. There must be some middle ground to take without making value judgements about a persons beliefs or sanity, and with all due respect I dont think you should be looking to make a commitment one way or the other while youre in the process of assessing their medical condition. Does it actually make a difference to way you treat them? If you arrive at the scene of an RTA where the driver was drunk does that affect the way you treat him? I doubt it. You probably keep your opinions to yourself and deal with the trauma, you remain clinical and professional but courteous – surely its no different if youre called to a possession.As for the where does madness end and religion begins” question, there is a very fuzzy line between the two. An atheist crashing into the World Trade Center would undoubtedly be considered mad and would be vilified by thousands of his own people. A terrorist does it in the name of God and he is a hero to his extremist cohorts. For the majority of the faithful be they Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, whatever, religion provides guidelines for living a happy, harmonious life but when you allow it to BE your life is when you slip towards madness.

    Tom, just keep on doing what you obviously do so well. I'll just keep taking the tablets.

  14. I agree, sometimes you just don't know.I've had patients get better all of a sudden with no obvious predisposing factor. Which is confusing, but wonderful.

    I've had patients die all of a suddent with no obvious predisposing factor. Which is confusing and can be heart-breaking. But then they all are- heart-breaking, that is.

    I was opposite to you. Twenty years of pain and now one year (so far!) without it. I would've let anyone help me. Pain was not what I wanted as my identity.

    Oh and I'm glad we're not converting each other πŸ™‚

  15. where does madness end and religion begin?Deep, man. Deep. (As we used to say in the Universal Church or whatever it was.)

  16. interesting to read this. my son is autistic and i read quite a few of the autism websites. there are some very scary stories of religious people of various persuasions trying to exorcise autistic children and adults. how terrifying this is for the autistic person cannot be imagined. i'm an atheist and i try to respect people's beliefs. however that respect hits a brick wall when those same beliefs are harming vulnerable people.

  17. I think that the religeon and religeous exceptions ends when the poo begins.Poo & fervent arm waver = a smelly mess.


  18. I agree with Hannah's comment “The Bible doesn't say that, so why make it up?” And to me that is the difference between religion and madness. Unfortunately most people don't actually knowwhat the bible says, and so anyone with a religious belief is regarded as mad or deluded.

  19. Do you mean you have actually seen patients float above their beds while someone is sitting on them?. That would be enough to convert nearly anyone.

  20. Hi TomHow beautifully you opened this debate and how well it has taken off and flourished without a hint of rancour, disrespect or attempts to convert. Great discussions here. Today, in my job, I spent time with 3 or 4 people all of whom have significant mental illness and are also tormented by religious ideas attached to their delusional thoughts.

    I was taught that if the beliefs expressed by the patient seem extreme to those mentally well people who are of the same faith, then it can safely be assumed that the ideas have flipped over from belief into madness.

    I find it very hard to be positive about any religion that makes a person feel worthless and tormented. Like you, I am an atheist but I do consider myself to be a humanist and a humanitarian.

    Most days I don't feel too badly about people's beliefs but today I have spent so much time listening to people whose lives, I think, would be happier without religion.

  21. gotquestions.org has this to say on the subject (from a Christian viewpoint)http://www.gotquestions.org/psychological-demon.html

  22. Oh please, Richard Dawkins is just an idiot. By blaming all the world's problems on religion he is just trying to pass the buck. I'm pretty sure most people can tell you that mankind has an ability to become warlike over many things – religion is a factor only because different 'races' have different religions. Yet there are many wars (eg. Vietnamese War, Cold War, Napoleonic Wars) that have nothing whatsoever to do with religion. In all of these cases, the different nations had different religions, yet this was not an aspect of the conflicts.

  23. It is interesting, religion seems to be a crux factor for many of these mentally disturbed people, and some would suggest that were there no religion, that these people would be in a better state of mind. However, if you look at other cases of those suffering from paranoia or similar – many will seriously believe that they are being persued by government departments or aliens – essentially an athiest version of extreme religious beliefs – and suggests that even without religion, these people would act in the same way, but with a different blame. Thus religion is merely their 'cause du jour' and cannot really be singled out for blame for their condition. Afterall we do not suggest that governments be banned when hearing cases of people who think that 'The Men in Black' are coming for them.

  24. Re: the yes dear approachUgh, did it sound like that? Was i patronising? Was going for respectful and actually always feel quite humble in the presence of terminally ill people, but i'm new to a uniform and it may be having a strange affect on the jeans and t shirt version of me, only the patient will know how i came across. Will take your comment on board.

    PS. And yes, you're right about the hour long gig at tops but in my defence, i'v dealt with little rascals for a number of years on fairly long shifts and picked this job because i know a good thing when i see it.

  25. Sorry I didn't explain myself very clearly. I wasn't saying that the bible doesn't say anything about demon possession. However, it would be madness to automatically conclude that a sick person is sick because they are demon possessed.

  26. *All* the world's problems? No, it would take some doing for a reasonable person to insist that *all* the world's problems were caused by religion. But there's a fair old chunk of them attributable to religious extremists throughout the ages. Particularly at the moment, religion is a major factor in war.Not the people who have faith, as part of their normal harmless everyday lives – but the actual extremists, the ones who are consumed by it, who think that by having wars they are doing what God wants, or who want everyone else in the whole world to believe what they do because anything else simply must be wrong (people with different beliefs being termed “heathens” or “infidels” and considered to be lesser human beings). The ones who think it is God's purpose for them to cleanse the Earth of whichever groups. The ones who take it Way Too Far.

  27. It sounded a bit like that – but as a conversation “allower” rather than patronising or dismissive, so don't worry. A cue to allow the patient to ramble on, like “really?” and “always the way, isn't it?” and “so then what happened?” is a good thing.to be blunt, if I've had a phase of being housebound and alone, (as I'd imagine quite a few PTS clients do) I will have a conversation with anyone who comes within earshot. It's just about talking to someone and going “yes! I'm part of human social groups! I have opinions and can voice them!”.

    Why do you think I post so prolifically on places like this? But it's better in real life.

    I'm not so naive as to believe that most of the people I talk to have any interest in me at all. I'm not really a very interesting person. But I am a person, and as such I like to talk to people, and if you end up housebound and you can't talk to people every day at work or at college you'll understand how good it feels just to be allowed to waffle on once in a while.

    You're not being told off πŸ˜‰

  28. the difference is that governments don't encourage people to believe the Men In Black are coming for them, and the aliens don't have representatives here on Earth so far as I am aware. Those delusions are *entirely* delusions.Whereas the Church does encourage people to believe in hallucinations, signs and portents, God speaking to his chosen ones in a voice that only they can hear, the Angels coming down and impregnating a woman, the Angels telling a man to sacrifice his son and the man being rewarded for being about to go through with it…

    They present these things as entirely POSSIBLE, entirely REAL, entirely RIGHT and due to happen again any time soon.

    The Church actively encourages these beliefs, they have a large and influential power structure and a history going back decades, they have history books full of people who died for the beliefs, and the support of thousands, millions of people worldwide. Suddenly our schizophrenic isn't an isolated nut believing in things that no-one else thinks can be true – he's part of a HUGE community who will all back up his beliefs.

    Mentally vulnerable people are therefore inclined to, when they hear a voice that says it's the Voice of God, really really believe they are one of the Chosen Ones, the next prophet, the Son of God, cry out “it's happening just like the Bible said it would and it's happening to ME!!” and off we go.

    Aliens would be easier to deal with.

    Religion is not to blame for their condition, but it must take responsibility for encouraging people with delusional disorders to blur their line between what is a delusion, a symptom of the illness, and what is a real possibility.

  29. The short version was that the patient was laying on his bed, his heavy father was sitting on top of him. The patient was unable to move his hands or legs – yet somehow he managed to throw himself across the room.It's called 'mad strength' on the road…

  30. I don't feel bad about it at all, I'm quite happy to be just a regular kind of person. Don't want to be famous, just happy πŸ™‚

  31. Interestingly enough my husband is Schizophrenic and religious, but his delusions are never connected to his faith in any way at all. His delusions are to do with “companies” coming after him and stealing his work. I understand the point you are making though, and actually in a lot of ways I agree with you.

  32. It depends how far the “faith” thing goes, just like for people who are considered mentally stable it can be just fine or it can go too far.I knew a number of people with all sorts of mental conditions at a mental health daycare centre, and quite a few of them had faith, for a given value of “faith” – saying grace before eating, believing in going to Heaven after death, attending Church once a week, that sort of thing. You'd not bat an eyelid.

    But then there were the ones who were sort of “linked” to a specific church, often if they lived nearby. Priests would say things like “you're more than welcome to stop in any time, it's a pleasure to see you,” and to a young unemployed man with a lot of time on his hands and a lot of anguish in his head, that's not an offer you turn down.

    Which led to more than one young man with schizophrenia who I knew (don't know why, but there weren't female schizophrenics there) starting to go to church every day, and then refusing to go anywhere without his Bible, and trying to convert everyone else, and eventually, yes, sitting in the garden fervently explaining to me how people didn't listen to Noah or Moses either, and they turned out to be right, so why shouldn't he be right? Who's to say his “delusions” aren't real, just cos no one else can see or hear them?

  33. I think you are always very interesting Batsgirl! It's because you usually put forward a point of view from an angle I hadn't considered very well. I love reading your contributions for this reason..they and you are interesting.

  34. What an intersting debate! Very refreshing! Hannah, I firmly believe that your leg grew! Prayer works for me every time for just about any situation. The trick is learning that you don't always ask for what's in your own best interest, and the answer you get is not always what you expected. For example, when my husband and I split up last year, he prayed really hard that I'd come back. He was also really worried because without my income, he wouldn't be able to afford the rent and would have to move. I prayed for something – anything – good to happen for him. The very next day, someone we hadn't heard from in years showed up and needed a place to live. Instant roommate! AND the roommate had a decent job within 2 days of arriving back in town! Instant roommate with income! AND he cooks! My ex might not have got what he asked for, but he got what was good for him.

  35. Holy Blog Batsgirl! Am relatively new to this blogging palava, (however am becoming hopelessly addicted, it's even replacing games as my favourite thing to do with a pc, am sure the novelty will wear off and i might do the dishes or even go out, something i really should be doing right now) but i would like to say that she's right your comments are always interesting you dont talk crap and you are clearly a very intelligent woman. Am just off to watch Anthea's suggestions on how to fold a sheet. Feel the need to dumb down?

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