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.