The story begins with a bored and drowsy seven-year-old girl named Alice sitting on a riverbank with her older sister. When a talking, clothed White Rabbit with a pocket watch runs past, Alice follows it down a rabbit hole. As she falls a long way down, Alice finds herself in a curious hall with many locked doors of all sizes. She finds a small key to a door too small for her to fit through, but through it she sees an attractive garden. She then discovers a bottle on a table labeled “DRINK ME,” the contents of which cause her to shrink too small to reach the key which she has left on the table. And so the weird adventure filled with peculiar anthropomorphic creatures takes off from here – at the bottom of a rabbit hole.
Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” is considered one of the great examples of the literary nonsense genre. It is a story my friends talk about when they describe their journey “down the rabbit hole” of mental illness with loved ones they have followed there. They speak of times they have followed their children to work because they didn’t believe they worked there. They tell unbelievable stories of made-up children who were burned to death in made-up fires. They tell fanciful stories of men and women in their homes uninvited at all hours of the night – to hook up with their children. They tell stories of creatures they never saw who were as real as you or me to their schizophrenic spouses. They tell of sons and daughters running away to faraway lands and returning to bus stations in other cities – sent home by people who found them and simply “knew something was wrong with them and then cared enough to help.” They tell stories of calls from people accuse them of acts they would never imagine possible against their own family members. They tell of lies and hurtful actions that all beyond belief.
When people ask me about the specifics of mental illness, I often reply, “Do you really want to go down that rabbit hole? There is no way I can prepare you for what you will see there. You will hear stories you cannot make up about characters who are frightening in real life or in an imaginable world created by your loved ones. If you go down that rabbit hole with me, you will never be the same.”
Mental illness is not a literary genre of nonsense. It may not appear to make any sense to logical, rational people. But it is real.
If you choose to follow a clothed, talking White Rabbit with a pocket watch down a rabbit hole, you will slide into a world that seems like make-believe but is frighteningly real. Once you are down the rabbit hole, you may not be able to find your way back to the surface for a long, long time. But, while you are there, you will meet some of the most interesting creatures and characters you will ever know. You will be changed.
In one exchange Alice has with the Cheshire Cat goes like this:
“Alice asked, ‘And how do you know that you’re mad?’
‘To begin with,’ said the Cat, ‘a dog’s not mad. You grant that?’
‘I suppose so,’ said Alice.
‘Well then,’ the Cat went on, ‘you see, a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore, I’m mad.’
‘I call it purring, not growling,’ said Alice.”
Down the Rabbit Hole in Wonderland you discover that purring is not growling. You will also find that the ones that you follow down the rabbit hole will become your greatest teachers.
Rev. Dr. Tim Ahrens
The Rev. Dr. Tim Ahrens is Senior Minister of The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio where he has served since January 2000. Ordained in 1985, Tim is a lifelong member of the United Church of Christ.