By Jennifer Miller
1. “He Grants Sleep to Those He Loves.”
Life wasn’t easy for Hayley Baker before the rages began, but it was tolerable. She attended a small Christian college near her home in Folsom, California, where she majored in architecture, studied astronomy in her spare time, played the harp, and taught herself to make sushi. But Hayley also suffered from major depression, social anxiety, occasional suicidal ideation, and an eating disorder. Doctors couldn’t agree on how to help her—since childhood, they’d cycled her through 15 different drugs—though most attributed her problems to childhood abuse. Caretakers had repeatedly molested her between the ages of 3 and 6, and she’d been humiliated at age 4 by a babysitter who tied her to a chair and taped her mouth shut while the sitter’s own kids ran around her in circles. Her anxiety became so extreme that she dropped out of school.
In her mid-20s, Hayley was diagnosed with a heart condition, which doctors told her was a side effect of her medications. But when she stopped taking the drugs, she lost control, punching walls and cutting herself out of frustration. Once, her mother became so frightened for her own safety that she called the police. Hayley spent the night in the psychiatric ward. Meanwhile, the family could barely cover its expenses, let alone Hayley’s therapy. “It was a dark time,” she says.
Then, in 2009, something cut through the darkness like a signal fire. Mercy Ministries, a network of in-patient facilities that treat young women with mental illness, addiction, and life trauma, and which has the backing of some of the most prominent names in evangelical Christianity, was opening a new residence in Lincoln, California, close to Hayley’s home. Hayley knew about Mercy because a Christian band she liked, Point of Grace, supported the program. And she learned online that Mercy’s unusual fusion of biblically inspired healing and what it described on its website as “best-practice clinical interventions” could help hurting women like herself “break free from the destructive cycles controlling their lives.” Mercy’s literature boasted that its four U.S. residences were state-licensed and that 80 percent of its counselors had master’s degrees in psychology, social work, or a related field. Hayley’s family believed that the Lincoln home would provide her with a truly integrated approach to mental health—the secular and the spiritual. Best of all, Mercy was free.
Hayley, who is a devout Christian, believed God had answered her prayers. “I thought the new home was a sign,” she says. “I wanted to believe that God would make a change in me. I wanted it desperately.”
Like all new applicants, Hayley landed on a waitlist. She was instructed to read books by Mercy’s founder, Nancy Alcorn, and testimonials from Mercy graduates who had overcome all manner of mental illness and trauma. She discussed audio sermons and response papers over the phone with a Mercy intake representative. After seven months, Hayley’s acceptance letter finally arrived.
Compared to the tidy bungalow where Hayley lived with her mother, Mercy’s sprawling, light-filled facility was magnificent. On the first day, the staff was every bit as welcoming as Mercy’s literature had promised. But that night, alone in a strange dorm room, Hayley roiled with panic. She asked attendants for her prescription Xanax but says they refused. Instead, they offered to pray with her and gave her a sheet of paper titled “Peaceful Sleep,” with a bolded line from Psalm 127:2: “He grants sleep to those he loves.” Hayley tried to pray, but sleep didn’t come. For the rest of the night, she lay awake, still panicking, wondering if God had abandoned her.
Over her seven months at Mercy, Hayley says staff often denied her requests for Xanax, instead emphasizing prayer as a better way to treat the panic attacks. She also says she was punished with extra reading and chores for infractions as minor as sharing her CD player. When her brother died unexpectedly a month into her stay, Mercy didn’t bring in the certified grief counselor that her parents had requested, she says. According to Hayley, Mercy staff unswervingly held her and others to a one-size-fits-all counseling curriculum. Six years after leaving Mercy, Hayley continues to wrestle with mental illness.
Mercy—which, after 32 years of operating as Mercy Ministries, rebranded as Mercy Multiplied this past October—touts that upward of 3,000 women have come to one of its centers somehow broken and left feeling whole. Hayley desperately wanted to be one of them. Instead she says she encountered a program that demanded total submission to its methods and to God. It was, and is, a place that treats the devil as something frighteningly real—the kind of approach that may work for many residents but overwhelms others with guilt and fear.
In a larger sense, Mercy illustrates what happens when a hard-line, religiously oriented organization inserts itself into a gaping hole in the United States’ mental heath system. Because organizations like Mercy are barely subject to government oversight, it’s likely not an anomaly.
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