My Little Demons

In my first two years of practice, I performed comprehensive medical evaluations on patients in the Psych Ward to uncover medical diseases that might have induced their psychiatric problems. Most were in with severe depression or bi-polar disease but a few were psychotic or schizophrenic. In our psychiatric training, we were taught that the patients who were "demon possessed" in the Bible had modern day epilepsy or schizophrenia or psychosis and that the conditions are now readily explained by chemical or electrical imbalances in the brain. Since modern seizure and psychiatric medications do, in fact, control the vast majority of these problems, I had little reason to ever dwell on whether there was such a thing as "demon possession" in modern times. I suppose I believed it could occur, but I had never encountered anyone demon-possessed. My luck was about to change.

As I walked into the room of today's patient, an unexplained chill washed over me. The patient turned and glared at me with an evil disdain. Her arms were covered with slashes, all self-induced, according to the medical record. A large swastica scar covered her abdomen and she wore enough black eye liner to paint a house. She dangled enough silver in her ears, eyebrows, lips, nose, and tongue to put herself at risk for robbery. Her hair, short, spiked, and "highlighted" with a garish blue streak was the final touch.Fear wrapped around my heart like the serpent tattoos wrapped around her arms. Would she attack me? Spit on me? Hiss? Cast a spell?

I "screwed my courage to the sticking place" and asked her about her dangerous compulsion to cut herself with razors or knives. She responded, "I hear these voices that tell me to cut myself. They grow stronger and stronger until they control me. They don't let up until I give in and do what they tell me. Then they go away for a day or two. They tell me to kill myself because I'm worthless." She then burst into deranged laughter, as though what she'd said was funny. A shudder coursed through me; I felt as though I were sitting with Satan himself. As if on cue, her eyes narrowed and she added, "I call those voices my little demons because they control my life."

My heart pounded and I suppressed the urge to dash from the room, never to return. While I had examined and counseled many psychotic and schizophrenic patients before, none had ever triggered such a visceral reaction. With a sudden jolt in my spirit, I felt like God told me  this woman was possessed by demons. I'd like to tell you I felt strong and courageous and ready to perform my first exorcism. Instead, my hands and legs shook. For starters, since there was no "field of pigs" like Jesus had readily available, where was I supposed to send the little buggers? Would they jump onto me like fleas or bed bugs? I reminded myself of the stripture, "Greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world."

I knew God wouldn't have revealed to me that the woman was demon possessed if I wasn't supposed to DO something, but I felt incompetent. Was there a "How to Perform an Exorcism in Three Easy Steps" on Google? Or an Exorcism for Dummies book at the nursing station?

Then the doctor part of me kicked in with ridiculous thoughts. Is there a CPT code for Exorcism? Do I make her sign a consent? And if so, what do I warn her are the risks? Since I'd never performed an exorcism before, do I warn her she could end up quacking like a duck or running around in circles like a dog chasing its tail if things went awry? Scenes from "Bewitched" where Samantha's Aunt Clara bungled up spells and turned people into frogs or goats crossed my mind. Could she end up screaming and writhing on the floor like Linda Blair in the Exorcist? The nursing staff would have a fit.

What if God hadn't told me she was demon-possessed and I was just freaking out? If the hospital caught wind of this, would I lose my hosptial privileges, be locked in the Psych ward myself (with this woman as my roommate?) or lose my medical license? I could just picture myself in the hospital President's office trying to justify my actions: "God told me this woman was demon possessed." Right! It sounded like something straight out of a Salem witch trial.

Thus, I was left in a quandry. I could do the "sensible" thing and ignore my inner prompting and just do the history and physical and get out of Dodge or I could take an act of faith and attempt to help this woman.

I voiced a desperate prayer to God. "I don't have any idea what to do so if I'm supposed to do something, I need your help."

I asked the woman if she wanted to be rid of her "little demons." She crossed her arms and replied, "Duh!"  But she didn't think they'd ever go away because she'd already tried dozens of medicines and seen five different psychiatrists, all without any benefit. This raised my belief that she might be demon possessed. With modern anti-psychotic medications, schizophrenia was now well-controlled. But she hadn't responded to anything. Gleaning more history, she had believed in God and attended church until she was brutally gang raped. Her internal voices started after she denounced God for not protecting her from the rape. Heavy stuff.

Like the scales falling from Paul's eyes, I now saw this woman not as a freak, but as a wounded soul needing the bandages of Christ. While not a Catholic priest, I decided to try and help the woman. Even if she wasn't demon possessed, I could do no harm praying for her. Nor would I violate hospital rules.

As I performed her lung and abdomen exam, I laid on hands and silently commanded the demons to leave and never return in the name of Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit. I prayed and begged God  to release the woman from bondage.  When we were done, I asked the woman to pray with me and I gave her the name of several churches she might want to attend. I encouraged her to get a Bible and pray daily. I wrote down several scriptures she should say to her "little demons" if they ever returned. When I left, her demonic, crazed glare was gone and she gave me a hug.

She was released from the hospital four days later, supposedly "cured" by the new anti-psychotic drug she was put on. Since I never heard from the woman again I'll never know if it was my half-baked exorcism or the new anti-psycotic that made the difference.

Sally Burbank M.D.