I remember the first time my mental illness and faith collided.
I was 20 years old and wholeheartedly believed demons were after me. I was lying on the floor in my grandma’s kitchen with a giant knife against my arm and weeping uncontrollably—not wanting to give into the voices that all screamed in unison “Do it! Kill yourself. You deserve to die.”
Thank God I didn’t hurt myself. Instead, mid-sob, I called the only person I could think of, my mother and she came to my rescue. I met with a therapist the next day who helped explain my psychotic episode as just that—psychosis.
It didn’t make sense to me. Psychosis? No way, Jose. I was being attacked my demons. Real demons who wanted me to die. This guy just wanted me to talk about how I felt and take some stupid pill. Who did he think he was to call me psychotic? I mean, judging by his wardrobe, maybe he was the one who had lost touch with reality. But, sadly and much to the chagrin of my ego, he ended up being right and I finally came to terms with the fact that I was, indeed, face-to-face with madness on that cold winter night and not demons from Hell. Still, it would have been more fun to talk about fighting Hell’s demons than a sick mind.
At the time, this was a big deal to my faith. I had always been led to believe that demons were real and, after the Zoloft kicked in, I never heard from them again.
So the conclusion I’ve come to is that demons aren’t real, they’ve canceled their hit on me, or my psychosis has been alleviated. I don’t know for sure, but I do know that I like living too much to ever want to kill myself again. I wish I could say this was the first time and last time that I wrestled with suicidal ideation, but a suicide attempt in 2014 would remind me to never give up on life again. But that’s for another cup of coffee.
The second time my faith and mental illness collided happened during a time I was exploring different types of spirituality and spending some time away from church. This journey really upset people for a long time which only further invested in my own internal anxiety and insecurity. But, I knew it was right for me and thank God for the counselor who journeyed with me through this difficult and confusing time in my life. If you ever read this Brian, thank you, sir.
The collision happened while I was meditating one night and literally felt something “flip” on in my mind. It was as if a light switch went on and I could feel switch. I remember telling my psychiatrist, at the time, about this and she just dismissed it. For me, it was a euphoria like no other. At the time, I thought I was having what one spiritually in tune former co-worker, termed “a cosmic orgasm” but it felt a lot like what I now know as Mania.
During this episode, I was walking down High Street in Morgantown, West Virginia (a college town) and could see what looked like hundreds of angels because people were glowing like they were on fire. I thought I was in touch with the divine. Turns out this was manic episode number one. Four days later, I finally slept. Thank God for Risperdal.
The third collision of my faith and mental illness happened when I was trying to figure out who killed Jesus? No, I don’t mean in the Bible. We all know it was ____ (Well, you’ll just have to read to find out). Anyways, I was trying to figure out who killed Jesus and I realized it wasn’t a who (off the hook Judas) but, for me, it was a what–Lithium. Jesus had been killed to me. What I mean by that is that I couldn’t experience God in any of my senses like I used to be able to. I could never feel God’s presence or hear his voice. None of the original markers of my faith remained after taking Lithium. It literally killed my faith.
I’m grateful for that experience because it really rocked my faith. To be honest, it sucked and I thought I would never be a Christian again (I don’t think I ever really stopped—just thought I did). I couldn’t feel God, couldn’t write, take photos, read, etc. Any creative pursuit that brought me joy and helped me feel closer to the Divine was killed by salt. So, now that it’s been taken out of the equation (doctor’s approval) I’ve found myself re-discovering God in a whole new light. This time, my faith is more centered around quiet, stillness, contemplation, walks, writing, and conversation with others. I’ll tell anyone—I don’t go to my church to meet with God. I don’t have to. I go to my church to meet with a community and I’m falling in love with my creative pursuits again which, to me, is just a step below godliness and has given my mind more peace than a pill ever did.
Re-defining your faith may be part of your spiritual journey and mental health recovery; it was for me. I know the journey has been one that’s been laden with curvy roads and rocky paths. At times, I’ve had to tread carefully and consider, “Is this God or am I shooting up?” (mania not heroin). For me, keeping an honest confession with one of my best friends, and pastor, has helped me stay grounded in right relationship and a right mind. He doesn’t always understand but he sure as hell is a good listener. Remember, “the first duty of love is to listen.”
The hardest thing I’ve had to come to terms with is God is far greater than my definition, worldview, or current emotional state. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt guilty after an angry outburst and would beat myself up the rest of the day thinking God wanted me to punish myself or would punish me. I no longer believe this. Now, I own my behavior, am willing to offer an apology, and will always ask to be forgiven. It seems to be a much healthier way and, frankly, guilt does nothing for me–other than makes me feel guilty.
If you’re a person who battles mental illness or knows someone who’s battled mental illness and you’re trying to figure out this faith thing, I encourage you to take it in baby steps. Also, don’t be afraid to talk with your therapist, psychiatrist, pastor, etc. about this evolving process for you. It’s hard to determine what may be psychotic and what is normal for you. A good therapist and psychiatrist will take into account your faith culture and what you believe before making a diagnosis. For example, talking snakes and fruit causing the fall of Mankind. Normal, right? If you’re in the Christian tradition then, yes, one could make this argument. So, always take this into consideration when walking out your journeys of faith and mental health recovery.
Lastly, I don’t always get emotional during church services like I used to. I’m learning that the beauty of practicing my faith again with fresh eyes, a renewed perspective, and an open mind is that emotional reactions carry less weight than before. I’m learning that, regardless of my emotional state, there are still some things that are true for me: I can love, am loved, and need to show the world love just as my Savior did. No amount of psychosis, hypomania, depression or hyper-religious thoughts will ever change that.
Be well friends and feel free to share about your own faith journey and/or mental health recovery.
Best to you,