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Letter from the Brink of Sanity

497px-Statue_of_Saint_Paul,_Damascus-1How to tell a story that has no beginning and no end? A tale that was ongoing before you were born and continues to this day?

Choose an episode that pressed your first footprints on some new path. Like the time you landed in a mental hospital. Not the first time, when you were bent on squeezing the life out of your sad, broken body, but the second. The time you saw God, or thought you did. Start there.

In the first hospital the fence around the roof-terrace garden rose four feet above your head. Like an inmate, you were led into this pen each day, where you felt the moist San Francisco breeze and the warmth of a sweet pale sun shining through chain link. It might have been pleasant, but you didn’t experience it that way. Demoralized, you were battling a long-checked rage, decades old, now turned against your own body in the desolate dark between thirty-minute bed checks. At night you wrapped your head in cellophane (your sister unknowingly smuggled it in to you) and jammed plastic down your throat, hoping to choke. Each time you reached for death the pain grew too intense, and you broke free to fall backward gasping, frustrated and ashamed. You sensed raving demons in your stark gray room; they loomed over your narrow bed, clinging with curved nails from the steel grate that saved you from jumping out the tenth story window.

No. Don’t mention that hospitalization. Talk about the next one.

Where to begin? How about in the emergency room a week after discharge from the suicide watch? Or earlier, when you were descending the stairs toward the kitchen. The air conditioning was running full-blast, even though it was only March. You were sweating, flushed, blood pressure climbing. Your wife was chilling the house to slow the rivulets flowing off your forehead, the wet patches soaking through your tee shirt, and your incessant pacing. She convinced you to lie down, but you jumped up within minutes. As you descended the stairs you knew. Or thought you knew. You became the chosen one, the prophet called to speak of science in spiritual terms. You saw a shaft of white light, a radiant knife rising up (or plunging down?) through a field of vision that had gone red and floated with stars. You must have been close to passing out; maybe you stood up too fast. But you saw that luminous, righteous blade and you were opened by it. You felt splayed before the truth: you had a destiny, and not the one you expected. You knew, or thought you knew, that glorious, shining column to be the body of God.

After a decade spent in medical and surgical training and seven years more, you had a profession. Maybe not a calling, but a good job: impressive, honorable, and lucrative. Yes, you had walked away from it, defeated by unbearable neck pain, but you hoped for another career just as promising, something to reestablish stature and reassure you of worth. You never thought of becoming a prophet until that moment on the stairs, but you saw later how the idea made sense to a broken psyche. What better way to prove yourself than to become God’s appointed one? The fact you thought this appointing sensible proves, to most people, that you were delusional. Grandiose is the technical term. And yet here you are, writing out loud about it. Admitting insanity, even if temporary. To what end?

Because that luminous blade and all that followed changed you forever. Vivid experience forced you to reappraise your education and your assumptions, until you had no choice but to reject the consensus moderns live by, to admit you don’t know anything for sure any more. Worse, you don’t even want to be sure. For you, faith has become a matter of loving curiosity, not surety, so you choose to live in peace with ambiguity rather than in hell with conviction. If it takes a measure of craziness to force change on a personality, you welcome it.

Your insanity was of a particular sort. You didn’t hear voices, at least not as if there was someone actually speaking to you. Your elevation to rank of ‘prophet’ was revealed through wordless gnosis, not by a disembodied messenger. But even absent commanding hallucinatory voices, whatever understanding you’ve gained sprouted (initially) out of the remnants of a shattered psyche. Out of an unsound mind working to break free of disaster.

But unsound isn’t the same as wrong. Consider what happened next. The red cloudiness had cleared by the time you reached the refrigerator. Before you could open the door a crimson spark caught your attention. It hovered two feet in front of your face and attracted you the way light draws in moths. As you stared at this tiny, potent presence, it exploded in a burst of blood-tinted light, replaying in a moment the full sweep of time, space, and matter. Your body, mind, and soul felt immersed in a replica of the Big Bang. Without questioning why or how you were granted the privilege, you witnessed creation arising from subatomic scales to fill the entire span of the modern universe in a sweeping vision that unfolded in a realm beyond normal sight. From quark to quasar scales the cosmos evolved as a single form before your mind’s eye. Awed, you inhaled an atmosphere of omnipresent love and rightness. Living energy animated and united all. A chorus of celestial voices sang, sounding both distant and near at hand, resonating with the pulse of manifestation. You felt flooded with bliss and basked in divine affection. Every lingering doubt about God was erased and you knew that life has meaning and the universe is filled with purpose. The power of these truths radiated outward and felt as warm and welcoming as an open hearth. At the same time, you understood your own usefulness to causes greater than you had ever dared imagine.

Can a moment outside normal time that reveals meaning and elegance beyond prior experience be considered an error? A mere paroxysm of diseased brain tissue? Or should it be taken seriously, accepted reverently like a gift from God? Might it, in fact, have been such a gift?

You don’t know the answer even now, more than a decade later. But you have made your choice to honor the experience, to learn from it, to use it as a beacon while building a new life and a new identity.

Maybe you could have discounted it. Maybe you could have dismissed it as nothing but manic psychosis or temporal lobe seizure, the way your doctors inclined, if so many other dramatic experiences hadn’t unfolded over the next forty-eight hours and, in less chaotic form, over the many years since.

In those early days a parade of visions, realizations, and interventions came your way, leaving you dazed but elated, broken but glad. Think back…

Letter from the Brink of Sanity

Will Meecham, MD, MA

In late 2014, Will Meecham, MD, MA, launched to combine clear explanations of biology with meditations on Life.

Before he felt ready to start, Will needed to overcome a highly traumatic upbringing. In young adulthood he coped with his past by over-achieving, completing years of higher education in ecology, biophysics, neuroscience, and medicine. But in mid-life, when neck disease ended his career as an oculoplastic surgeon, he was forced to confront vulnerabilities such as low self-esteem, high reactivity, interpersonal conflict, dissociation, and an unstable sense of identity, all of which are common problems for those who suffered hardship early in life.

After years of inner work, he grew more stable, grounded, and secure. Along the way, he discovered that his lifelong love of biology helped him find meaning and purpose in Life. He now works to encourage greater appreciation, gratitude, and compassion for the human body.

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APA Reference
Meecham, W. (2013). Letter from the Brink of Sanity. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Jun 2013
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