Friday, August 19, 2011

Mental illness and faith

If talking about mental illness is to some degree a taboo topic in our culture, I think matters of faith are even moreso. Combine the two and you have one very uncomfortable cocktail.

It is precisely this intersection of mental illness and faith where I feel I can talk with some authority. At the same time I have not until recently turned my thoughts into words on this topic but realise that there is a lot there to be tapped into if I apply myself to the task.

Of course as with any weighty and complex matter the first issue is where to begin the discussion. Perhaps a good place to start is for me to be clear about the role that faith played in both the negative and positive aspects of my own life story (you can read a condensed account of my story by clicking here).

Firstly, my beliefs were a key aspect of my mental breakdown. My conceptions - and indeed misconceptions - about the Christian God were central to why I got sick with depression (I should add at this point that I am still a Christian today). I mention in my story that the bookends of my mental breakdown were the September 11 attacks and living on a farm in extreme drought conditions.

Essentially on each occassion the world appeared to me to be upside down and I could not handle what was happening before my eyes either in New York City in September 2001 or on the moonscape that was our family farm in 2004.

Prior to these events I had (like many others in their late teens) begun to struggle with my understanding of who God was and big questions about eternity and the meaning of life. This struggle was a very powerful one given I professed belief in a God who according to the bible has plenty to say about these matters. To cut a long story short, I struggled greatly with the idea of hell and so my fragile state was completely vulnerable to distressing events like 9/11 and drought which I could not help but interpret through the lens of eternity and hell. You might say no wonder I got so sick as to become psychotic and require a few months in a psychiatric hospital.

I want to continue this discussion with a more upbeat note because that is where my own story has led on matters of faith and life experience.

It is nearly seven years since my stay in hospital and I am happy to report that the process of recovery and ongoing management of my condition (bipolar disorder) has had at its core a belief in Jesus Christ. This may seem counter-intuitive given how unwell I became due in part to religious beliefs, so I want to talk through my journey a little bit.

Essentially the problem was not the faith/beliefs I held but rather the way that my undetected mental illness caused me to interpret things. The weeks leading up to my admission to hospital involved me experiencing psychosis (also referred to as a psychotic episode). Psychosis is essentially a mental state where the person affected loses touch with reality which can involve either sensory hallucinations (e.g. seeing or hearing things that aren't really there) or delusions (e.g. believing oneself to be subhuman or an extra terrestrial creature). As I have previously explained using the analogy of A Beautiful Mind (the film), I experienced powerful delusions where the real and the imagined were indistinguishable.

The day I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder happened about a week into my stay in hospital. I still think of it as one of the best days of my life. This is because for the first time since I had become unwell I was able to begin identifying delusions I had assumed were simply reality (when those delusions told me I was heading for a fate worse than death you can understand my relief). I was able to begin to recover my senses and my health.

The concepts that had caused me so much trouble basically melted away once I understood my health situation. I was filled in those weeks in hospital (post-diagnosis) with an overwhelmingly calm and assured sense of the goodness of God.

I hope some who have gone or are going through similar experiences can take heart from my account.

Here is a song by John Mayer called "3 by 5" which in many ways encapsulates my experience of becoming well and seeing things in new ways.