Mental disorder is a gift from God. The prescription that I offer is no easy thing for the mentally disordered to accept or for society to give. It requires looking beyond the medical model, the societal problem, into a spiritual possibility that God speaks to humankind through the dysfunctional mind. We who have mental disorders should appreciate our gift.
I did not find it easy to accept the gift. Only after speaking and listening to an Episcopal priest in the garden of the mental hospital where I was sent after an attack of severe depression did I receive the idea. God gave me mania. The great energy of this state enhances my talents as a writer, an artist, and an architect; but God also gave me great depression. I hated God for the pain I endured. “How can God forgive me for all the curses I sent?” I ask the priest. He tells me the story of the prodigal son. “God loves you no matter what,” he says. He tells me that in both the good and the bad of what I have I am given something special. “Does that include the schizophrenic man who says the plate of beans told him to kill?” I ask. “You are given a gift. What you do with it is another matter,” he replies. I laugh, but his words ring true . All who have mental disorders are given something special. We see life in different terms. How we use that different perspective for good or ill depends on the guidance of our hearts and the assistance from compassionate helpers, from our peers, and from God.
At first glance this statement appears to be preposterous. But is it really? In ancient cultures the mad were viewed as seers. The Romans and Greeks revered the people who were schizophrenic. They spoke with the voices of the Gods. What they foretold in their altered state was prophecy. Only with the advent of medicine as science, philosophy as logic, and religion as conformity did our brethren become identified as sick and worthy of separation from society. In the mystic and the marvelous there is always a place for different voices. The fervor of early Christian saints might, by today’s standards, be viewed as mentally disordered.
Cultural history is full of the genius of the mentally ill. Deranged artists, writers, poets, and composers gave inspiration to a world that would be a much lesser place were it not for the contribution of our kind. The fluid and divergent views of a disordered mind where ideas are only loosely connected by logic and convention and where unrelated ideas are merged and mingled in novel ways is fundamental to creating the new. A kaleidoscopic view of the world releases changed perspectives on old familiar images and ideas. This is the way of the mentally chaotic artist. The deranged include the painters: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Rothko, and some believe Leonardo Da Vinci; the writers: William Blake, Lord Byron, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath; the composers: Hector Berlioz, George Frederick Handel, and Robert Schumann. Who does not feel a touch of divine in Van Gogh’s Starry Night, where the sky bristles with an ineluctable energy in the bold paint strokes? Who does not tingle to the sound of God in Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus?
Easy enough to appreciate ourselves in the excited state, which pushes us into the transcendent, where ordinary perceptions collide creating unexpected results. Great artists prove this happenstance. Countless similarly touched humans provide such insight to a sightless world. It is less easy to do in the horrible state when the darkness of life makes us fear to see beyond the veil of existence to the greater wonders of the divine. Our chronicles have lighted the dark road down this path from where few of us have returned. The path is littered with our dead. Sylvia Plath’s vital fluid words passed through her body and came out poetry until she put her head in the oven and gassed herself to death. If we can control ourselves from suicide-and it is not easy to do- we have much to offer about those aspects of life that are the opposite of the bright and glorious.
Intellectually I accepted the idea that my depressed condition could be a gift, but it took an experience of descent into the abyss of depression to make it real. Sometime later after my release from the hospital, when I was least prepared, a deep depression struck. Paralyzed by sadness, I lay in bed looking out a slightly open shade drawn window. Green leaves appear in the opening below a bottom-bunched shade. The shade goes light and dark as it moves gently in and out from the window with a subtle breeze through the opening. I think about death. I want to die. The pain of living goes away for a while and then it always comes back. I ask myself, “Is this the gift God has given me? Can I give it back?” There is no reply. In my lonely silence I notice the beauty of the shade and the deep green of the leaves. I observe a sparkle of light at the edge of a leaf, the corner of the sill, and a tiny hole in the shade. A small measure of faith wells up that God will bring me through this descent and out again to a brighter place. Slowly I come back to life, rising out of bed, and wanting to say to others there is a gift in deep depression if you can hang on and make it through.
We, the severely depressed know tragedy and feel sadness like no others. We can tell about the way down, the way back, and what lies at the bottom of the abyss. Curled up in fear and brain racked with pain at the dark floor of the mind’s cave, sometimes the mentally disordered have gained a glimpse of the divine light beyond death. Sometimes the desire is too strong, and we shoot ourselves to go beyond. Sometimes we can come back with a report about the wonder that lies at the floor of the life’s depths. There is a light, a joy, and a love in God that all humankind is part.
Not all the mentally disordered are touched with the genius of the few, but all the mentally disordered are touched with special qualities unappreciated by the many. We know more than any group the burden of imperfection. We know what it is to be outcast. We know what it is to be feared and humiliated at the very mention of our disorders. Normal people ask us anxiously “How’s your brain today?” when they find us in their midst. Normal people smirk when they find a treated schizophrenic amongst them, saying “Hearing any voices today?” then worrying that the person will fit the TV program they saw last night, in which a madman heard voices commanding him to kill his neighbors. Little do they know the schizophrenic probably still does hear voices, but now knows how to manage the problem. Society fires and marginalizes us when it can, thinking us not capable of good work. Our every move is scrutinized in the wait for us to go crazy. The mentally disordered hide their conditions when they can, and must be self-effacing when they can’t.
I go to support groups for the mentally disordered. This is what I hear. What normal people don’t realize is that we are they. We have a treatable condition just as other people have treatable conditions, for example cancer. The big difference between our condition and cancer is that you don’t recover from mental disorders and mental disorders don’t kill you – unless you commit suicide- as cancer can. Cancer used to have a stigma but doesn’t any more. Society seems to realize that it’s not your fault if you get it, unless of course you count cigarette smoking.
Mental disease, however, carries with it centuries of bias. Person after person speaks of the fear or distrust encountered from people if they find out you have a mental condition. Normal people treat you as if you were contagious. They seek ways to leave your company or treat you as if you are less than human. People with mental problems find themselves in an apologetic position. They become humble.
Like minorities before, it is time for the mentally disordered to rise up and say, “No more will I be a second class citizen.” The mentally disordered have assumed a mantle of guilt for their condition. They blame themselves for being who they are. Be they schizophrenic, bi-polar, or depressed, they see themselves as responsible for their fate. This attitude of passivity makes them good patients for the medical model, the homeless wanderer, and the societal outcast. The mentally disordered need to stand up and say to society, we need your help but not your pity or your approbation. We have much to offer a society gone mad on selfishness and ambition. Most of us are glad to have a job and a roof over our heads. Most of us have consideration for one another and kindness toward those in need. You who call yourselves normal clamoring to get ahead are madder than we are. Who is really mad, the driver in the Lexus howling and screaming at the driver who cut him off, or the bag lady talking loudly to the cat perched on top of her shopping cart?
I have Bi-polar Disorder. For thirty years I went undiagnosed and suffered. The cycles of mania and depression were devastating. I rode a roller coaster of four or five week swings from extreme euphoria to the deepest darkest depression, battling the desire to commit suicide at the depth of the cycle. Two times I did try suicide. Throughout those years I hated life and I hated God. How could I be afflicted with this disease from which there was no relief and no understanding? I was impossible to be with and nearly unemployable given my fits of temper and irritability. I was also very talented and creative. I got and lost jobs with regularity. After my last suicide attempt, I was hospitalized and diagnosed as Bi-polar I. Great relief came with medication, which mitigated my symptoms. I gave up my anger at being afflicted with the depression, and began the process of discovery about the gift that others like me are given.
I had to forgive myself for having the disorder and for the things that I had done because I had the disorder. They were many: drugs, infidelity, and sexual perversion. The severe depression was my fault, I was sure. I was no good. The son of a whore, I blamed myself that I was afflicted. I learned my Bi-polar Disorder is not something that I contracted because I was at the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing. Mental problems like schizophrenia, or Bi-polar Disorder, or severe depression are biochemical and likely genetically passed on. Getting beyond the blame is a first step in regaining a sense of self-esteem.
Society does not help in this regard. Feeling good at finally understanding the causes of my lifetime instability and unhappiness, I revealed to my employer that I was bi-polar. I was immediately fired. I learned my first lesson about how society treats the mentally ill. You do not reveal your condition unless forced to do so. If you reveal your condition, you do so at your own peril. Society treats us as damaged goods and would like us to go away and leave the working world to those who are “normal.” We who are damaged are an uncomfortable reminder that everything is not perfect in the world.
We need not let them get away with this hypocrisy. We who are afflicted need to declare ourselves unafraid to say who we are and that we forgive ourselves for having a condition that is not our fault. But we owe it to ourselves to take responsible action to help society and ourselves. Our families, our friends, and our employers need to understand our limitations and our strengths. We need to understand our needs. Normal people seek counseling. We seek counseling for our conditions. Normal people seek help for depression and unhappiness. Our conditions are only a variant in degree of the conditions that others seek help for from psychiatrists and psychologists. We can tell others who suffer from the lesser forms what is like to suffer and recover from the greater forms. This is a special gift we can bring to them if they let us.
I needed to understand the indicators of Bi-polar Disorder. Through study I have found some of the symptoms to be: grandiosity, irritability, the desire for danger, the disrespect for authority, lack of need for sleep in mania cycle, and the disorientation, physical stiffness, suicidal tendencies, and need to sleep in the depressive cycles. All of these signs apply to me. I learn when and how the disease is triggered. I follow and understand the cyclical pattern. Through review of the journals I keep I see the cycles occur on a pattern of four to five weeks and begin with irritability including a lack of interest in food. Stress is a key trigger to many of us who have mental disorders. It is for me. I could see that when the stress of work, driving, or dealing with everyday life becomes too great I start to fall into a cycle more rapidly than expected. We who suffer from mental disorders can help society understand that stress, to which we are extremely sensitive, is a killer for all people, and how it affects us is a bellwether of how its negative effect is detrimental to all persons.
The people who attend the Bi-Polar and Depression Support Group I attend weekly are very knowledgeable about their conditions. Each person knows his or her symptoms and related illnesses. Some have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in addition to their primary mental condition. Some are Schizo-affective, have Attention Deficit Disorder, or have hypochondria. What is interesting is the awareness of each person for his or her condition, the acceptance for each other person’s condition, and the willingness to help each other person in any dilemma that he or she may face. All of these people speak about how in the group setting with others like themselves they feel safe and accepted. They do not sense their self-esteem lowered, their voices unheard, or their ideas unaccepted. Nikki, a gracious woman and the only African-American in this mixed group of whites and Asians, states that she feels more accepted amongst the mentally disordered than in a company of African-Americans.
Michelle, a bi-polar woman unable to find employment any place in normal society, volunteered to help at the hospital where our group meets. She was offered a position to assist the hospital chaplain. She came to the group asking for our encouragement. Only one day had passed since she began her duties. She now talks of how our group helps her listen to the patients and meets their needs in silence or with just a few encouraging words. Michelle asks our advice on what she might do more to help. We tell her that she is doing fine, we admire her efforts, and she should be proud of what she is doing. Our society benefits from hearing the gentle voices of these helpful people willing to reach a hand to one another, and to anyone in need.
When I walked into my first meetings with these people, I knew I had found my home. In the hospital I was just a patient amongst other patients struggling to get better and get out. In the outside world, like all mental patients, I felt alone until I found my brethren in the meetings of the mentally disordered trying to keep sane in a indifferent and hostile world. I found people fighting a whole host of problems: low self–esteem, the effects of medications, arrogant doctors, ineffective clinics, no health insurance, no income, the problems of dual addictions, the loneliness from separation or misunderstanding of family, and the desire to commit suicide. These people were trying to make it in the world and be aligned with God. I found people who could help me and whom I could help.
The Dual Recovery Meeting I go to is not large. Twenty people at the most show up on a Monday night. The meeting is an offshoot of the12 Steps program from Alcoholics Anonymous for persons with problems with mental disorders and drug or alcohol issues. Each person at the meeting shares his or her issue for the week. Often it concerns a struggle to stay clean from illegal drugs. People with mental disorders often use illegal drugs to self-medicate when prescription drugs are not available. This is the case for many of the homeless. Formerly homeless people recycled through a mental hospital are often in attendance at our meeting. Deborah, a severely depressed African-American woman, just recently discharged from the hospital and one of the formerly homeless, discusses her current struggle to stay clean. She has relapsed on crack cocaine many times. She says she is feeling hopeless and in denial about her disease. “I am killing myself looking for God,” she states, “but somehow this time I didn’t use. I became awake and thankful to God.” When my turn comes to share I turn to Deborah. I tell her that she has a gift from God. “In the pit of hell you are able to see a way out and that is special. Not everyone is given that message. Sharing that message with us helps us all,” I say.
In a small way I am trying to help the people I can. As I help them they help me. My self-esteem was diminished by hospitalization. Helping others invigorate their own self-esteem helps mine. Helping mentally disordered people stand up for themselves against government bureaucracies, indifferent clinics, and doctors has become one of my missions. I tell my bi-polar and depressed friends they must insist doctors hear them out when they speak of the negative side effects of medications. Too many of the mentally ill take a passive position in relationship to authority. They assume they must be wrong when they feel bad after taking a medication and the doctor refuses to listen. I tell them this is the wrong approach. I have a good relationship with my doctor, who listens to me; we work as a team on what medications work or don’t work. I tell others they should expect no less.
I make myself available to help other people in my family of the mentally disordered. I talk to them on the phone when they are in need, and I assist them in other ways when I can. I go to them when they are in trouble. I try to think of ways that I can be more of God’s messenger to society, that it may see us as less a threat or a problem and more a resource. I recall seeing a demented man ten years ago under a bridge frothing at the mouth dancing a jig, waving his arms in the air, yelling into the sky. I watched as the police surrounded him. They pulled out their nightsticks, surrounded him, and beat him to the ground. I felt sad. This man was obviously mentally ill. He would end up in jail, probably go untreated, and be returned to the streets. I wondered then if I could have done something to help him, but at that point I myself was undiagnosed and knew nothing of my own gift. Now everything has changed for me. I would like to do things to help men and women like him see their specialness so they can use it for their own benefit and pass it on to others. I believe their peers, we the mentally disordered who have been helped ourselves can show them a loving God.
I believe that the mentally disordered need more advocates who speak for them. I wish to be one of those. In the Bible’s famous parable, the father prepares a feast for the prodigal son, giving him the gift of the fatted calf to consume. The responsible elder son is unhappy that this son, who wandered away into a life of strangeness, has returned and is given a valuable gift. I would compare the mentally disordered to the prodigal son and society to the elder son. We, the mentally disordered, gladly share our gift from God with society. Society should rejoice that we, who were lost, have returned.