I was what you would call “drifting” at the time my father was taken to a psychiatric facility; I had quit my job working in a restaurant and had caught a bus from Philadelphia to New York to Boston to Portland, Maine, and had hitchhiked the rest of the way up the coastline in the middle of the winter. When my mother called to tell me about my father, I was renting a room from an elderly widow, eating at a soup kitchen each day, and fighting back the dark specter of suicide. When I returned home and visited him in the facility, it wasn’t too far from a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
A year later, in January of 2005, I was voluntarily committed to the same facility that my father was voluntarily committed to just a year prior, for the same diagnostic condition: “Bipolar Type 1, severe, current episode manic severe with psychotic features.” Like father, like son.
My struggles of the mind began during my teenage years, but bordered mostly on the side of melancholy with occasional swings into elation. With no frame of reference, I thought all people my age thought about death often–of daydreaming about being hit by a bus, or just simply being “taken out” of existence due to the psychic pain that comes with being alive; that is was normal.
In 1998, my freshman year of college, I became a Catholic. Though I had dabbled in Eastern religions including Buddhism and Krishna-consciousness for a few years prior to that, it was the redeeming nature of Christ and the fullness of truth found in the Catholic Church that convinced me I couldn’t break the bonds that held me–of sin, slavery, and concupicense–on my own. I needed a savior to deliver me from this body of death (Rom 7:24).
But even though I had found meaning in this life and a moral framework to make sense of suffering through the Catholic faith, prayed often and attended Mass regularly, I struggled mightily to “be good.” I drank too much too often, contended with keeping lust in check, and failed time and again to put the old man to death even in light of my new identity in Christ. I felt everything intensely, and often struggled with emotional and mental equilibrium.
This went on for a number of years, and my sin and inconsistency of behavior wasn’t helping my mental state or my spiritual life. Thanks to the influence of some well-meaning but “progressive” minded spiritual directors, I wasn’t even aware of not being in a state of grace; it was a precarious spiritual state, susceptible to the Devil’s influence. My weakest link, of course, being my mind, which he did not hesitate to use to gain me for his own.
When I experienced my first acute manic episode at the age of 24 (I had only ever experienced depressive episodes before), it was like being on drugs (without the drugs). Everything was in technicolor, and I felt like I would explode with elation.
But as psychosis started to creep in, and my mind raced so fast that I had trouble sleeping (for days) and speaking coherently, my family and my fiance at the time knew something wasn’t quite right. I wasn’t violent, promiscuous, or reckless, but I had to take a leave of absence from my job. My delusions of grandeur manifested themselves religiously, and I thought I was a prophet of sorts, while simultaneously committing shameful blasphemies against our Lord. Of course the CIA had caught wind of things (one of the many delusions) and I began to get agitated should anyone “stand in my way” of “completing my mission.”
Because my father had been through the same thing, he knew what to look for, and my parents and fiance took me to the psych facility, where I spent the next couple weeks on a cocktail of medications–Lithium, Depakote, Zoloft, and others–to try to bring me back down to earth. It worked; but I was left as a shell of my former self. I couldn’t feel anything–I had no energy, no affect, no drive or consolation. At one point, I took a handful of benzodiazepines “just to feel something”—it wasn’t a suicide attempt, but it did land me in the hospital, lucky to be alive.
Eventually I was able to find a psychiatrist who was willing to try titrating me down on the medications I was taking one by one. Eventually I went from seven medications to just one, which seemed to be effective. This was also around the time I met my future wife and got married, which was a huge stabilizing effect in my life.
I had always considered my illness a part of my identity, just part of “who I was.” But it was a group of Christian friends who thought otherwise, and prayed over me in the Holy Name of Jesus one evening when I brought it up that I might be delivered and made whole, made new.
There was also the finding of a Miraculous Medal and wearing it, which caused grace to break open like a dam in our lives. We turned away from sinful behavior that was keeping us from being in a state of grace, which in turn made grace able to work in miraculous ways both individually and as a couple.
Mental illness can feel like a cancer of the mind–you may be in remission, but you’re always waiting for it to come back and drag you back down to the depths. But we went through moves, deaths of parents, job changes, the birth of three children, as well as the loss of several through miscarriages, and I was able to maintain my mental equilibrium throughout. It has been almost twelve years, and though I experience normal fluctuations of emotions (as we all do), I have not had any meaningful symptoms of my disorder. Thanks be to God, the One who saves.
There is no reason to scorn modern medicine or psychopharmacology as Christians, nor should we over-spiritualize real illnesses. But when psychiatry and psychology divorces man from the spiritual and attributes such phenomenon to strictly psychological cause and effect, it leaves a huge blind spot in a holistic diagnosis of mental malaise. Nothing is off-limits for the Devil (except our will), and when we are not in a state of grace and making recourse to the Sacraments and sacramentals, we leave ourselves vulnerable. If we are not caring for our bodies–the temple of the Holy Spirit–through diet, exercise, and good habits, we are also neglecting an essential part of healthy living.
Nothing is impossible for God for those who believe. If miraculous healing of physical illnesses, not to mention the casting out of demons, is possible by God’s grace, and the intercession of the saints, is it so far off the mark to think the mind cannot be healed as well? We then become like the man delivered from a legion of demons, sitting clothed and in his right mind (Mk 5:15). I wouldn’t have believed it, far gone as I was, if I hadn’t experienced it myself. But I have seen the mighty power of God, the Lord who is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust (Ps 18:2).
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“There is no reason to scorn modern medicine or psychopharmacology as Christians”…
Thank you for the beautiful witness, Rob.
And thank you, dear Jesus our Savior, for being the Truth who saves.
Alleluia, Jesus is Truly Risen in-deeds! Alleluia!!!
If only all those suffering in the Church had the humility to ask their fellow Christians to pray over them! And if only their fellow Christians had the faith and the humility to do so in the Name of Jesus Christ! More than fifty years ago now I used to be prayed over weekly in our prayer group NEVER without at least an incremental improvement in my situation…physically, mentally, financially. Do I attribute our 45 yrs of marriage, our Carmelite daughter ec to those prayers? Yes, absolutely. “You have made great above all things your NAME and your promise.” “The NAME of JESUS is the only one that contains the presence it signifies.” (CCC 2666) Most remarkable sentence ever written and a gravely neglected teaching of the Church. Seems we would much rather wring our hands individually and collectively than invoke the power of that NAME.
Great witness. We have gone as a culture, including most Christians, from centuries ago attributing all mental illness to demons to not even considering demonic influence and presence might be involved in some, even many cases. Its all chemicals in the brain, says modern culture (it has to be, because that is all they believe in), and Christians, who ought to know better, accept the secular materialist explanation without even questioning. And even when the demonic is considered, the focus is obsessively, pardon the expression, on possession, when lesser demonic oppression is far more common. Kudos for the author for sharing his story!
So grateful for your excellent article. Our son was recently diagnosed and I pray this gives him hope and encouragement. It is wonderful to hear a hopeful and good story about someone who has experienced this first hand. God bless your strength and courage, but most of all your faith in the midst of suffering.
This is the worst spiritual bypassing I’ve ever seen! Mental illness and religion are not connected!
As I read this article, I clearly saw the progression of a person who did a good job of using the medical means available. He voluntarily checked into a facility, tried lots of doctors, tried the drugs recommended, and then tapered the drugs to find an equilibrium he could live in. That sounds like a best-case scenario of how someone uses our first-world medical system to get the best results he could. I’m not an expert, but even this Catholic suburban housewife knows that that’s how the Catholic Church teaches someone should go about dealing with mental illness — in general, address the biological issues first, and then, once every biological obstacle (that we have means to address) is cleared out of the way, you can more clearly see what’s left — at that point, sometimes we push medical science forward, and sometimes we ask for a miracle. It probably depends on what means are available to the person.
I like that in the same CWR “Week in Review,” there was an article summarizing the documented medical miracles related to the beatification of 10 saints last week. Sometimes in their pursuit of healing, Catholics push the frontiers of science forward, and sometimes they receive miraculous healings. Catholic Christians understand that all of creation, and the order inherent in it, belong to God; and that the God Who ordered creation wants to reveal Himself, and wants to walk with us. We have this powerful image of Adam and Eve, walking and talking with God in Eden, naming the animals — that kind of relationship with God is part of our original design. Encouraged by that idea of relationship with God, Christians know that their Creator wants them to use their reason in exploring His creation, and ordering it for the good. That understanding, and the actions of thousands of believers based on it over the last millennium, is the wellspring of western science.
Thank you, Rob, for your honest and humble witness which bears witness to this teaching given by Jesus Christ
“Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Which you now clearly do.
kevin your brother
Rob Marco, thank you for your inspiring article to hold on strong for those with mental illness. May God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit of God bless you always, now and forever.
This sounds so familiar. I would love to talk with you briefly. My son is suffering with mental illness.