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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