Zelophehad’s Daughters

Deciphering the Divine Signal

Posted by Lynnette

I’ve debated for quite a while about whether to post this, but I think it’s a topic worth discussing. I would, however, ask that in commenting, you especially note number five of my recent pointers about ZD: “Don’t assume that discussions of difficult personal issues are invitations to point out the poster’s failings, recite platitudes, or give lectures. And unless it’s specifically requested, giving advice is dangerous territory.” I might be a little twitchier than usual in moderating comments.

In the spring of 2001, I decided to go off the antidepressant I’d been taking since the previous December. It was one in a long line of psychotropic meds I’d tried over the years–and as was usually the case for me, I found it difficult to tell whether it was making any difference. As I often lamented to my sister Eve, I needed a control group, a control “me” in order to make an informed judgment. My decision to go off this particular drug was motivated by a number of factors. I was feeling burned out on the whole project of experimenting with medication. I also suspected that this drug was numbing me out a bit, making me feel less alive, and I didn’t like that.

I didn’t do this in a responsible way. I didn’t discuss the decision with my therapist or my psychiatrist, nor did I gradually taper my dosage (as was highly recommended for this particular drug). I just quit, cold turkey.

It wasn’t long before I was feeling more alive again, as I’d hoped. Much more alive, in fact. I was happy, perhaps as happy as I’d ever felt. Euphoric, even. Life was good, exciting, full of possibility. I woke up early in the mornings and enthusiastically jumped out of bed, because there was so much I wanted to do. This was my first year in a graduate program in theology, and I was still in the honeymoon phase of studying the subject. I couldn’t get enough of it. It was an unusually sunny spring, and I remember sitting outside talking animatedly for hours with classmates about eschatology, the nature of God, revelation, grace, and scribbling diagrams of the plan of salvation on notebook paper.

I found myself acting uncharacteristically extraverted. I talked constantly in class–to the point where one day when I skipped class, the professor (I heard from another student) commented on how quiet it was in my absence. Making phone calls, a task I normally hate, became much less difficult. I dropped by a professor’s office just to chat about theological ideas I was contemplating, something completely out of character for my former self.

I found that driving was soothing, and I happily drove around the Midwest in the old but faithful Honda Civic I’d inherited from my brother Ziff and his wife. When I got a speeding ticket on one trip which had lasted all day and well into the night, I wasn’t at all upset. Instead I smiled at the police officer, and thought to myself that this was doubtless some kind of important spiritual lesson. Another night I called my friend Seraphine, who lived about 15 hours away, and told her I wanted to come visit her, half-intending to leave right then. She suggested that I perhaps go to bed instead.

For all my energy and enthusiasm, however, I wasn’t getting my homework done. I couldn’t stay focused long enough on one thing to read much. I bought books of poetry because I found it easier to manage–and, like the driving, somehow calming. I somewhat frantically made lists of things I needed to do, ideas I wanted to remember, but many thoughts seemed to slip away before I could nail them down. I remember being so easily distracted that it was difficult to dial an entire phone number, because I would turn my attention to something else halfway through.

I was in a grad student therapy group at the time. During one session I found it hard to sit still, so I slipped off my shoes and ran around the building. When I came back they said to me something like, we knew you weren’t gone permanently, since you’d left your shoes behind. But they were pleased to see me so happy, so enthusiastic, as before then I’d been quiet, subdued, bleak about life. My therapist, however, had concerns about the nature of this happiness. He saw the energy, the heightened confidence, the rapid speech, and suspected a manic episode.

He wasn’t the only one. One of my classmates said something to me one day (and not in jest) about how I must have gone off my meds. I was somewhat stunned, because I’d never told him I was on meds. But he’d spent enough time working with the mentally ill that my behavior was familiar. My psychiatrist wanted me to immediately start taking a drug which would reduce the mania. I was annoyed. When I was depressed, I thought to myself, the mental health professionals didn’t seem to care much; they tried one slow-acting drug after another, and recommended patience. But now, when I was finally happy, they saw it as an emergency to be fixed as quickly as possible.

The euphoria didn’t last, of course. And predictably, it was followed by a profound low, a period I only remember vaguely as being enveloped in a sort of unshakeable gray fog that made it difficult to move. I cannot describe this time in much detail, because it all blurs together. I felt utterly horrible, both psychologically and physically, and nothing I did seemed to make any difference. I remember telling the therapist I was seeing at the time that if I were an animal in this much pain, someone would put me out of my misery. It was the most intensely physical depression I’ve ever experienced. And it was a while before I was functional again.

The entire experience left me with a lot of questions. Some had to do with my identity. But some had to do with religion. Because there was something else that happened when I was manic. For much of my previous life, I had suffered from chronic depression. And as steeped as I was in religious ways of thinking, I was convinced that the guilt, the misery, was a message from God about my own inadequacies and failings, a punishment for sin. Of course I knew that was a common symptom of depression. But on some basic level, I simply couldn’t believe that the way I felt was the result of an illness. I had a deep, intuitive sense that I was a sinner deserving of destruction, that God had judged me and found me wanting.

And when I was manic, for the first time in my life, I seriously entertained the possibility that my previous perceptions were flawed. I felt hope. I had a new perspective on my past, because I was less convinced that the hell I’d been living in was solely a result of my bad choices, my negative attitude, my failure to serve others (a common prescription). Because I hadn’t changed my behavior at all: I wasn’t attending church more regularly, reading my scriptures more, or doing my visiting teaching. And yet the dark cloud was gone.

Unsurprisingly, given the centrality of faith in my life, my euphoria was not without its distinctive religious elements. At one point, I remember believing that God had told me that I was in a similar position to that of the Three Nephites. At the time, it didn’t seem terribly implausible. Of course, once the mania was gone, I was back to the familiar sense of being damned. Yet I could at least remember a period of feeling something different. Though the mania obviously had its problematic aspects, there was also a way in which it was a touch of grace in my life, one which turned many of my assumptions upside down.

However, the epistemological questions this all raises are ones that I continue to wrestle with. In the church, we talk a lot about trusting your deepest sense of what is right. And in my darker moments, I have known–I don’t have a better word for the experience–that God was condemning me, that I deserved punishment.  Like Alma, I have found myself wracked with the pains of a damned soul and begging desperately for forgiveness. But in my story, unlike Alma’s, it did not come. The heavens remained silent, unmoved, unforgiving. At some of my worst moments, when I genuinely believed that God wanted me to act in self-destructive ways, he never intervened to tell me I was wrong. And it was not for a want of asking. I took his silence as confirmation that my beliefs were in fact correct.

In some religious contexts, this attitude would not necessarily be seen as pathological. We are all sinners, after all. My acute recognition of that fact could in fact be interpreted as piety. Do I trust the modern medical model that tells me this is a disorder? And how does that fit with my deeply held belief that God is real, and God really does talk to us? Depression so often for me is accompanied by a deep sense that it is divine punishment. And I can’t escape the fact that the time in my life when I felt most wildly positive about God turned out to be a period of mania.

I’ve had numerous discussions about how God’s communication seems to be generally mediated, and therefore limited, by such factors as language and culture. But what about something like brain chemistry? In a situation like mine, it is relatively easy to see how things can go awry. But I think it’s an interesting question whether or not you have experience with mental illness. To what extent are your personal experience of and beliefs about God a function of your neurological wiring (as shaped by both genetic inheritance and life experience?)

Some of the implications here are rather unsettling. The ultimate egalitarian factor in Mormonism is personal revelation, the idea that anyone can go to God and get answers. But this turns out be complicated by so many things. I remember being particularly frustrated in some of my darker times, because while I could accept that God doesn’t micro-manage the world, the scriptures told me, the church told me, I’d learned all my life, that repentance and guilt were things that were explicitly within God’s purview. I wanted to live the Ensign story in which you repent, and then you feel at peace. And I couldn’t repent my way out of the despair. I felt as though I had cast myself upon God’s grace, and he had failed me.

I have an acquaintance who gets a lot of personal revelation about other people’s sins. In a similar vein, one of my sisters was recently confronted by an angry person who shared a revelation that my sister was a liar, because she had said that a particular computer system had been fixed. (God had apparently informed this person that this was not the case.) We’ve probably all run into someone like this. We might just roll our eyes. But when and why do we trust our own experiences? The injunction to test it against scripture and prophetic teaching can be helpful, but also has its limits. (It’s also somewhat paradoxical, given that our belief in those things originally stems from personal revelation.) My revelation of being damned went nicely with a lot of what I read in the scriptures. There are notorious instances of people tying their revelation to the story of Nephi and Laban. And our tradition isn’t univocal. It’s messy and sometimes contradictory, and you can usually find some kind of textual justification to validate a particular revelation, if that’s what you’re looking for. I have to admit that I am skeptical when people talk as if they had a batphone to God, and God has conveniently verified all their ideas. (If you’d just pray about it, you’d agree with me!)

I also dislike it when personal revelation is tossed out as a quick prescription for whatever ails you. For too much of my life, it has in fact been a dangerous thing, to be treated with a certain amount of wariness. It took me some time to realize that when the communication I was getting from God was causing me to have a meltdown, further prayer was a bad idea.

We tend, I think, to talk about this in very individualistic terms–as the self, in isolation, approaching God. But this model rests on an Enlightenment view of the self as fundamentally autonomous, independent, separate. It does not take into account the ways in which we are such deeply relational beings, whose lives are so intertwined with others, that even when we are alone we inevitably think of ourselves in a relational context. My relationship with God cannot be neatly separated from my relationships with others, as if the two did not influence each other. And I have found that in getting to a healthier spiritual place, the involvement of others has not been optional. I could not go into a room and simply have it out with God. I could not take the Enos approach. I first needed a lot of experiences of being vulnerable with other human beings, and learning to trust.

And I might be a mild case; there are people who have been so traumatized by religion that they cannot engage in religious activity without serious emotional consequences. (It is not an uncommon story, for example, among those who grew up in fundamentalist churches.) And as Latter-day Saints especially, we might be tempted to tell people who are in such situations that they just need to go to God and find out what the truth of the matter is–without realizing just what we are asking. Sometimes it does seem that  God breaks through all of the obstacles which hinder communication, and those are great stories. But in a lot of cases, he apparently doesn’t. And that can feel bitter, and even cruel.

Then there are those who simply never get answers. I don’t know what to make of that, either. I’ve obviously had some craziness in my life with regards to personal revelation. But I’ve also had experiences that, after all the dust has settled, have remained with me as powerful and authentic. And I’d be hard pressed to say that this was due to any particular righteousness or effort on my part.

I laugh now about the Three Nephites thing. I’ve never had that kind of manic episode again, so I don’ t know what scriptural character I might go for next time. I’ve also developed a better ability to challenge the spectre of the looming Calvinist God who has predestined me for hell. (In addition to a lot of work in therapy, finding a good mix of meds has been very helpful in this process.) You might think that given my life experience, I would associate a belief in divine communication with mental instability. But despite everything, I still have no doubt that God talks to me. Sometimes unexpectedly. Sometimes radically contradicting my assumptions about the world. Sometimes gently. Sometimes pointedly. And while it can be difficult to discern, in a voice that is somehow qualitatively different than the God of depression or the God of mania.  When I am at my clearest and calmest, I am a different kind of believer. It is less obsessive, less intense. It is quieter. It is more grounded. I try to remember that when things get shaky.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t still have a lot of complicated questions about this topic. It’s a crazy world out there. And in here.

35 Responses to “Deciphering the Divine Signal”

  1. 1.

    I am a frequent lurker here but had to come out of hiding for this post. I just have to thank you for these thoughts. Your questions mirror so many of my own and underline why I tend to be leery of those who are dead certain in their interpretations of truth.

    Though the mania obviously had its problematic aspects, there was also a way in which it was a touch of grace in my life, one which turned many of my assumptions upside down.

    I’ve only just started to learn gratitude for the ways in which my assumptions are turned upside down but I hold it all as further evidence of the absolute necessity that we learn to treat one another with gentleness.

  2. 2.

    I just wanted to thank you for trusting us with this deeply personal post.

  3. 3.

    Thanks for this, what a very thought-provoking way to
    start my day.

  4. 4.

    Lynnette I’m very familiar with experiences like yours from a family member and I’ve given personal revelation a lot of thought and meditation. I came to the conclusion that inspiration is divine communication at a subconscious level and revelation like Joseph received is divine communication at a conscious level. When we receive inspiration it seems to precipitate upward from our subconscious to our conscious as a thought forming like a rain drop precipitates out of thin air our mind is an active participant in this process coloring the divine message.

  5. 5.

    Lynnette,
    This is profoundly moving. I have many friends and relatives who suffer greatly from chronic depression or bipolar disorder. I count my lucky stars that I was somehow spared the genetic vagaries that wreak such havoc in their lives.

    One person, in particular, goes through incredible ups and downs, with mania and depression. When she is manic, she never stops, building organization after organization after organization, resolution after resolution. But when it goes, she gets to where even interacting with other people is almost painful. It sounds like a person just sitting under a waterfall, crushed and half-drowning beneath the weight, unable to see which way is out, and too worn down to find it.

    Thank you for this personal and compelling description of your experiences. It is so important for us all to understand these kinds of challenges. As someone who hasn’t been through it, but has ached to love and support many who have, it is incredibly important and helpful. Thanks.

  6. 6.

    I had so many feelings as I read through this post. Your manic episode sounds absolutely wonderful to me, since I have felt deadened and discouraged by slow therapies that only seem to result in annoying side effects and the pointlessness of life for quite some time now. I, too, no longer know how to know if I’m feeling better. In fact, I almost feel like no better really exists–that people are all just in denial about the complex nature of life. They have learned to suppress their feelings and instead go, go, go all day until they don’t have to work out meaning in life.

    Anyway, so as this concerns revelation for me, I don’t know where God is. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything to cut me off from Him–I rack my brains on Sundays in church to try and figure out what I need to repent from. The truth is, my life is so bare these days that there really is little to think about. I can be nitpicky and wonder if maybe I’m being too prideful or if maybe I should have used my time more wisely, a.k.a. “the way other people use their time.” Maybe I just haven’t taken the time to deeply ponder and pray. I’m well aware that the faith I used to feel enveloped in has disappeared, and I know faith is supposed to come when studying the word of God.

    But all the repetition of Sundays, scriptures, lectures, prayers bothers me, because I know all those things. What I want/need to know remains dark to me. How do other people find joy or satisfaction in life? Where can I find a job that won’t drive me into the depths of despair? How can I ever learn to trust again when the Highest, most loving Power I know hasn’t even shown me His love recently? How can I find a stable relationship when I lost the person I used to be to a deadened state? Why doesn’t God have mercy on me and strike me dead, or at least give me some kind of peace or guidance? These aren’t things I can really discuss with anyone, because, like you said, Mormons always have the same answer: “Have you prayed about it?”

    Yes, dagnabit! What else have I been taught to do when I’m at the end of my rope? But what solution do you have to give me when the heavens are closed? Questions like this only lead to, “I will pray for you”/”I will put your name in the temple.” No comfort. And so I go through the motions of living, displaying fake emotions on my face when necessary. I’m not hiding my feelings in shame anymore–I’m hiding them so that un-understanding people won’t pity me and so I won’t have to go through more heartbreak when they show that they don’t really want to be supportive.

    Sigh. I’m torn between wanting to continue pursuing God until I find Him again and wishing to damn myself so thoroughly so I won’t have to go through an eternity of this pointless existence. Is that possible?

  7. 7.

    Thank you Lynette. I’m fortunate that my experience with severe depression was temporary–I only had a few years worth of post-partem depression. It’s easy for me to slip into a mildly depressed state, especially in the winter. The best thing I’ve learned from depression is that I don’t have to be happy to be grateful and content with my life. Letting go of that sense that I ought to be happy freed me from the guilt that I wasn’t happy, and must therefore stand condemned before God as an ungrateful, unloveable wretch. Reading Julian of Norwich contributed to my healing, as I was able, through her vision, to relate to Christ as a mother figure (which was an important issue for me dealing with PPD) and to accept suffering rather than futilely trying to avoid it and feeling guilty for failing.

    I don’t know what it says about God that suffering or anguish seems to be a crucial part of man relates to God, and thinking of the passion of Christ, how God relates to man. I always feel a little sad reading “man is that he might have joy” because the word is “might”, not will.

  8. 8.

    This is a long story. :)

    A couple of years ago, I was at a park with my little 3-year-old daughter. It was an area I’d never been before on my way to school where I was going to switch off with my husband. We had barely gotten out of the car when I got an overwhelming feeling that we needed to get back in the car and leave. The surroundings didn’t give any clues that anything was amiss (at least not recognizable by sheltered little me) and my little girl was having so much fun that I ignored that feeling for a while, but I stayed close to her. The feeling got stronger and stronger until I finally grabbed her and left quickly. I immediately felt better and we just drove around until I could meet with my husband. I found out from my friends at class later that day that this happened to be one of the most dangerous areas in a city I was unfamiliar with. I don’t know what would have happened to us in the middle of the day (my friends said that the time of day didn’t really matter in this area), but I really feel like if I hadn’t left, something would have gone wrong. Two other times I have felt like that, but not quite as strong and both times bad things could have happened that were prevented because I felt that influence.

    Two years later, we moved into a new area. My husband had just gotten back from deployment, I started working nights, and he was called to be in the bishopric. A few weeks after we got there, I started feeling that feeling that something bad was going to happen. It was pretty mild at first, but after a while, it got nearly as bad as it had been that day at the park, and it was exactly the same kind of feeling. I was terrified. I knew that something horrible was going to happen, but I couldn’t figure out what I needed to do to prevent it. I wondered if I had made a mistake when I found us a place to live and we were going to be murdered. My oldest daughter was in Kindergarten and I would spend the time away from her worrying about something happening to her that I couldn’t be there to prevent. I prayed and prayed for help in knowing what to do to keep my family safe, but no answers ever came. It was so horrible. This went on for 2 or 3 months and those were the lowest of my life. But one day, it suddenly started to get better. It was only afterwards that I was able to recognize that this wasn’t a warning from God, but an anxiety disorder triggered by stress.

    What blew me away was that it felt exactly the same. Is that how God works? By altering the chemical balances of our brains? I mean, it kind of makes sense and also explains why some people have spiritual experiences that are sort of questionable. I mean, I can’t go around saying, “Oh, that one must have been just in their heads” because I have had undeniable spiritual experiences. And I wonder if we really can alter our ability to feel genuine spiritual influences by using drugs and medication. I have some pills now that make that feeling of doom go away. The anxiety only hits me occasionally, but when it does, I still have to take a step back and remember what is happening to me. Will the pills still work even if those feelings are genuine promptings?

    This whole experience has really made me super analytical of every little feeling I have. When I feel warm and fuzzy while someone is bearing their testimony about something, was that just a surge of chemicals? Does me feeling good about a decision we made mean that it was the right decision or was it just hormones? What does it say about how the spirit and the body interact? It hasn’t really affected my faith in God, just made me more curious about how all this stuff works and the interaction between spirituality and science.

  9. 9.

    I want to give you a huge hug, Lynette.

    I cannot thank you enough for talking about this and for sharing your experience. I was terribly depressed for most of my time at div school up until just recently, related to both biology and theology. I hope I can talk to you at greater length sometime.

    Michelle G., I hear you. I HEAR you. A huge hug for you, too.

  10. 10.

    Thank you for sharing something so personal with us, I know how much courage it takes. As with you, my relationship with God has been profoundly affected by depression.

    I had a severe thyroid disorder when I was a teenager that would yo-yo me through times of mania and depression. It got to be that the only time I felt God’s presence was during these times so after I had my thyroid removed it felt like the windows of heaven closed. God has been pretty much silent since then and that was ten years ago. I have wondered if maybe the lack of natural thyroid hormone has somehow affected my brain’s ability to commune with God. How else can I explain God’s silence?

    I remember begging God to bring me some comfort last year in the midst of the serious depression I wrote about here. Surely I had done nothing to deserve that kind of pain. The fact that God didn’t show up in the hour of my greatest need is something I’m still trying deal with. In the end it was loved ones that pulled me out of the depression, my hope is that God chose to act through them rather than minister to me himself.

  11. 11.

    [...] is a very good post at one of my favorite bloggernacle sites relating the experience of a person with bipolar [...]

  12. 12.

    To what extent are your personal experience of and beliefs about God a function of your neurological wiring

    I remember reading one of the Ender novels where one of the character chooses to die, free of a teraforming virus that is necessary for his life, in order to think free of its influence and a later novel of how the one person is gloriously bright in retaining her insanity even when freed from her OCD issues.

    Sigh. I’m torn between wanting to continue pursuing God until I find Him again and wishing to damn myself so thoroughly so I won’t have to go through an eternity of this pointless existence. Is that possible?

    Yes and no is what I would think ;)

    In the end it was loved ones that pulled me out of the depression, my hope is that God chose to act through them rather than minister to me himself.

    I remember a friend in college who was angry with God. He kept praying for help and all that ever happened was that his bishop would pester him and ask if there was anything he could do.

    I’ve thought a lot about that since, obviously.

  13. 13.

    [...] Deciphering the Divine Signal: Lynette’s experience with sorting through the epistemological and theological issues prompted by brain chemistry. [...]

  14. 14.

    .

    I’m not surprised to see all the links leading here. I want to link it abroad as well, but I feel cautious about spreading your story wider than it may travel on its own. Not my typical internet MO at all.

  15. 15.

    Some great comments here. Thanks so much for the support and kindness and willingness to share your own experiences.

    Becky, glad you came out of hiding for this one. I like that idea of gratitude for having your assumptions turned upside down. I kind of think one of the functions of grace is to radically disorient us.

    Kevin, RecessionCone, Howard, nat–thanks. Nat, I like that image of being caught under a waterfall. That really gets at something about the experience.

    Michelle, I totally hear you. I wish I knew what to say. Part of me wants to say, hang in there, it really can get better–but if someone said that to me when I was in a dark place, I would probably want to smack them. ;) Especially when it’s been going on for a long time. I feel like I lucked out in finally finding treatment that helped and meds that work, and I wish that happened for everyone, and I know all too well that it doesn’t. But I can say that I hear you, and I think it’s really lousy that you have to go through this.

    Rachel, that point about letting go of the obligation to be happy has been a really important one for me, too. For me, the most helpful approach to depression by far has been mindfulness, which includes a radical acceptance of things as they are. I know some people really improve with cognitive-behavioral therapy, but I always found that particular approach frustrating because it felt like arguing myself out of my emotions. But with mindfulness, you essentially let go of the argument–you let yourself experience what you’re experiencing. And I think there’s something very liberating in not having an obligation to feel a particular way. I mean, depression is bad enough without that extra layer of guilt about it. So anyway, I very much relate to what you are saying.

    Also, I love Julian! She’s helped me a lot with some of my “God is out to get me” issues.

    Mossbloom, thanks so much for sharing that story and your thoughts–those are exactly the kinds of questions I’m wondering about. Does God communicate through brain chemistry? And if so, how do we tell that in one situation it’s from God, and in another, it’s caused by something else? I’m reminded of the famous study from several decades ago in which they gave divinity students some kind of drug and sent them to church, and most of them reported intense religious experiences. And in my own life–I can take an anti-anxiety med and get to a calm place where I feel like things are going to be okay. But that’s also the kind of thing we believe that the Holy Ghost does. Lots of questions there.

    Aww, Liz. Thanks. Biology and theology–that is exactly the deadly combination. We do need to talk more.

  16. 16.

    Thanks for sharing this, Lynnette. You raise some crucial questions. And I love how you describe your experiences, painful though they have been.

    You may have already been getting at this, but given what being manic revealed to you (that God wasn’t punishing you when you were depressed), would you have avoided it if you had known that would be the outcome? Or maybe I’m just asking more generally if you think it was on balance a good thing to have gone through, in spite of the depression that followed and all the difficulties associated with being manic.

  17. 17.

    I’ve had some moderate issues with anxiety, depression, PMS, PPD and thyroid disease. I think that it is harder to “feel the spirit” when you are depressed.
    Luckily for me, even when I have felt like other people didn’t care one way or another about me, I have always known that God loves me. Can I give my parents and the church credit for giving me an unshakeable self-esteem about my worth? So many people don’t know their own worth.
    During my first bout with PPD, I did feel something (anxiety) that I finally decided felt like guilt. So I went to the bishop to try to confess anything that I could think of. It actually makes me laugh. I didn’t know what was going on.
    I LOVE the fact that I understand my own body and my own emotions more. I find it easier to feel the spirit the older I get. When I was younger I didn’t realize when God was talking to me. But I also am “lucky” because I don’t really need God to talk to me all the time. He’s already told me so much and I believe it.
    When I feel emotionally needy, my husband or a friend is enough to fill the holes. It has been a long, long time since I have been desperate for extraordinary divine comfort. Perhaps because I get enough little inspiration out of a special hymn or a lesson or a conversation or a verse or a small feeling during a prayer.
    Mossbloom, very interesting ideas about brain chemistry. I am convinced that God is really good at science so your theory makes sense to me. Ever since my thyroid disease, I can see that it is my chemistry that rules so much.

  18. 18.

    Wow, mraynes. Thanks for sharing that. That really gets to the heart of this issue. It complicates our theology a lot if God’s absence is linked to both sin and a lack of thyroid hormones.

    This is getting me thinking about the centrality of embodiment and materiality in our tradition. From a dualist perspective, revelation would presumably connect with our “spirit,” a distinct entity from the body, which is thus not susceptible to the limitations of the body. That’s how you can posit the ability of everyone to receive revelation. I’m guessing that’s the general, if not always articulated, model that Latter-day Saints use. But there are a lot of reasons to question dualism. At least in the context of mortality, I don’t think we can talk about spirits as clearly distinct from bodies. Our spirituality, I would say, is always an embodied one–which means we have to grapple with problems like this.

    Anyway, with your situation–that’s tough. Especially the bit about God not being there when you really needed him. Your comment about him maybe working through other people–I think that for me, there have been times that God really couldn’t communicate with me, for reasons of wacked out brain chemistry or whatever. Other people could help in a way that God couldn’t do directly. Like you, I’d like to use that framework, to think that God was working in other ways. But there’s still some pain in that, some sense of betrayal.

    Stephen, I remember that. The OCD as the voice of God thing really is interesting. On a related note, there’s a contemporary tendency to go back and diagnose mystics and other religious figures with various mental illness. I’m wary of that because of the anachronism problem–I’m not sure importing our medical model framework to people of previous centuries is the best way to understand them. That said, Martin Luther exhibited some characteristics that might be described in our day as manic depression, and it led to some great theology. And I actually think his discussion of being accosted by the devil is a more powerful and resonant description of what it feels like than the contemporary clinical language of brain chemistry.

    Th., I appreciate your respect for the personal nature of this post. Though I’m okay with it being linked.

    Ziff, I’ve thought about that question, too. And the answer is that I would totally have done it again, knowing what would happen. Part of that is admittedly the excitement of mania, which is why bipolar people are notorious for not staying on their meds. I didn’t mention in the post that even after the awfulness of what the mania turned into (by the end it wasn’t even fun anymore), and the horrible depression that followed, when things had settled down again, I tried to see if I could replicate the experience by going off my meds again. The lure was that strong. But it didn’t work nearly as well the second time. Which is maybe a good thing, because it’s made me less tempted to chase it. (I still get hypomanic, but nothing as intense as this was.)

    But on the whole, I think it was a good experience for me to have. It arose from an irresponsible choice that I can’t condone and would never advocate (people usually get miserably sick when they stop meds cold turkey, and it’s really not fun). But I also don’t regret doing it, because it opened up possibilities to me that I don’t know that I would have been able to see otherwise. It complicated things for me that needed to be complicated. I might not say that if I’d tried to fly off a building or something, and I’m lucky that I came through relatively unscathed. But for me, in the long run, I would say it helped more than it hurt.

    (Also it gave me some great material for theological work. ;) )

  19. 19.

    Lynnette:
    Thank you for a very moving and well-written piece. I have two points to share from counseling and dealing with my own issues including occasional meds.

    First, I read something in Nibley once in the context of why the Prophet Joseph needed all those physical things to be a prophet, i.e., plates, seer stones, urim & thummim, etc. Nibley said there is something about physical things in a physical world we need to learn to master in a spiritual way. I took the leap to apply the idea to brain function and necessary meds, etc.

    Second, many here have commented on the Lord working through others, which I heartily endorse. If there is someone close, a family member, church leader, spouse, whoever that you have full trust in, it is always good to have someone monitoring or to be a “second opinion” on both spiritual promptings or revelation and mental illness issues. (In the mouth of two or more witnesses type of thing)

    I know the feeling of having sin and mental illness combine in the depths of depression (I’ve never been blessed with the manic side!) But I have always been blessed to have a good bishop just at the needed time to help sort those things out. And I am very blessed to have a good wife who helps me with those things. I try to be the same for her. I’ve seen the same work with my father-in-law with my mother-in-law. I have a good friend in a brother-in-law who can also do the job for me as a backup.

    So, I’m far from having all the answers but I think that is exactly why we humans need each other. Best of everything to you!

  20. 20.

    Thank you Lynnette. Sometimes I think we need to re-interpret that passage of scripture on spiritual gifts. “To some it is given to believe…” It is hard to explain how prayers are answered so readily for some people and not for others. Instead of thinking in terms of worthiness, maybe it would be best to think of spirituality like a gift.

    As we learn more and more about brain function and brain chemistry, I also expect that we will need to re-work our understanding of agency. It is a fact that many of the people who are incarcerated for violent crimes or sex crimes have an elevated level of testosterone. It’s humbling to think that maybe the biggest difference between me and somebody who is serving a 15 year sentence for assault is a minute amount of some hormone or other.

  21. 21.

    Really so very excellent to read this, on the “mindfulness” level, I suppose. In a quest for keenness over peace, I tried an unsuccessful little off-the-meds experiment earlier this year, too. When I was trying to decide which, a well-meaning friend had asked me about the helpfulness of meditation or something similar in battling my anxiety, and consequent contemplation led me to this: I am able to talk myself through most of my waves of despair, self-loathing, and that inner Calvinist mentioned and set them aside as chemical firings gone awry. But what that demands of me is that I place aside my gut-instinct feelings. And for a Mormon girl who has been taught all of her life–and really does believe–that her feelings are her link to the divine and sure way to direct life for good, well, that leaves you in a bad place, theologically. A conundrum.

  22. 22.

    I was at a fireside/discussion group thing recently that had the rare gift of being both Mormon- and evolutionary science-themed and a man in attendance, a neuroscientist, mentioned that (statistic remembered, so probably off a bit) ten years ago, about twenty neurotransmitters were documented. Now the number is two hundred and climbing, and he thinks that brings up some very interesting questions in any discussion of agency. Related, I have been fascinated by the discussion of “happiness genes” in Richard Powers’ novel Generosity: An Enhancement and its personal implications. Hard emotional work, this.

  23. 23.

    “I also expect that we will need to re-work our understanding of agency”
    When understanding agency as more than just the freedom to choose, but also the opportunity to have the choice have consequences, we can see that this life isn’t just about choosing the right answers to test questions but it is a learning laboratory where we can see for ourselves what happens when we make those choices. The consequences of using our agency on earth have only mortal consequences and we will have learned for ourselves whether we can be trusted and whatever kingdom we go to will be obvious to ourselves.

  24. 24.

    Lynnette, thank you so much for sharing this. My thanks are two-pronged:

    1. Having experienced rather severe depression myself and struggled through the process of finding medication that works and seeing lots of doctors before finding a therapist who could actually help me, I relate to your experience. Depression is a brutal, deadening experience and coming out of it over the course of the last couple of years has been a painful, beautiful, distressing, incredible experience for me. And one that has been bizarrely full and devoid of God’s communication with me. I really appreciate you having the courage to share your experience. i think it’s an incredibly important experience for us to consider as followers of Christ and believers in the human-divine connection.

    2. You raise such important questions about the nature of our communication with God. I particularly value the point you make about us as human beings being relational creatures. I have been arguing for a long time that it’s a mistake to think of ourselves only as individuals. We are always social creatures, from the very beginnings of our being. I think your query about how this fact affects our communication with God is very important. One immediate, instinctive response is that when we seek communication with God out of love for others, of course that love will shape our conversation with God. But often that love is accompanied by fear or pain or any number of other emotions that would certainly affect our perception and interpretation of God’s speaking to us.

    I think the relational nature of human existence is perhaps the most important aspect of what it means to communicate with God. As I said (rather cryptically) above, my moving through depression into a state of much more peace and stability has been both full and devoid of communication with God. Full because I have received that communication from so many different people and things–my mother holding me and crying with me while I mourned an ending relationship, even though she actually wanted it to end; friends laughing with me over dinner; the brush of a breeze on my cheek; spring’s first blossoms. All of those things are God speaking to me. None of them are God speaking to me in that traditional sense of directed, concrete messages. But through my relationships with others and with my world I feel closer to the divine than I ever have before.

    Having said all that, I’ll just end with a simple thank you. Thank you for telling your story and asking such important questions about the nature of revelation.

  25. 25.

    This is an excellent question, and one I struggle with myself on an ongoing basis. I know that certain brain states can make me unable to hear God, or even to remember that he’s there to be heard. I also wonder why some of us have brains like this, that seem to betray us and lie to us. Mine for years told me I was an utter wretch with no redeeming qualities, and I spent so many years struggling with a wish to die, an urge to take my own life. I knew it was a mistake, but I couldn’t see how or weasel out of it, so I just did battle against that feeling in any way I could find.

    Then come the manic states, rare as they are, and a feeling that everything is in my grasp, almost a feeling of being divine myself, or so close to it that I could take only one small step and be there. I mean, I have this feeling sometimes that I almost do believe is true, that enlightenment can happen in an instant, and we could each of us become buddhas, in an LDS way. We could make great leaps forward in our eternal progression.

    I ask myself why our brains are like this? Why when it means we have to suffer so much more than folk with more typical neural wiring? The idea that came to me that I’d like to share, because it really does seem right to me, and seems to help me in thinking about it is this: I think this type of brain gives us the capacity to have these beautiful divine experiences as we sometimes feel in hypomanic states, and the key is that we will learn eventually how to hang there in exactly that perfect place of maximum creativity, sensitivity, love, flourishing, happiness, and joy, and forgo both the deep lows and the crazy manic states that are too too much.

    You’re so right that nobody minds if you are depressed, but you drive them nutty when you’re manic. Everyone’s ready to fix you when you’re manic, the same people who could care less when you’re in constant anguish, lol. But there is that sweet spot, that beauty and grace that those of us with these cursed blessed volatile moods can hit, that is the reason I think God gives them to us. That’s what I decided, anyway, and it’s helped very much.

    When I’m miserable now, I tell myself God doesn’t want me feeling that way, so sad and so insensible to my relationship with him. And of course the manic feeling can be dangerous and destabilizing of all one’s relationships, so that’s not the way God wants me to feel either. But those times of pure ecstatic joy, of a feeling of rightness, energy, creativity, love, and passion, those are the way I imagine divine beings feel, and that’s why I think we have these experiences and these capacities, so we can eventually learn to be that way always.

    I hope that helps. I admire greatly your willingness to talk about this stuff, and your ability to describe it so well. I’ve felt the exact same way as you describe.

  26. 26.

    Eloquent post. Thoughtful comments.
    Thank you, all.

  27. 27.

    There’s one more thing that I did that ended the misery. I want to tell it here even though it sounds crazy because I admire how honestly you spoke in the OP, and because I’d love it if it could help someone ever.

    I started thinking a lot about Christ and his example, and the most important thing he did was to accept all of our pain, suffering, sin, anguish, etc. and feel it for himself. So if he’s my model, then I should try to ease the pain of those around me by feeling it myself instead. So one thing that started between my close friends and me, almost as a game at first then we all came to believe in it because it worked so well, is we started painsharing with one another.

    When my friend dropped a kitchen countertop on his foot while he was installing it, he was in intense pain, and I took it from him. We talking online or on the phone or even by texting and he tries to give him his pain and I try to take it. And it works. Other times I might have a sore that’s not healing (since I’m diabetic this is a constant problem). I might have been nursing this bug bite on my ankle that turned into a big old festering ulcer, and I’m babying it and trying to get it to heal and it won’t. So I try to give that to my friend (I have several friends who do this with me). He tries to take it and heal it for me, and it works. Finally it begins to respond to treatment and get better.

    Once I had a terrible migraine and my friend took it from me and it was just gone. It’s astonishing how well this works. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t experienced it.

    So I can also take badfeelings. They come through pretty powerfully, actually. The other physical pains are very much muted, usually. I feel a few twinges in the spot where it hurts my friend, often in the opposite side of my body, for some reason. Like if his left foot is in pain and I take it, I might feel some aches and twinges in my right foot. But when I’ve taken the badfeelings of my son or friends, I might have a terrible misery time, and spend hours in tears or something. Either those were some extremely powerful badfeelings I took, or else they come through less muted than physical pain.

    Okay, so that’s all background to this thing I did that seems to have ended my misery and suicidality forever, that I want to tell you about. I started thinking about painsharing as something Christ had taught me to do. So the last misery night I had, I said to God that by gosh I may not have many good qualities but I definitely know how to suffer. So I’m willing to suffer this anguish, but please let it help someone else somewhere else in creation. Please let me be suffering this so some child somewhere maybe who is abused or something can feel some comfort and peace. Please let my anguish be doing some good somehow. I don’t know how that all works, God, that’s your business. But if this painsharing thing works somehow, and obviously it does, if so then let my pain be easing someone else’s please, give it that much meaning. Make it not just utterly pointless, please.

    That was the last misery night I ever had. All the most crucial and important doctrines are paradoxical somehow. Lose our lives for Christ’s sake and gain eternal life. Gain joy by accepting pain. I found what may be coincidence or may be a key. By gratefully accepting the anguish, I ended it.

    Like I said, seems rather crazy. The only reason I mention it is that it actually worked for me, for whatever reason. I hope it can be a help to someone else who is desperate and crazy enough to try it.

  28. 28.

    Lynette, thank you for this candid and insightful post. You’re in good company. I’ve found it much easier to write about my experiences with depression than my experiences with mania, but you’re inspiring me to pull out a half-finished essay and try again. Bless you for taking the risk of broaching such a fraught topic.

  29. 29.

    Lynnette, thank you so much for this post, and for everyone who has shared their experiences. Truly, giving face and reality to depression, mania, and mental illnesses takes away some of their scare power, and adds to those of us that struggle the reminder to recognize them for what they are.

    I’ve been trying to articulate my feelings about this topic for the better part of my lunch hour and I can’t seem to do it. So I’ll just say thank you for giving me some wonderful food for thought.

  30. 30.

    I can’t really add much to the comments on this brave, insightful post, but I want to echo my thanks. One of the hardest things I’ve ever encountered is navigating God in the midst of mental health problems. It really helps to know I’m not as alone in this as I feel.

  31. 31.

    I just wanted to jump back on this thread and say how much I’ve appreciated the comments. I seem to have gotten a little distracted by the standard ZD feminist fireworks, but I’m hoping to come back and respond to some of the things that have come up.

  32. 32.

    Beautifully written, Lynnette. thank you!

  33. 33.

    A few more thoughts, in response to some of these great comments.

    Mark’s point about spiritual gifts seems very relevant. I’m seeing a possible tension between Moroni’s promise with its universalist language, and the spiritual gift model in which to some it is given to know, and to others to believe. The latter seems to better represent the diversity of human religious experience, but the former is a kind of basic premise of the church. I’m not sure where to go with that. But if nothing else’s it’s a good reminder to be charitable with one another—because we really don’t know why some people get answers more easily—and avoid the all-too-common presumption that it’s all about worthiness and sin.

    And that goes nicely with Fychan’s comment about us all needing each other, and amelia’s comments about relationality. The fact that so much of life is ambiguous, and that we don’t get more than glimpses of the divine, I think, sets up a situation in which we can’t do it alone, in which spiritually really can’t be an isolated, individual thing. When I think about my relationship with God, I have to note how much it’s been shaped by the books I’ve read, the ideas I’ve encountered, the people I’ve known (and obviously the church in which I was raised). Not that I don’t also feel that I don’t have a uniquely individual relationship, but the relationship doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

    On a more negative note, I think that’s also a reason why when there are religious teachings that you find painful, it’s often not as simple as going to God to get answers about them—because your relationship to God is already influenced by the ideas of your religious context.

    Valerie, that’s exactly the conundrum—that for someone steeped in LDS thinking, your gut-instinct is something to be trusted; it’s your most basic communication to the divine. And to learn to challenge it, then, involves both behavioral and emotional work, and theological work. I’ve noticed that even when that voice makes me miserable, it’s incredibly disorienting to give it up—it’s a leap out of the familiar, and that can be terrifying. Is it scarier to believe that you’re damned, or that you aren’t? I’ve spent a lot of time considering that question. I guess there are all kinds of faith.

  34. 34.

    Tatiana, thanks for sharing your experience and some of your the ways you’ve made sense of it. The neuroscience questions are so intriguing. I have this book that I really need to read called, The Fingerprints of God, by Barbara Hagerty, which looks at some of these questions. (I have a lot of books that I need to read, but instead I buy more books.) But the reason I mention this one is because I heard a talk she gave, and having done a lot of research on this subject, she proposed that some people really do have brains that are more attuned to revelation than others. On the one hand, I think, well that’s certainly what I’ve seen in talking to people–but on the other, I find it deeply unsettling, because my Mormonness makes me want to believe that everyone is potentially receptive to revelation. But what if for some of us, God really can only communicate through others? It has a lot of implications for the expectation in the church that everyone should have a testimony, a personal witness from God.

  35. 35.

    Re universality vs spiritual gifts, I /think/ it’s about the idea that basically some people are ‘gifted’ or ‘naturals’ for some spiritual stuff and others have to work really damned hard (again I’d say this varies according to existing ability) to get the same thing, & I’m talking potentially lifetime hard (as a person who sucks at recognizing revelation even at the fairly basic level, but there is hope, I have made a very little progress! But that is very exciting :) ). And basically, everyone has different things come easily to them, some things will be darn hard work, while others may ultimately be a bit beyond us (I’ll never be a hardcore mathematician) which im guessing is true for spiritual and more ‘general’ things. So I don’t know if I’ll ever have the clear & obvious experiences of some, but a small insight into the little, quiet and boring ways I do get revelation means a lot to me ;)

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