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.
- 29 April 2011