Saint Hilda's House

through the gates and into the city

Mental Illness and the Journey of the Soul

Carravaggio- The Conversion of St. Paul

Carravaggio- The Conversion of St. Paul

It is my belief that we are all, throughout our lives, on a journey of the soul. God is leading each of us through life and is with us as our souls grow and change. God ultimately wishes to occupy the center of our souls and to have our souls thrive in love and joy, but often She has to take us through dark places before we can see that kind of light.

For many, myself included, the journey of our souls passes through mental illness. Mental illness is one of the most stigmatized and widely ignored of all human experiences. It is vastly common and very little talked about. Many people surely believe that experiences of mental illness cannot be religious at the same time; they may think that those who claim they can must be deluding themselves. Because medical science dubs depression, mania or schizophrenia as being pathological, many cannot see how God might be at work through symptoms of mental illness. In this post, I will argue that God is very present in the experiences of people with mental illness. Through sharing my own “journey of the soul,” I hope to demonstrate how experiences can be both religiously valid and at the same time require medical treatment.

Throughout my life, I have experienced both deep depression and intense mania. Each of these has been vital to my soul’s journey. Mental illness has, to a great extent, contributed to making me the person I am today. It has opened my soul, made me more compassionate, and, most importantly, made me come to faith in God from atheism. Although they were very difficult at the time, I would not trade my experiences of mental illness for anything. They have been central to my soul’s journey and growth. I'm going to describe my experiences of depression and mania and outline how these experiences helped to grow and nurture my soul and my religious faith. I hope that other people can relate their experiences to what I have to say.

Just to be clear - I do not claim that mental illness is an inherently good thing or that it necessarily has religious implications for people. I am merely outlining how experiences of illness and suffering can help people grow and can be very spiritually valid. Mental illness can have a big impact on our souls’ journeys. Sometimes that impact can be very bad. But it can also, as in my case, be vital and immensely good. I urge people to reflect on their own soul’s journeys as they read this. What has contributed to their soul’s growth? How can they relate to the experiences I describe? I hope my personal narrative helps people to make sense of their own. God knows, our lives are all journeys of the soul. 

My Experience

In my life, God has taken me to the lowest of lows. I have suffered three major bouts of depression, each of which lasted many months. During these episodes, the entire way I viewed myself shifted dramatically. My mind turned against me and I transformed to a state of constantly hurling abuse at myself. All I could think about was how pathetic I was and how I would never amount to anything. There was no escape from these abusive thoughts; they became the entire way that I thought.

In short, depression was hell. It was truly the most awful experience I have ever had to go through. I was lucky to have had very supportive people in my life at these times, most importantly, my parents. My parents told me I was worth something, but I did not believe them. All the evidence of my “pathetic” life seemed to me to scream otherwise. While I was depressed, I did not feel emotions. I became completely numb inside. I remember wishing so hard that I could feel something. I remember thinking I was some kind of monster who could not feel and had never felt anything in my life. I thought I would never get better and that my whole life would be one deeply depressed mess. From dawn to dusk, I hurled abuse at myself. I constructed a narrative of my life that cast me as completely hopeless. I truly could not see anything of value in myself.

And then, suddenly, the episodes of depression lifted. I was, in the space of a few days, able to feel emotions. I was able to escape out of the depressed narratives my cruel mind had constructed and entrapped me in. I was myself again. This coming out of depression was a deeply spiritual experience. It was an affirmation of my own worth and salvation. Just as depression was the worst thing I had experienced, breaking out of it was one of the most joyful experiences of my life. Following each bout of depression, my soul grew immensely. I became much more aware of all the human suffering in the world. I became committed to helping people move out of the kind of pain that I had experienced while depressed. I have no doubt that God was guiding me through the wilderness of depression to transform me for the better. I now understood what it was to suffer. And I became committed to using my life to end intense suffering all around the world. Through depression, God brought me to hell and back, so that I could emerge, like tempered steel, a better human than I was before. God used my experiences of illness to help me blossom as a person. I needed to know what suffering was in order to appropriately feel love and compassion toward others. I needed to have felt like the world’s biggest “nowhere man” in order to really arrive “somewhere.” The God-guided journey of my soul continued.

Alongside the depression has been the mania. I have had multiple experiences of being manic. While difficult, these too have been vital for my religious growth. I came to faith in God through a mystical experience that medical science designates as a major manic episode. At the time I felt that I was Jesus himself, having a powerful mission to love the world as much as I possibly could. While in the emergency room, I thought I was dying and going to heaven. I was not at all afraid; I knew that death would be a very pleasant thing. When I was discharged to a recovery facility, the first thing I did was to burst in on a group therapy session and point to each person in the room saying “I love you, I love you, I love you…” This seemed to me like something that Jesus would do. After this loving, mystical experience, the divine presence I had felt stayed with me. I knew that God was real. And I knew that God was in charge of my life. Had I not had such an experience of “letting go,” I might not have submitted so readily to God’s power over me. I had suffered from mental illness, yes. But through this mental illness I had found the divine. I would never see the world in the same way again.

Alongside my experience of coming to faith, manic episodes have contained for me nothing short of religious revelation. They have helped me to appreciate how loved I am by God. They have moved me closer to God. And they have made me realize that a deeply gracious God is in control of my life. I am in God’s hands. While depression made me think I was pathetic, manic episodes helped me to realize how amazingly loved I am by God. My manic episodes have, for the most part, been quite pleasant experiences. During them, I have noticed coincidences in my mind and in the world around me that could only be attributed to a divine hand. Mania has served to both affirm my faith and deepen it. I do not want the reader to think that I have sought out these pleasant manic experiences. Some of them have been deeply disruptive to my life, and I very much regret certain actions I took while manic. I know that mania is an illness which requires medical treatment, and I am pursuing psychiatric attention for it. But, alongside being an illness, these manic experiences have contributed greatly to my soul’s journey. They have brought me to faith in God, and have furthered and nurtured that faith. While I do not wish to have another manic episode, I thank God immensely for the progress mania has caused in the journey of my soul. 

Christ and Redemption 

I would not wish mental illness on anyone. It can be very difficult to experience and can be immensely disruptive in one’s life. Both of these things have certainly has been the case in my life. However, I would also encourage those who have experienced mental illness to reflect on how their experiences might have contributed to the journey of their souls. Even in the darkest darkness, God is there. God works through suffering to help us grow as people. This does not mean that suffering is good. It does, however, mean that even the deepest pain can be redemptive and enable us to grow as human beings. Suffering can make us more loving. And it can bring us closer to God. God is certainly there with us throughout it all, even when She seems most distant. 

At the center of Christianity is a symbol of redemptive suffering. Christ hung on the cross to manifest God’s love to the world. He felt that God was far from him at the time (“My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”), but God was already at work in bringing about the joy of his resurrection. Christ’s death and resurrection show how even the darkest experiences can be greatly instrumental in bringing about the most powerful redemption and joy. We all have our crosses to bear. But life does not end on the cross. Mental illness can cause us to grow and we can emerge, reborn, from deep suffering. Mental illness can be instrumental in the journeys of our souls. Depression, mania, and other mental afflictions are illnesses and those experiencing them need to seek medical help. They are not something to be wished for, but they can be instruments of positive personal and spiritual transformation.

I hope that my narration of my experiences has helped people to see that mental health and religious experience should not be divorced. After all, some of the greatest historical religious experiences (Paul’s conversion, Moses’ hearing God’s voice, Mohammed’s revelation, Buddha’s enlightenment) could be viewed as symptoms of mental illness. God is working in the journey of each of our souls. She is there in suffering and darkness as well as joy and light. She is guiding us. And we should be aware of the ways in which She is. For those suffering mental illness, seek medical help, and there is hope for recovery. But also know that God is right there with you, even as She may seem most distant. Your soul is on a journey, and it does not end with pain and suffering. I thank God, every day, for that gracious gift. God did not forsake me, even when I forsook myself. If that is not love, I do not know what is.

 

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