I knew someone who once said to me that he would wonder why God had broken his brain, why he went from being fine one day and adrift the next. Yet he still clung to his faith, albeit with a twitchy, nervous energy you could feel at a distance. Why God broke his brain is an apt way of expressing what it can feel like. I can still remember watching him from my corner at the back of the church—where I could hear and not be seen—watch him get up and pace. Hands in the pocket on the front of his hooded sweatshirt. Back and forth…back and forth.
Little Big Sounds
It can start as little sounds. A tap, a drip or a thump but repetitive, distinct. And while they don’t get any louder, my ear and my brain hear the sounds increase with a frenetic urgency. That’s when the panic starts to build, growing with each recurrence. Louder and stronger until eventually, if not interrupted, they can become booming and earthshaking; it can seem as if the sky is falling all around me, but the reality is that it’s nothing more than a small, recurrent sound. And the profuse panic and agitation that materializes can explode outward in yelling for it to stop and paradoxically, a deep desire to hide; my fight or flight instincts both engaging at the same moment. And its emptying, both emotionally and physically. This is my type of panic, the type that is evoked by ordinary sounds, ordinary conversations, or my favorite, nothing at all. And the sources of evocation are not exceptional or life altering either, not the type to promote hysteria or engage defenses in the average person. This is one of the underlying dissimilarities between life with mental illness and life without mental illness. What most would find annoying I can, at least momentarily, experience as debilitating. The sort of small, insignificant events that most people would rebuff with a shrug of the shoulders and a moving on to the next thing, I ruminate over as an automatic, almost mechanical action of paranoia and worry. Where one would worry over finances and work toward their balancing, I dismiss altogether as beyond my ability to deal with to my own ruin. To be disengaged from life by sights and sounds that are no more than life being lived is no way to exist.
And that’s the rub isn’t? The connection between general, run of the mill suffering (that’s a strange thing to write, isn’t it) and mental illness can seem to be something that’s easily grasped by those who aren’t afflicted or personally invested in someone who is. It isn’t though. The average person, they don’t hear voices or see people who don’t exist, they aren’t afraid of leaving the house, even for something as simple as taking out the trash. Mental illness can be perplexing. Perplexing in a way that preys upon the faith of those who live through panic and anxieties that have become so overpowering that they garner the designation of disorder. Perplexing to those who, looking in from the outside, don’t really see the internal suffering that the person is going through. There is no reservoir of empathy because there is no suffering to acknowledge.
Nonetheless, many aspects of mental illness look like the normal wear and tear that life in the world commonly brings. What mental illness does is attenuate the normal worries and cares of the world, turning up the intensity while retaining a semblance that is recognizable to most people as something that they can relate to. It’s in this way mental illness can, ironically, lead to peoples lack of empathy. It’s in this false recognition of commonality that empathy evaporates and you begin to hear things like “we all worry” and “we all get overwhelmed” and my favorites “ have you given it to God” or “do you pray when ‘it’ happens.” Those questions, some heartfelt and well intended and some not so much, can be disheartening and demeaning; that the people whom you want to look to for solace and support have no clue as to what you’re going through and might not even be capable or prepared to learn. And while the last two can at times be valid, as mental illness can at times displace God in the life of the christian with mental illness, they can also be trite answers to honest questions about suffering.
And that question of why? Well for me it erupted in impiety and anger. Anger at a god who could be so capricious as to create life and then condemn it to terror. I grew so angry that my perceptiveness, or what passed for it at twenty-five, failed to see that that god of capriciousness that I raged against was a fabrication, an amplification and distortion created from the commingling of my natural proclivity to sin and my mental illness, rearing back at God in blind rebellion and viciousness.
Again the question of why is inescapable. Why have I been made to suffer beyond what seems ordinary to man. Why the delusions, auditory hallucinations, or illusory beliefs. Why the sometimes unfounded and often persistent fears of experiencing life outside? Why? It’s a tough question, especially when it can seem like a lack of piety when it appears that you are questioning the Creator about His creation.
Walking With Christ Through Illness
One thing that is essential to remember, something that I must continually bring to memory, is that I walk with Christ through my suffering. I walk as a Christian with mental illness, as a Christian who suffers; I cannot allow myself to be the kind of person who uses Christ as a night light when night terrors come. I am not nor is anyone else someone who is mentally ill and just incidentally happens to be Christian. It does not and cannot be my tribulation, my illness that defines me. I may not be able to see through the mist that rises from the ground of my afflictions, yet the Lord leads me through the terror of the unknown to rest beside quiet waters and I have confidence that it is He who guides and shelters me when all else seems lost in the storm of what was once a calm mind.
Nevertheless, doubt clings to my mind, overwhelmed as I often am by panic that springs forth fully formed and envelopes what I know to be real and batters it, sometimes for moments, sometimes days, weeks even. Knowing the promises of God is one thing. Clinging to them, I have learned, is another thing altogether. It’s the clinging, the gripping through the battering storm that proves faith far more than any intellectual knowledge, a faith that works toward the glory of God, that leans on the promises of God with a hope that shall not be disappointed.
One thing that cannot be overlooked is that I was never promised freedom from suffering, not now, not in this present evil age. Instead, I travel through it burdened by the artifacts of the fall as a pilgrim looking to a better country, entrusting my soul to my faithful Creator. To our own hurt and unnecessary agony, what can and does happen is that we often look at our pilgrimage through this fallen world and assume that the suffering we are guaranteed is speaking to external pain, to persecution, to the loss of tangible things that we value, be they family, friends, or even our civil liberties. The important thing to note, is the assumption of the direction that our suffering is originating from. The assumption is that it is outside of ourselves, that although suffering can produce fear and doubt, its always an intrusion into the life of the believer that places these burdens upon us, that there’s a fundamental externality to the origin of our adversity. What some of us like myself find, is that our fear and doubt often come from within. That although it often appears as merely an extravagant response to an ordinary circumstance, what isn’t noticed is that underneath the surface our blood is already laced with explosives; the trigger is just absent. And its that external stimuli that provides it. Thus, although what is seen is my response, the underlying motivation for my actions are internal. I wish it were otherwise. Because I have missed years of family outings and gatherings because my fears are greater than my intentions. Christ said to let your yes be yes and your no be no and I struggle with that because of what I want my yes to be. I want to be present to my family in ways that seem to be beyond the scope of my capabilities. That is why the question of why is often on the bleeding edge of my thoughts. Because what I am capable of and what I am called to be often seem to be at war with each other. So I echo the sentiment of why did God break my brain. I too felt nothing coming until it arrived like an unexpected gift that turned out to be a pipe bomb.
In the end though, mental illness, no matter the sorrow and through all the trauma and drama, through all the tears and weariness, remains an affliction and relic of the fall that shall be cast off in glory. It is something that can be persevered through by the power of God which is guarding us “through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1st Peter 1:5-7) ESV