I want to write about my faith, the ups and downs, the joy, the disappointment; the things I used to believe that evolved into different beliefs; the things I stopped believing altogether. I want to write about all the times I was wrong and all the times I think I might have been right; all the times I tried to be what I thought everyone wanted me to be and all the times I felt like I let everyone down, including me.
I think it’s easier to share my faith story from here, where I can’t see your face and you can ignore me if you choose, pretend this thing I’m writing about isn’t really a thing. I think that’s what most people do. Besides, if we were talking face to face, I’d likely assume by your expression that you were negatively judging me; that you thought perhaps I was stupid or worse, insane. Then I’d stop myself and say: Never mind. So, what movies have you seen recently?
But I’m learning this thing called mindfulness and it’s not easy to master. My psychiatrist herself said it took her at least two years and she’s a doctor! I can only imagine how long it will take me to undo a lifetime of self-criticism, self-hatred, low self-esteem, low self-worth, etc. The hardest part is learning not to judge myself, let alone the other person or the situation. But it’s worth learning and practicing, perhaps for the rest of my life, if only to prevent the emotional, downward spirals my mind is prone to take me on. Those always land me somewhere in the darkness, searching for but unable to find, solid ground; wishing I was dead.
I’ve noticed my mind drifting even as I write. Mindfulness should help me overcome that inconvenient habit. Anyway, I was going to write about my faith, wasn’t I?
But how does anyone who, like me, was raised in a Christian tradition only to, later, deconstruct her faith and then reconstructed it into something that still includes Jesus, but otherwise doesn’t fit into the “Christian” culture as practiced in any of the local churches? Furthermore, how can any of us write about Jesus anymore without reopening old wounds and coming off as some sort of religious fanatic soul-bent on winning converts?
My brand of faith becomes even more complicated when I toss in my history of mental illness. The doctors call me “bipolar” even though my experience doesn’t match any typical “bipolar” experience. True, the defining moment of my diagnosis was in every way the equivalent of a textbook manic episode. It even led to a 3-week involuntary hospitalization in a psych hospital. The only strange part was that the mania only happened once and that was more than 16 years ago.
The other complication, that came soon after the mania, was my crisis in faith. It was a very traumatic wake-up call if ever there was one, but awaken me it did.
Not right away, of course. I had first to accept my manic experience as a symptom of mental illness and I really didn’t want to. After all, it felt much more natural to call it a religious experience. As I saw it, God had spoken to me, not with audible words, but with a feeling, a very strong feeling, reminding me of both his power and gentleness all at once. We could call it my “God-encounter.” I remember how, when it happened, I couldn’t move and lay on my back on my apartment floor, paralyzed and alone . Yet, at the same time, I wasn’t alone because I felt a tremendous presence that could only be described as love in its purest form. I was unafraid.
Now “God-encounters” happen more often than you may think and, not just in Christianity, but in many different religions. It took some time for me to acknowledge that because I was brought up to believe mine was the “one true faith” and I had never questioned it. I wasn’t prepared to find out I was wrong. If that fundamental belief were removed, surely the rest of my faith would crumble leaving me lost. Back then my faith was so much a part of my identity that the thought of losing it was unfathomable to me.
I know for some it’s easy to turn away from a faulty belief system. My best friend did so long before I did, but she didn’t come from a family of believers and her disbelief was, in many ways, rewarded by the people she surrounded herself with. Then, of course, she had to deal with me. But at least she was patient. Later I’d describe her (and many of my other non-Christian friends) as more Christ-like than any Christians I’d ever met.
Following my “God-encounter,” I experienced a mania that manifested, in part, as something psychiatrists call hyper-religiosity. To be clear, “God” never gave me any instructions in my “God-encounter,” but my bipolar mind decided to see him speaking to me and guiding me anyway. Simple puddles of water became symbols of baptism and graffiti on billboards reminded me that the end of the world was at hand.
Perhaps the only truly beautiful part of the illness was my distorted, manic vision of how the world was supposed to be. Through my perceived, supernatural lens, I imagined myself wandering throughout the world as God’s messenger and vessel, spreading his love, not with words, but with kindness.
As it happened, I’d been studying abroad in Montpellier (France) at the time and my manic “vision” actually inspired me to toss my passport (along with my credit cards and all other forms of identity) into the river. This was, in my mind, a symbol of me renouncing my country of origin and dying to who I used to be.
By then I’d come to believe that nationalism was counter everything that following Jesus meant. I didn’t want to be an American anymore. I’d seen how Europe hated us and our warmongering president. It made me angry as well and I wanted no part of it. In fact, I didn’t want to be any nationality, instead, firmly believing heaven was my true home and that I’d be a foreigner no matter where I lived. All I wanted then was to drift from place to place, spreading the love of God for the glory of God alone – taking none of the glory for myself. In the end, I felt sure I’d vanish like a vapor. No one would remember me, but they’d see God’s work through me and this would cause a worldwide chain-reaction of people spreading loving kindness to one another, unnoticed by the powerful, but forever delighting God the father.
Sounds beautiful, right? The narrative only falls apart when I remember how I also truly believed the end of the world was at hand; how I thought the United States, in all its greed, had fallen out of God’s favor (as if it were ever in his favor to begin with); how the anti-Christ had already risen in America. But I believed there was still time for the people of Europe to find Christ. There was still time to share God’s love in the land my ancestors had abandoned as we awaited Christ’s eminent return.
As a byproduct of my mania, my apocalyptic vision also came with a fair amount of paranoia. If I’d allowed someone of sound mind who shared my faith to question me, they’d have known right away that my visions weren’t from God solely based on the fact that one of the things God says over and over again when he talks to people in the Bible is – “Do not be afraid.” But I was very afraid. I was petrified the devil was going to try and take me down and that this “Father of lies” had already entered the souls of innocents in an effort to thwart my mission. That’s why, when the police found me walking alongside the freeway in South France in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t tell them who I was, where I was from, or where I was going. That’s why I was taken to the psych hospital near Perpignan and, when I refused to take the medicine I’d been prescribed, I was held face-down on my bed and given it as an injection in my lower back – only I thought I’d been given a lethal injection and spent a good portion of the night believing I was dying, weeping and praying for God to take me quickly for it was awfully lonely in the room where I was.
All of this forever robs me of the authority and respect so many others have when they talk about their faith. Is it any wonder, then, that I have trouble finding others who’ve been what I’ve been through in any church. Who would want to share such a humiliating experience? Who at the church could even begin to understand?
I’ve have met others like me in the psych hospitals I’ve visited in Arizona in the years when I tried to end my life. One was a pastor’s kid who thought he was Jesus (at least until he’d been brought to a hospital involuntarily and given medicine). Another was a woman who said she’d seen the face of the devil on her own children. Once, when I tried to lead some of the other patients in a worship song, a male nurse with a full beard told me to stop, explaining to me how he’d met some patients who (because of his beard) actually mistook him for Jesus while others would skip through the hallway believing themselves to be angels. Therefore he worried we’d only trigger such behaviors. He allowed us our faith as long as we ket it private. We just couldn’t speak (let alone sing) about it around the other patients.
Soon after my first hospitalization, I began to feel uncomfortable in every church I visited. It didn’t matter if it was mainstream Protestant, evangelical, charismatic, Quaker, or whatever. I’d just begun to feel like I didn’t belong there anymore.
Nevertheless, in the most secret part of my heart, I continued to pray, longing for that loving God who’d met me that day in my tiny studio apartment in France.
Encouraged by my friends, I read the arguments of famous atheists (like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) and I gradually let go of some of my long-held beliefs (like the existence of hell and so forth). But I could not let go of my belief in “God” (or “mystery” if that word seems more fitting to you). Sure, I danced with agnosticism for a while because it felt safe, especially since I felt belief and disbelief in a deity (or deities) were both positions of faith. I thought it best to say “I don’t know” rather than stand by something I could neither prove nor disprove.
In recent years, the church has actually begun to talk about mental health (finally). But even now the focus remains on the safe and familiar. Anxiety and depression are commonplace, after all. But psychosis? Hyper-religiosity? I guess they’re just not ready for it. Maybe they never will be.
It all came to a head when I attended a conference on “mental health and the church” at a local church in my area. All the keynote speakers were keen to normalize the idea of talking with psychotherapists and psychiatrists and/or taking psychotropic medicine (when needed). They even shared their personal experiences with trauma, and/or depression, and/or anxiety. But they were completely silent about psychosis. Nobody – nobody – dared address the one thing I longed to hear a Christian leader speak about.
I walked out feeling utterly forgotten and alone. I wondered what happened to the other folks I’d met in the hospital who’d experienced hyper-religiosity? Were they feeling how I felt? Had they quit church, too, because they felt like strangers there as I still do?
I want to write about my faith, but there is a stain on my experience that cannot easily dissolve. Once I even tried to enroll in seminary, but gave up when I learned I needed a pastoral recommendation and there was no pastor in the world who knew me well enough to give me one. Then again, my brain tends to break under pressure and the expectation of finishing assignments on time, giving presentations, and keeping my GPA up, is simply too much for me.
Too bad. I think Christianity could use more people who can share this kind of wound without fear of rejection.
My closest friends aren’t church-goers anymore (if they even were to begin with) for their own reasons, and yet they love me far more than anyone outside of my family has ever loved me. They are now my church. But I keep my faith language to a minimum out of respect and love. After all, there are some deep wounds there still and, sadly, those wounds were caused not by Jesus, but by the church.