Then and Now

Then and Now

Five days before writing this, I was in the psych hospital again. Only this time, I wasn’t depressed, suicidal, or self-harming.

This time I entered the hospital in the elevated mood commonly known as “mania.”

True, I had to total my car and be driven to the ER via ambulance before signing myself in. But I’d been to psych hospitals before and when it was suggested I transfer to one, I had no problem signing myself in.

The advantage to coming to a mental hospital where all of us patients came willing gave the place a kind of summer camp feel. Then those who were manic, like me, stayed up into the wee hours of the morning as we waited for our doctors to find the right combination of medicine to help us.

The only medicine I absolutely refused was lithium. Thankfully the doctor was able to find a different mood stabilizer. It still comes with side-effects, but I think these side-effects will be easier to manage than those I had with lithium.

If the camaraderie amongst the mentally ill seems a bit weird to you, it might be because the knowledge you have of most mental illnesses is fed to you through the entertainment industry. Sure, once in a while Hollywood gets it right (see Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for borderline personality disorder or the 2015 indy film Touched With Fire that was about two people who had bipolar disorder and was both written and directed by someone who himself had bipolar disorder). But most of the time the mentally ill characters in pop culture are either criminal or gifted because of their illness, not in spite of.

One way we showed solidarity with one another was by making beaded bracelets during recreational therapy. Some were made with colors that symbolized who they were. I chose the beads with letters on them and spelled out BONJOUR JUBILATION. In the end, whether we were 18 or 55 years old, we all walked out proudly displaying our version of “friendship” bracelets.

Mania Part 1: Love Comes

My first full-blown mania at age 23 was mysterious, terrifying, and magnificent! I experienced it while studying abroad in France in 2003. Back then the mania hit me hardest right after I’d finished pushing my brain to great lengths just to remember what I needed to remember for my final exams. In return for my efforts, I hoped to earn the privilege of tackling even harder subjects with native French speakers in the spring semester.

My inaugural flight of the mind had a distinctively religious overtone to it. God was omnipresent in my imagination and, by extension, in everything I saw.

The God I believed in had a name, many names to be exact. But I knew him as Love.

Now I don’t mean romantic love or the casual way we might say “I love Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.” (speaking of which, I kind of want some now).

No.

I followed a different kind of Love, the one the Greeks called agape.

To better understand what I mean, just revisit 1st Corinthians 13 (a chapter often read at weddings), only this time, see the attributes of “Love” as the characteristics of “God.” Then you’ll see this passage isn’t about marital love at all. It’s actually about a God of Love.

I think the Quakers (aka “The Society of Friends”) put it most eloquently in their poetic way of seeing “God’s light” in every human being, regardless of whether or not they share the same belief. This way of seeing the divine in their fellow humans was the foundation of their pacifism and inspired them to be some of the first white people to speak out against chattel slavery in England and the United States. 

You can read  more about the Quakers here:

My elevated mood gave way to euphoria. It was only in the aftermath that I came to feel the pain.

By then I’d burned many bridges and, so few friends shared my inkling to call this a religious experience that even my own child-like faith began to crumble.

That’s also when the stories about how people I knew and loved were hurt by religious folk came to light and it saddened me greatly to think that this God I knew as Love could be perceived by some as wrathful, legalistic, spiteful, and ugly.

I never blamed my friends for distancing themselves from Love. I may have wept for them and lashed out at Love for allowing himself to be perverted and broken time and again by corrupt shepherds and wolves disguised as sheep.

Nevertheless, I continued to see Jesus as the ultimate Love letter to humanity, questioning and calling out the hypocrisy of the powers that be while running toward the poor and powerless . Read the “Sermon on the Mount” and you’ll know what I mean. 

Love taught me that true love isn’t always nice. So here I go again. 

Mania, part two: The Return of Love

Rich Mullins described the “love of God” as a reckless, raging fury.” Whenever I listen to this song, I feel sad for the pain we humans have caused in this world. But I also feel hope.

My first mania enveloped me before I even understood what mania was. In fact, no one really saw it coming. Often no one does because we humans are drawn to people who exude self-confidence. We know how to be there when someone is hurting. We rarely know how to be there when someone is manic.

I remember it began with an October experiment in 2002. The end goal was to be in constant communion with Love in my mind.  

A few months after the experiment began, I started to see Love everywhere. I even believed I was an ambassador of Love, or perhaps even an angel sent to earth to spread love.

This wasn’t such a far-fetched idea in my mind. After all, back then my parents and I seemed to have very little in common. I’m not simply referring to our conflicting world views. I’m also talking about our physicality.

How on earth did I surpass everyone else in my family in height and turn out to be the only one with redish hair? Why on earth did I always hope to learn I’d been adopted or switched at birth? Why did I identify so with Antoine de Saint-Exupèry’s Le Petit Prince?

Such delusions can easily be discounted when we look a little closer. Even now, most people insist I bear some resemblance to my mom and maybe I do. In any case, I at least I inherited her blue eyes.

I didn’t see my first mania as a mental illness until after I’d been repatriated. Even then, it was only when I began to carefully examine my personal writings and realized I’d been unknowingly documenting my mental illness the whole time. There was even a partially written diary entry from the day of my initial mystical experience. At the time I’d begun to tremble and, instinctively realizing I was in the unseen presence “God,” I reached for my diary and sat down to write. No sooner had I written God spoke to me today. He told…” that the line drifts a little, reminding me of when I let go of the pen and felt the almighty, invisible Love gently pushing me to the ground, evoking in me this feel of total safety, great power, and unending love.

That’s possible, right? I mean, I’d seen such things happen at Pentecostal churches. I was even told that the Society of Friends got the “Quaker” nickname because they’d often tremble when Love was with them.

I, on the other hand, was brought up in a mainstream Protestant church where all the liturgy was written out for us and all the songs were printed in a hymnal. What the right-brain Pentecostals might dub the Holy Spirit, didn’t even exist in their left-brain world. 

Shortly after my God-encounter, I began looking for patterns and puzzle pieces. I began searching for all the different ways Love was calling me.

Love brought me great joy but also a tremendous sadness. How could such a beautiful world be defiled by God’s own image-bearers? Why were people still waging war? Why was there still so much hunger and pain ? 

The short answer is freewill. For some reason Love doesn’t want to force his creation to love him back. He wants to woo us.

Then again, if I was “chosen” for something, doesn’t that mean I don’t have freewill? This is all very confusing. In such instances I prefer calling God the great “Mystery.”

In 2003 I followed the signs and wonders, believing they were divinely placed before me. In so doing, I threw my passport, credit card, and student ID into the river. Then I threw my cell phone into a vacant lot near the church I’d been attending. I had hoped someone would be there to baptize me, but the doors were locked and there wasn’t a single car in the parking lot.

So I kept going, following the signs that only I could see, hitching a ride on a commercial truck with some guy named “Michel.” Did his name truly reveal that he, too, was an angel sent by Love? He gave me water, after all, and offered me a place to sleep. But I was too restless to stay, so, after he’d fallen asleep, I left, leaving my Fossil brand watch as a “thank you.”

After freshening up in the truck stop restroom, I began walking again until the French police intercepted me and, to make a long story short, they brought me to the ER. From there, an ambulance drove me to the psych hospital in Thuir. It was my first ambulance ride ever! Even though I continuously told the EMTs (in French) that I wasn’t sick and didn’t need to be on a stretcher in an ambulance.

But of course, why would they listen to me? I’d revealed so little of myself after all. They heard my accent when I spoke their language. They knew I wasn’t from there, they just didn’t know where I was from. 

Skipping over the details, they eventually stopped trying to interrogate me and gave me a bed to sleep in and medicine. They also let me have paper and pen whenever I asked for it: a powerful souvenir of a most peculiar end to my study abroad.

For many years after that, especially during my twenties, I tried to force another manic episode just to prove to myself that that was what really happened. I frequently quit my meds. I began feeling suicidal, sometimes to the point of self-harm. 

In fact, all my hospital stays between 2004 and 2008 were directly linked to suicidal ideation and self harm. It was only when I turned 30 that I began to accept my illness and regularly take my meds without anyone coaxing me.

By then I’d reluctantly moved back in with my parents where I’ve stayed ever since. My older sister lives here too. 

Boy, have I got a bizarre family! All of them have their own unique quirks and I’m the only one who seems to even bother trying to understand them.

In 2014, after almost a year of trying different meds, my doctor persuaded me to return to the meds that we already knew worked: fluoxetine and lithium.

This latest resurgence of my mania came after I’d quit my lithium (with my psychiatrist’s blessing) and began to truly love myself.

As my self-confidence grew, so did the burning in my mind.

Mind you, I didn’t actually “hear” Love speak to me. But I felt his presence in my mind. It was heavenly and tailored specifically to me. I mean, I see Love as every gender. I’ve just always felt most comfortable calling him “he” “him” and “his.” But to say Love is only a “he” is to put limitations on the creator of all and I wouldn’t dare do so.

So my mind became inundated with new ideas and understandings of the gospel according to Love. There was a kind of communion of spirits in my mind during that time. It rose to the point where I thought perhaps my brain would explode with all the knowledge we humans were never designed to hold.

I called them “intrusive thoughts” when the doctor asked if I was having auditory or visual hallucinations. And, in a way, they were intrusive thoughts, but they were also comforting thoughts, like a parent soothing their child after she’s woken from a nightmare. 

In our time together, Love also seemed to teach me to face my fears. Love constantly reminded me that fear wasn’t from him, that he will be with us even to death.

Death was the ultimate fear, especially in my post-suicidal days as I’ve come to learn I have a lot of work yet to do. Then again, Love also seemed to say that Love wins and that there is no “hell” in the after-life. Hell is here and now. What we know as the real “heaven” is where we all end up in the end.

Love has a whimsical side too. He seems to delight in his image-bearers. He loves to see us laugh and there were moments when my mind was communing with his that I’d burst into laughter over an inside joke just between the two of us.

All of this took place while I simultaneously acknowledge I was manic and I didn’t initially want to go straight to the hospital. Instead, I tried to wait it out because I felt I needed to learn what was real and what wasn’t and I knew I could do so safely at my parents’ house.

Once I asked Dad if perhaps I should go to the hospital just to be studied. But he naively thought that if I was lucid enough to know I was experiencing mania then I could easily wait it out.

Of course, he didn’t know about the strange texts I was sending to one of my favorite people. He didn’t know that I’d felt Christ’s second coming was imminent and all the poor and powerless were finally going to have their year of Jubilee. He didn’t know that we’d I believed we’d been living in hell all this time with tiny glimpses of heaven here and there.

The next day, I was driving to the movie theatre to see a pre-screening of the new Little Women film and I was beyond elated, singing worship music to my heart’s content. 

Then, for some reason, I let go of the wheel and the next thing I remember, I was sitting outside my car on the gravel of one of the freeway off-ramps where a guy in a red convertible pulled up and asked me if I was okay.

Here’s another strange part of the story. I blacked out for the actual accident so I don’t remember exactly how I got there. All I know is that my car was totaled, but I’d hit a signpost, not another car, and walked away without a scratch.

An ambulance was called to the scene anyway and I was taken to the ER at Honor Hospital in Scottsdale. The rest felt much like a dream.

I think I remember them placing a neck brace on me and then, later, removing it. I think I remember pulling a bandage off my right index finger where there was wasn’t even a scratch and wondering why it was put there in the first place. I think I remember other things that I’m not quite ready to share.

I do remember singing while the nurses and techs frequently told me I had a beautiful voice. I also remember my parents came until I asked them to leave.

After they’d gone, I sang louder and stripped down to nothing because I felt I was beautiful and didn’t need to be ashamed of how Love made me. 

That was when the nurses and techs all ganged up on me and forced me to put clothes on. Then they strapped me to my bed as I screamed and cried.

I’d never done anything that before but later, when I was in the psych hospital, a fellow patient would say she was in the ER that night too and heard me singing, screaming, and crying. From then on, she and I formed spiritual connection unlike any other.

In earlier stages of mania I texted a friend with words that I felt weren’t from me. I also confronted people to whom ordinarily I’d have said nothing. I let my fury loose on a friend of a friend because he’d been an asshole and needed to be told off. I’d never done that before with anyone who wasn’t a blood relation. He returned my anger with some of his own. Then I gave him a hug and we parted ways.

Anyway, it’s all a great mystery, right? And I love the mystery of it all!

But one thing I thing I’m almost sure of is that God is Love and Love sometimes asks us to walk toward fear instead of running away from it because we’re already in hell and, in the end, we’ll all be reunited in the actual “Good Place.”

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