God of the Schizophrenic

Rediscovering my faith amid the ravages of mental illness.
God of the Schizophrenic
Image: Mark Peterman

I used my cane to hit the handicapped door opener. My hands shook and shadows danced on the wall. In the back of my mind, I saw train tracks. My head lay on the rail. A whistle blew, and I closed my eyes. It blew again and again. My eyes were shut tight. I was anxious and scared. Do suicides go to heaven?

I signed my name on a white paper. No one could make it out, but they knew my face.

"David Weiss."

"Yes," I stammered.

"Doctor Stanley will be with you shortly."

I sat in a comfortable leather chair. I thought of the life I could have lived. The life I lost.

A small, balding man in penny loafers came to greet me. He wore a Harris Tweed jacket with no tie—a failed attempt to set his patients at ease.

I slowly followed him down the expensive carpet to a large room. His office was themed after the African savanna, complete with giraffe sculptures and exotic plants. In the corner sat a large hardwood desk. The lights were low. I sat in an Italian recliner and waited.

"Well, David, how do you feel?"

It took me a moment to collect my thoughts. "I still see shadows everywhere. They seem to watch me. Whenever I close my eyes I see myself without a head. Sometimes it feels like invisible knives are swirling around me. The medicine is making it hard for me to walk, and often I feel like I am falling when I am just standing still. The suicidal thoughts are getting better. Just ideas, no actual plans."

Dr. Stanley nodded and scribbled something on my chart.

"I see. I think you are doing better than the last time we met. How are you spending your time?"

"I sleep most of the time. When I'm awake I play my Xbox. Sometimes I read and listen to music."

"Do you get out of the house much?"

"No."

"Maybe you could go for a walk?"

"I can't stand."

"Still, you should go outside and enjoy the sun. Research shows that exercise and spending time outdoors can improve mood."

He scribbled something else in his notes and flipped through the pages of my chart.

"Doctor, it has been three years. Will I ever get better?"

He paused for a moment and stared at his notes.

"David, you need to think about what level of better you can live with."

"What do you mean?"

"Just that you need to accept that you will always be this way."

There Are No Happy Crazies

A year and a half later, after seeking out another doctor, I found myself in another waiting room.

Instead of leather, these seats were vinyl. Everything smelled of bleach. I held a book in my hand, Don Quixote. Why can't I be like him? A few windmill giants, a barroom princess, a wonderful life?

There are no happy crazies.

I looked at my father and he smiled. "How do you feel?" he asked.

"I don't know," I muttered.

The news played on a television bolted to the wall. Somebody died somewhere. People were angry. They blamed the government, the government blamed big business, and big business blamed someone else. Nobody blamed themselves.

"Weiss, David," a voice called. I approached a white desk. A young man in a collared shirt sat behind a computer.

"Good morning," he said.

I was silent, but my father chimed in. I don't remember what they said. I didn't care. This place was different from other places I had visited. Nothing expensive except the medical equipment. No comfortable chairs or expensive clothes.

A nurse led me back. I remember white tiles and beige walls. The rest is difficult to remember, but I do remember this: I lay on a gurney in only a gown. Later I learned I could still wear my underwear. The first time was the hardest. I didn't know that then.

This procedure was something new, something that broke the monotony—almost an adventure. Better than sitting at home watching a movie or pushing buttons on a controller and wishing I were someone with more serotonin and less norepinephrine in my brain. Or is it the other way around?

A little knowledge can be a frightening thing. I soon realized, for instance, that psychiatrists often go to school for 24 years so they can prescribe drugs that, according to some research, are only marginally better than a placebo. Almost all antidepressants increase the recipient's risk for suicide. Why did I trust these people? Why did I pay $160 an hour to see them?

But there were many noble exceptions—in the clinic, at the hospital, at the university. They cared when a patient experienced horror; something broke the professional distance they so carefully maintained.

I can't fault the ordinary approach—the one taken by Dr. Stanley. Mental illness is a war with many casualties, claiming patients and doctors alike. But a heroic cohort strives to save lives, ease suffering, and thrust light into dark places, bringing into the open afflictions that were once locked away in asylums and sanitariums. Their empathy bears witness to the counsel of the greatest physician of all: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

Coming Out Swinging

Two specialists stood over me, flanked by two nurses and a medication technician. The one, dressed in plain clothes, held two silver rods wrapped in black plastic. The other wore medical pajamas. Spread out before them were several dozen plastic vials.

The nurses attached electrodes to my arms, legs, chest, and head.

They wrapped a tourniquet around my leg.

"Are you ready, David?" the woman with the vials asked.

Before I could answer, caffeine flushed my veins. My heart leapt in my chest. I could almost feel where the muscle ended and the artery began. Oxygen rushed to my head, and I couldn't control my breathing.

My thoughts turned primal. I grasped a nurse's hand and ground my teeth.

"You may feel a burning sensation."

A small fire entered my arm and began to spread. The pain raced through my veins and inflamed the surrounding tissue. It passed through my shoulder and into my chest. Sleep.

There were no dreams when I was asleep; nor did I dream during the 23 other electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) sessions. I don't know whether you dream during a seizure.

Light. I couldn't move. I couldn't feel. My chest raced up and down. I couldn't control it. Wires. Surprised faces. My fear became rage. My eyes darted all around. People came to hold me down.

No thought. No mind. Just animal. My arm broke free. Someone fell back. Big men obscured my vision. Someone fiddled with my IV. My veins burned and my vision failed. I couldn't scream.

Light. My body ached. My nurse stood over me.

"Dude, I have never seen anything like that. You came out of anesthesia swinging."

"I did?"

"Yeah, they sent a call out to all available men." He paused for a moment to adjust my blood oxygen monitor. "Man, I heard the doctors saying they are going to be sure to bring you out slowly next time. It took seven of us to hold you down."

My dad drove me home and bought me Chicken McNuggets. I lived off those for two months. At home, I silently ate my meal in bed. Then I slept for 12 hours. I moved from the bed to the bathroom to a recliner and back to bed. Two days later, I was back for round two. I couldn't think or concentrate. Once I forgot my mother's name. After each ECT, before I went to bed, I would mark a star on a card next to my bed. Normally people have 8 to 12 treatments. I had 24.

My doctors classified me as resistant to both medication and ECT. Each session required more power than the last to generate a therapeutic seizure. (ECT is sometimes administered to patients when psychotropic drugs don't deliver full benefits. The treatment induces a mild seizure, which can temporarily bring relief from depression or schizophrenic symptoms.)

Toward the end, they were maxing out their machine. After 24 treatments, I couldn't remember anything from before they had started. I am still regaining memories. Finally I said, "Enough." I refused to leave the house, and the treatments ended.

Counting the Cost

I have been asked many times, "Was it worth it?" Each time I wonder what people mean by the question.

The treatments cost $300,000. My parents paid almost $90,000. Insurance covered about $100,000, and the government paid for the rest. The hospital didn't eat a penny.

But more than the money, I have been asked whether it was worth the pain and the stigma. I don't know.

My mom survived cancer twice and spent time in reverse isolation because a simple cold could have killed her. She told me she has never seen pain more intense than my two months of treatments. She spent many mornings shouting at God. Nevertheless, she always supported me. She would rub my head when the headaches were unbearable, offering scant physical relief but much emotional consolation. My father was angry when I first became ill but quickly adapted. He was ever-present during my darkest times. He just sat and waited with me. I didn't like being alone.

More than the money, I have been asked whether my treatment was worth the pain and the stigma. I don't know.

I talk about my family because I learned that those around me often saw more clearly than I did. In the midst of my suffering, nothing made sense. Reason and logic gave way to instinct and fatalism. Pain is a powerful drug. It altered my perception and was an indelible part of my reality.

I am reminded of ancient Greece, where mental illness was ascribed to demon possession. Doctors would hang the demon-possessed over pits filled with poisonous snakes. The goal was to make the infirm believe they were going to die. They were trying to scare the demons out of them. Sometimes it worked. According to ancient sources, many were restored to a semi-normal life. Of course, only the educated prescribed their treatments and wrote their histories.

I have always enjoyed a certain section of the Hippocratic Oath: "I will prescribe regimens and medicine for the good of my patients in accordance with my skill and reason, and at least do no harm." There is a certain absurdity to that statement, since the Greek word for medicine is pharmakon, which can also mean "poison."

Hard Questions

A year before my treatments, I went to see the best psychiatrist I have ever known. He was a professor who oversaw the resident students at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. He always told me the truth and did his best. He was one of the select few who made a real difference. He was a Catholic. I know because he wore a saint around his neck.

I talked about how I felt and the slow but steady progress I had made toward the illusion of normalcy. I mentioned that I found it easier to pray.

"You believe in God?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied.

He sat forward, this tall Mexican man. He didn't meet my eyes, but asked, "Why?"

I didn't have an answer then. I still don't. Perhaps I can't cope with the prospect of meaningless absurdity. Perhaps I am a coward. I am certainly not brave. Perhaps I am just wishing for a better existence.

I have a group of three friends. We call ourselves the "bipolar buddies." We all went to the same church, and we were the nerds, the kids with straight As and college scholarships. With a 3.8 GPA, I was the underachiever. Within a few years, we were all diagnosed with serious mental illness. We lost our scholarships and our dreams. We each also had a crisis of faith.

While some members of our conservative church were supportive, it was amazing how often our questions were met with skepticism and hostility: "Are you secretly gay?" "Do you have some unconfessed sin?" "Are you possessed by a demon?" "How dare you question God!" The range of suspicions was staggering.

My parents deflected the ugliest overtures. When my mom had cancer, some friends tried to ascertain a spiritual cause, so she understood how sincere people could give harmful advice. But despite her protective efforts, the questions and interventions persisted. More than once I went to a prayer meeting where people laid hands on me and asked God to heal me—but also to increase my faith, make me more like Christ, and so on.

My faith in God has always been an important part of my life. I am not a saint. I have prejudices and flaws. But as a Christian, I wish fellow churchgoers would refrain from passing judgment and recommending a fix after two minutes of conversation.

Of course, I am ready and able to fix everyone but myself. I am a hypocrite, and in my self-righteousness I have hurt many people. Sadly, I didn't realize my sin until I was the recipient.

Starting Over

As the years dragged on, I stopped crying. I stopped feeling. I just did what I had to do. I found a modicum of solace in the suffering. I learned to dream. I created detailed daydreams that became more real than the world outside.

For example, I dreamed for two weeks about living aboard a make-believe space station. During this time, I didn't talk or bathe, I hardly ate, and I barely slept. Instead, I braved meteor showers, saved the station from a solar flare, defeated a burly Russian ultra-nationalist, learned how to travel faster than the speed of light, and weathered the death of my commander—all while sweeping a lovely French doctor off her feet. As the dream ended, we were holding each other, watching a nuclear fire destroy the world below, just as I had watched the uncontrollable fire of schizophrenia consume my own life aspirations.

Back in the real world, where all the accomplishments of my early days had turned to ash, I started over. I learned to fight—often poorly—against faulty ideas and destructive behaviors. In the midst of suffering, it is easy to become selfish—to mistakenly believe that the world revolves around my pain. Like the mythical figure Narcissus, who drowned in a pond after gazing at his beautiful reflection, I have dwelt upon my own anguish to the point of submersion into self-pity.

My family often bore the brunt of my selfishness, and sometimes still does. All too frequently, I have fallen into the self-absorbed routine of sleeping, eating, and pretending I am somebody else. These habits tend to destroy gratitude. So I need to remind myself often how fortunate I am to have a loving family that supports me, gifted doctors who understand mental illness, medicine that manages my condition, and a God whose mercy never ceases.

In addition, no longer did I suffer alone, but amid a great brotherhood of pain-stricken fellows who mistakenly believed, as I once had, that no one else understands our plight. Such people are everywhere in a fallen world. I have met victims of divorce, cancer, attempted suicide, murder, and other horrors. And really, we are not so different from each other. Pain has invaded our lives, a pain more powerful than our isolated efforts to overcome it. We each look within ourselves, trying to make sense of our individual calamities. And while there is nothing wrong with introspection, we run the risk of never looking outward again.

Of course, whether we suffer alone or with others, the question "Why?" will never be answered, at least in this lifetime. Who knows why God allows pain? Who knows why God sometimes seems to leave us alone? People have asked these questions since they first puzzled over the causes of lightning and rain. Bad things just happen, we say, and it isn't anybody's fault. There's no rhyme or reason. But even when we cannot grasp the sources of our misfortunes, we can strive to learn the right lessons.

The most important lesson I have learned from my pain is about compassion. I was once one of the Bible bangers who knew everything and needed nothing. Not anymore. If God isn't up there in heaven watching and waiting for me to screw up—if instead he weeps when I weep and celebrates when I take just one step toward a new and better life—then who am I to judge others harshly?

When my psychiatrist asked me why I still believed in God, I didn't have an answer. I still don't. I still don't know if the treatment was worth the pain. I have a multitude of problems, not all of them related to mental illness. I am not a prophet who has received great enlightenment. But I do have some hard-fought wisdom to impart.

Though my illness persists, I have finally met the God I had heard about but never truly experienced. A God who heals. A God who loves. A God I cannot logically explain to my psychiatrist. A God who manifests his genius by salvaging good from the evil in our lives. Someone unlike me. Someone unlike the well-meaning inquisitors who judged me and sought to spiritually cure me. Someone I never would have discovered without my affliction.

A God who calls himself Emmanuel—God with us.

David Weiss was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in the spring of 2005. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, and teaches adult Sunday school at his neighborhood church. He can be reached at davidkurtweiss@gmail.com.


Related Elsewhere:

Previous Christianity Today articles on mental illness include:

A Christian Cure for OCD? | Psychiatrist Ian Osborn claims that trust in God can overcome mental illness. (November 12, 2008)
Light When All Is Dark | Our theology makes all the difference in fighting depression. (March 4, 2010)
My Encounter with Mental Illness | College is a seedbed for depression. Here's what Christian campuses can do to help. (August 2010)
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God of the Schizophrenic