Contains content you might find distressing
A thing holds meaning for us if it evokes an emotional response and that can be an uplifting response, or a troubling one.
I’ve always felt the things that hold meaning for us can shape our experience of mental illness. Meaning for me is being a good husband, father and provider for my family.
In my faith too; bound up and shaped as it was, by a difficult childhood.
Also in my spirituality, a thing very different and separate from my faith, not long ago I came across the idea of the wounded healer. Some people feel an empathetic need to heal the hurts they find in the world; a need strengthened by their own wounds they carry with them. This holds a lot of meaning for such people, for me.
However, I’ve found that mental illness takes that need and that meaning, and fixates and distorts them to the point of self-destruction. I stood on a bridge intending to kill myself. I made two mistakes; I came during daylight when people could see me and I could see the world, and I waited too long.
To understand that, and what spirituality means to me, it helps to know something about my past and my illness. My earliest clear memory is of my mother; on her knees, hammering her fists on the floor. Her face was twisted with emotional pain, tears and snot running down it and she was sobbing from the depth of her soul. Between her sobs were screams of “I wish you were dead. I wish you were all dead!”
I didn’t – couldn’t – understand at that age, but my mother suffered from manic depression. When she was depressed, her hatred for us was expressed in so many abusive and neglectful ways. My father was a violent man and would beat her, and often, us. His cousin, my father’s drinking partner, was a sexual abuser and preyed on me and perhaps my siblings too.
My own odd thoughts and feelings began to surface from about the age of 12. I recall I was watching Carl Sagan’s cosmos series on TV when something happened; something switched in my mind and somehow I began to experience eternity, or infinity, or both. In my mind, I experienced what never-ending was, and it scared me, it scared me a lot.
As a small child, I was pushed out the door to attend Sunday School so as not to disturb my father. Of course, I had a child’s understanding of Jesus, God and Heaven. When my mother screamed her wish for our deaths I would pray to Jesus to take me to Heaven so she could be happy, believing if you’re good you would go to Heaven and live forever. But, at 12, I knew what forever was.
I lost the sense of it as the experience faded, but the idea of living forever frightened me. Violence at home escalated during my teen years. My father was punching my brother full in the face now, and outside of the home I became target to a vicious group of bullies. You might imagine I was scared during those times. I sometimes was, but more often, when I was being abused, beaten or threatened, things became unreal. I felt detached and my mind and my emotions fled. This was disassociation, the mind’s way of protecting itself. It’s a protection, but it comes at a price. It comes unwanted, at emotionally charged, but benign times too. Big parts of my wedding day and the births of my children were lost to it and I hate and curse it for that.
Along with that grew feelings that there is something very wrong with the world; that I’m not supposed to be in it, and bad things happen because I am; that something terrible just below the day to day skin of the world as we see it, is hunting me. As I grew older and looked at life and the world around me, questioning faith for myself, my view turned upside down.
Eternal life had to be some kind of sick joke. If there is a Hell, it’s being cursed with eternal life. The whole universe seemed to be a sick joke. I could see God had got it terribly wrong and my developing psychosis fed on that.
At 19, things seemed exceptionally vivid, bright and clear. I had levels of physical energy I hadn’t known before and on a bright, cloudless day, the sky filled my senses during a typical jog. Usually challenging, this became an easy sprint and I laughed as I sprinted; I knew I could make things better. I could pull God and his Angels from Heaven and make them fix the world. I could do that.
Like my mother, I suffered deep depressive episodes too, but high or low, my delusional mind pursued the same themes. During one episode the universe had to end. I would burn it and God would have to start over, and perhaps this time he would get it right. The flame was inside me and with anger and hatred of him; I was going to burn it all.
Another time I became preoccupied with the idea that the universe was created with a sound, and if I could find it, I could create a counter wave and undo it. I could hear it in starlight; frequency, amplitude, pitch, duration. If only I could record it…
Between episodes, I continued to hate myself. I’d manage for a lot of the time but despair would take me and send me tumbling when something impacted on my ability to cope, especially my ability to support my family. My wife was an angel during those times and proof of a God who does care.
However, hopelessness was always waiting, and as I once heard “when we move away from hope, we move towards death”. From my own personal experiences, I can tell you how true that is. When I’m ill, there is no hope. In the end, that’s all you really need to know to understand the importance of my spirituality to me.
I can’t tell you what spirituality is, I can only tell you what I’ve felt at times when I’ve needed healing. In my experience, you can’t find spirituality in a delusional mind that twists and breaks itself only to discover the only way it can come to terms with its past is to destroy itself and everything else with it.
During the highs there’s been a bright sense of something… Once, I could see light shining through my hands as if I could see my own soul and had a feeling that some might call a spiritual or religious experience, but it wasn’t; it was a delusion.
What I take to be spiritual is a real and precious thing.
There’s a life in the world. The world is alive in so many ways. Sometimes it’s gentle; sometimes it’s fierce; quite deadly at times, but always just as nurturing. If you stop for a moment and allow it in, that life calls to your heart and your heart calls back. It reaches into you to an understanding of your place in life and what really matters.
I stood on a bridge intending to kill myself. The bridge was high and crossing a valley; the view there is beautiful. By the time I reached the spot, I’d slipped into that distant place again and time passed without awareness. I didn’t want to cause distress to others who might see me fall, so I waited for traffic to clear and people to pass by. That didn’t happen quickly, and after a while, the feeling of detachment faded. As it did, I started to notice the life around me. Slowly it crept into me; as it did, I felt my place, my part in all of that. It was simple to be part of it and to live. The things that brought me to the bridge didn’t matter.
There was life everywhere and I was, in a very simple and quiet way, part of it. It isn’t an illusion or delusion; it’s just a heartfelt response to life.
I stand at my gate for a moment each day now as I leave for work and let life come in. I can call on it anytime that I need to. It’s not a cure-all or a final answer, but it is soothing, nurturing and healing. Somebody saw me that day on the bridge and called the police.
I riled at the officer who came to talk to me, slid to the ground weeping and slipped back into that numb, distant place, losing the feeling of life, as despair took me once again.
I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The rooms had deep windowsills, allowing me to climb and sit on them, and that’s what I did. Day and night, I looked out of the window. Life was outside, but we could still see and reach one another. I sat there with my face pressed against the glass and lost in that life, nothing else seemed to matter. I sat there for 2 or 3 days, or at least I thought.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to a nurse who was on the ward with me at that time and indeed, their main memory was of me sat on the windowsill. I wasn’t catatonic, I was responsive, but I was preoccupied, wrapped up in that nurturing connection to life. I was healing.
The nurse told me I’d actually sat there for 6 days.
What I do recall clearly, is at the end of my time on the windowsill, I was hopeful. The worst was over.
I’ve been relatively well for a few years now. The ‘wounded healer’ in me has lead me to volunteer in a lot of settings and the meaning and connectedness I gain from that plays a big part in sustaining my wellbeing. A big part of staying well, is knowing when to take that time and bring those things into my life. They’re not a cure-all, not a final answer, but they sooth, they nurture, and above all, they heal.