Manic episodes are fearsome things. In the beginning, they are deceptively seductive. It feels satisfying to think one is performing at the fullest level of functionality and productivity. Now is the time to write the epic novel of one’s dreams or start a small business on a wild hair without much in the way of start-up funds. For a time, spending eight hours a day on the same task is addictive and gratifying, not a hindrance. Each day, the illness builds upon itself, and before long what was once thought to be a blessing eventually invites fear and misunderstanding in others.
Even with the consequences, which were substantial, it is through mania that I experienced a mature understanding of God. I’d always been a believer, but when others talked about taking on a particular calling or a leading, I sometimes thought they were deceiving themselves. Throughout my life, I’d had religious experiences, but they were too few and far between for my liking. It took almost thirty years for way to open, as Quakers often put it.
A look backwards through history will show that religions and faith traditions are often started by serious young men. Visions and supernatural perceptions, the impetus, are experienced at entirely unexpected times. God makes his presence known in mysterious and curious ways. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, scaled Pendle Hill in northwest England early in his life. During the journey, he felt the undeniable presence of the Holy Spirit.
Fox is thought to have had bipolar disorder by some modern scholars. If he did indeed suffer from what used to be called manic depression, it would explain Fox’s compelling need to shut himself up in his room for days at a time. Mental illness would also point to his desire at the age of 29 to wander around the countryside in search of wisdom and guidance. The modern medical mind could diagnose this behavior as symptomatic of depression.
What complicated my illness was the presence of what are known as ideas of reference. As defined by science, these are delusional patterns of thought and belief. In my worst times, I was guilty of this sort of incorrect, but highly persuasive thinking. Below are a few examples of what happens when illness takes over and reasoning abilities are suppressed.
A belief that 'somehow everyone on a passing city bus is talking about him or her, yet they may be able to acknowledge this is unlikely'
A feeling that people on television or radio are talking about or talking directly to him or her
Believing that headlines or stories in newspapers are written especially for him or her
Believing that events (even world events) have been deliberately contrived for him or her, or have special personal significance for him or her
Believing that the lyrics of a song are specifically about him or her
Seeing objects or events as being set up deliberately to convey a special or particular meaning to himself or herself
Thinking 'that the slightest careless movement on the part of another person had great personal meaning and increased significance'
These descriptions above are similar to those cited by people who say they have had a religious, even life-changing experience. Rest assured, I’m not seeking to imply that religion is a product of diagnosed illness or a medical disorder. God may speak to us even when we are sick and ailing, often especially when we are sick and ailing.
It’s been five years since my last manic episode. I have no desire whatsoever to have another one for the rest of my life. The ways that Spirit reaches us are not limited to when we are happy and cheerfully receptive to them. In fact, my own research shows that God often arrives in our periods of greatest desperation, when we need him the most.
God, in my manner of thinking, usually speaks to us subliminally. We are given freedom of choice to believe or not to believe. If God made himself known easily and measurably by humanity, how then would we have true faith? Experiencing both individually and undeniably the hand of the Almighty at work is a possibility for everyone. As it is written, the day of the Lord will arrive unexpectedly for each of us, like a thief in the night.
Today we might prefer to use terms like synchronicity, coincidence, or chance, but I prefer to believe in a Providential deity that intervenes directly in the lives of people. I am aware that the term has been misused mightily over time, leading some to associate it with opportunists seeking cover for their own nefarious plans. That’s very different. We don’t dictate what God thinks or intends for us or for anyone. That is his role. He often challenges us to change what we believe and influences our perception to those ends.
How would we respond if God spoke to us? I was granted an extraordinary blessing, namely, the ability to know with surety that God is real. It came in the most unusual package imaginable, but I find God is always present when we least expect him. Believe what you like, but do not reject the mystery of the Divine. Your turn may be next.