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Affliction: Mental Illness and the Absence of God

Mathew Schmalz

A Christian's Journey through Depression and Hypomania

Associate Professor of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross
March 19, 2018

"Affliction constrained Christ to implore that he might be spared, to seek consolation from man, to believe that he was forsaken by the Father."—Simone Weil

Spiraling Down

I am in bed.

My body is heavy: my legs are lead; my arms stone; my head is buried in the pillow.

I can’t even get up to turn on the light so I can read.    

I deserve more, I say to myself. I was abandoned at birth, then adopted; I was an alcoholic for twenty years, then sober for twenty more; I was obsessive-compulsive for a little longer, but stable and sober ever since. I’ve tried to keep it together; I really have tried.

I pray His name, repeating it reverently, in rhythm with my breathing: “J-e,” breath in; s-u-s, breath out.

I strain to turn my head and see the half-open bedside closet. I know the consolations inside: Brioni and Borretti neckties and Hickey Freeman suits. In the light, the neckties shimmer and sheen: regimental stripes of forest and gold and violet and crimson paisleys—bought to balance bold windowpane patterns on Loro Piana wool and the elegant browns and greys of British tweeds. On the closet floor, I know there are Italian shoes, Aquatalias designed by Marvin K—suede blue, jet black, and British tan.

I know they’re all there, but I only see shadows—no colors and only vague outlines that suggest crafted shapes and tailored forms.

I cannot fight the darkness any longer; I close my eyes tightly, but try not to strain. I focus on a point midway between my eyes and nose—it’s a technique I learned in Sri Lanka from a Buddhist meditation expert who had suffered from depression and was freed from it on a crowded bus ride in the capital Colombo. She became “mindless” and “empty” in the crowd—a feeling of total “bliss,” she said.

I too want bliss—bliss in the darkness.

But I do not want emptiness; I want Jesus, his touch, his embrace; I want to take refuge in his wounds. Like Buddhist satori, Christian bliss is not mindlessness—Christian bliss is mindfulness as well, but mindfulness of the gentle presence of the crucified and risen Christ.

I keep my eyes closed; I wait.

The End of Time is Now

Bliss doesn’t come; fear and loathing do.

I must have said something obscene in class—I think about words I could have said, words that I won’t even write. I recall faces of students, their frowns, and their glassy eyed stares. I can’t give myself fully to teaching because I don’t have the time or the energy. I know I’ve let my wife down in so many ways—not helping, not being present. I’ve let my daughters down too—I should have paid more attention to their homework, not to mention to their other joys and struggles. My elderly mother should be living with me, not with my sister—I am a bad son, and not a very good brother.

I ask myself: how many people I have hurt—intentionally, unintentionally; knowingly, unknowingly. I try to list them so that I can confess to a priest; I need to make amends, somehow, someway, someday.

My grey matter is dark matter. But I know that because Jesus became flesh, the flesh can be redeemed. Our brains, just as much as our legs and arms, are flesh and therefore part of the resurrection; they will be transfigured at the end of time.

For me, the end of time is now. I cannot see a future—any future.

Why can’t my synapses fire with faith, and my neurons glow with glory? Why not me? Why me? Why any body?

“J-e,” in; “s-u-s,” out. My breathing continues, but words—the Word—mean nothing. Nothingness awaits me in sleep—sleep is the only bliss that remains to me.    

But sleep refuses to come; just as Jesus refuses to come. No, Jesus hasn’t refused, I finally understand. He simply is not there, not here—not anywhere.

Matthew (4:16) echoes Isaiah (9:2) and proclaims, “the people sitting in darkness have seen a great light.”

Not me, never me.    

My self-pity is suffocating, blinding.

Spiraling Up

I am on the sofa.

My body works with effortless poise; my legs are strong; my arms supple; my head feels light.

I am writing for an audience in the Philippines, thousands of miles away from my Massachusetts home. My breath is deep and strong—ideas come as I bring air in through my nose, and expel it through my mouth.    

I argue: culture doesn’t exist; religion is a heuristic category that has no objective content. Culture and religion both are Western constructs, nothing more than mental placeholders; they are elaborations on coincidence, created by academics to make the world understandable, comprehensible, endurable.

I wonder what the priests and seminarians will say to this as they sit in their white cassocks a conference center on Bohol Island, off of Cebu. Maybe a bishop or cardinal will be there too—listening, rapt in attention. Perhaps they will experience my talk as an invitation to deeper intellectual freedom: a freedom from the need to believe in that which does not exist; a freedom that comes with realizing that everything is a creation of our minds, and our wills.

It is very late—or very early—and the darkness comforts me as I write: no distractions. I will sleep later on, maybe even never.

Claiming the Empty Throne

I’m still on the sofa, sitting without straining, keeping my focus. Images and thoughts are carried in a current that flows from my head through my arms, hands, and fingers to the keyboard. Writing has never been this easy, this smooth, this authentic. I gaze at a watercolor of a mountain over the piano—the curving slopes look like they are caressing the summit.

A couple of hours have passed my computer says, but they feel like minutes, which must prove I’m not a computer. I am almost done writing so I allow myself what I admit is a flight of fancy: I need more ties. I should try some six-fold Kitons in royal blue or bright red. They’d be nicely complemented by a Mariano Rubinacci jacket: Rubinaccis go for three thousand dollars new, but I’m thinking I could get one for half that price on EBay. I know the size to look for—46 regular because Italian clothes run small on me. Some Manolo Blahnik double-buckle monk straps would complete the ensemble nicely. I scan websites, looking for the right color palate that will make me look as young as I feel.

My mind is a staccato symphony of insights and ideas. I remember a summer seminar I attended at Calvin College: “Religion and Postmodernism.” The consensus among the participants is that postmodernism remains incompatible with Christianity because postmodern academic approaches deconstruct truth. And if you deconstruct truth, there can be no revelation; no claims about the salvific centrality and uniqueness of Jesus as Christ.

Jesus, in this deconstruction, becomes the quintessential good guy—nothing more. But also nothing less, I am thinking. There’s nothing wrong with simply being a good guy. I am a good guy.    

But what if we see deconstruction not as a threat, but as an opportunity—an opportunity to push past and beyond the limits humans have unreasonably set for themselves. Our minds can’t freely explore the cosmos if God is sole ruler of the heavens.

John writes in Revelation (4:2): I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne was set in heaven, and One sitting upon the throne.”

But there is no one–no One–sitting on the throne.    

The throne is empty, waiting to be claimed by any of us, by all of us.

Questions and Confessions

I am outside my doctor’s office. My body is tense; my legs are cold; my arms stiff; my head stoically faces the door. My doctor arrives, clad in plaid from head to toe. I smile. He says, “I’ve always liked plaid,” and grins back, adding, “it’s frigid outside, the ear flaps really help with that.” We close the door and sit down face to face—the office is small, claustrophobic.

“How are you doing?” he asks. I say, “The depression hasn’t lifted—it’s deeper now than ever.” “Well, you and your family have been going through a lot this year.” He continues: “Do you feel depressed all the time?” I say, “There are moments when it does seem to lift—and I can lock in on whatever I have to do. But then the depression returns.” “How’s your libido?” he asks as he writes notes. I stammer, “I, um, it’s…” My doctor pivots and chooses a different tack. “Ok, well, have you been buying things that you ordinarily wouldn’t?”

I have to think for a moment. My doctor’s desk is piled high with papers, a plastic bag with used napkins and utensils lies on top of it all. At length, I say, “Actually, I’ve become quite fond of silk ties—I go through these phases of buying lots of them. I’m trying to work on my appearance—my wife says I look sloppy a lot of the time when I go out.”

“Buying high-end fashion–that’s kind of new.” He’s still writing as we talk.

“Yes,” I say.

“Tell me more about your academic work,” his tone is even, but caring. There’s good eye contact.

“Well, I just wrote a ten-page paper for a conference. It’s actually pretty good—maybe not publishable, but it’s close.” I say this without intending to brag.

“How long did it take for you to write it?” He’s set his pen down now.  “About three hours—start to finish,” I say.

“Is that unusual for you?” He’s looking at me, not with professional appreciation, but with concern—I can see it in his eyes. I explain: “Most of the time, I have to do a lot of revisions—so it is unusual for something to come out so quickly.”

“When did you write the paper—I mean, what time?” He’s detail oriented.

I’m telling the truth: “Between 2am and 5am, then I continued with my day.”

Psychiatric Perspectives

“Anything else?,” my doctor asks.

I say, “The strange thing really wasn’t that it only took me three hours to write a paper; the strange thing was that I hadn’t even read the books I was referring to—that is, until I started writing the paper. It was three hours total, everything—research and writing.”

I know what’s going on now. I ask straight out: “Are these symptoms of Bipolar DisorderBipolar II maybe?” I’m trying a measured tone to hide my fear.

“It does sound like hypomania,” my doctor’s voice doesn’t lose its clinical cadence. I ask, “What’s the difference between hypomania and mania? I’m not gambling away my house or thinking that I can fly.” I hear a plaintive quality to my voice.

“Hypomania is a level below full mania—and it can be quite pleasurable: people feel creative, they’re charismatic, highly functioning most of the time. But it’s still a pathological state—especially when spiraling up comes with spiraling down.”    

“So, I’m bipolar?” The words sound like a life sentence to solitary confinement.     

“Maybe—possibly—but I think it’s the new med I gave you. Maybe it triggered low-level mania and accentuated the underlying depression. I’m sorry you’re going through this,” he says, sincerely.

“What’s the therapeutic response?” I ask—my tenor is clinical now too.

He says reassuringly, “Let’s take you off that med and see what happens. We’ll check in together soon—you have my personal cell number.” Then he adds: “In the meantime, wait a couple of days if you feel the urge to buy something.” There’s a slight smile on his face.

I admit to myself: it would be nice to write so freely all the time—I didn’t buy 100 new suits, but I coveted suits I couldn’t afford. I didn’t think I could fly, but I felt as though I were flying. I sigh, shrug my shoulders—something like that—because I realize that the ecstasy comes with its own price tag—literally and figuratively—that eventually has to be paid in full. As for the costs of despair—they’re beyond calculation.

In Romans (8: 25), Paul puts the question: “for does anyone hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we await in patience.”

I guess that patience is all that’s left for people like me: people who haven’t seen—who cannot see—a firm ground between spiraling down and spiraling up.

Mental Illness as Affliction

I am sitting on green grass.

My body is relaxed; my legs are firm; my arms comfortably bent; my head moves slightly as it follows lines of text.

I am reading “The Love of God and Affliction,” an essay by Simone Weil.

Simone Weil has always been a puzzling and compelling figure for me: she is simultaneously deeply Jewish and deeply Catholic—though she refused baptism. She died young, in 1943 at the age of 34. She worked in automobile factories and sided with the Anarchists in the Spanish civil war. Weil was French and joined the resistance against the Nazis. And she wrote.

Her writings are also puzzling and compelling, full of paradoxes, such her understanding that the experience of separation is also a connection: a link of love precisely because separation can only be experienced by those who love. She relates this insight to the Trinity and reflects on the “separation” and love between Jesus and His Father as Christ is put to death as a common criminal.

But it is her understanding of “affliction”–malheur in French–that I wish to revisit as I read her essay, in my backyard, on the grass, bordered by bushes and trees, a gentle breeze blowing. Weil writes that affliction is more than physical suffering: it is also the moral and social degradation of a person’s soul. And the real depths of affliction are hidden from view—an insight that causes me to look at the pink blossoms of rhododendrons surrounding my lawn and bend my head to glimpse what lies within the tangled branches that hold them high.

The physical and moral dimensions of mental illness usually lend themselves to lists of symptoms: lethargy and mania; compulsive, impulsive, and obsessive behavior; hypersexuality and hyposexuality. The actual internal experience of mental illness often exceeds the power of words. Social degradation is easier to talk about.

I think about lines that have been addressed to me: “You’re acting weird”; “I don’t know who you are”; “you shouldn’t be writing about such things at this college”; those words intensify the humiliation that comes with the fear of being an object of pity or scorn. But the worst thing I’ve ever heard is: “God never gives us anything that we can’t handle.”

Weil’s point about affliction is precisely that it can’t be “handled:” you’re carried away, dominated, destroyed. You can only beg to be spared—and when you’re not spared, the deeper pain of abandonment itself becomes too much to bear.

The evangelist Matthew (27:46) relays to us how Jesus cries—no screams—from his cross: “‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ That is, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?’”

I, a lifelong Catholic and professor of religion at a Catholic college, lost any sense of God’s presence—and toyed with the notion of denying God entirely. My soul will always be branded by that blasphemy. But, as Weil reminds me when I read her words, even the resurrected Christ still “bore the marks of nails and spear.”

Perfect Absence

I’m lying in bed. My body feels supported; my legs are slightly spread; my arms rest; my head gently reclines on a memory foam pillow. I have time to think a little before sleep overtakes me—but I promise not to think too much. My doctor says “good sleep hygiene” is something that I need to work on.

I look over at the closet—I’ve culled some of the ties, though the shoes remain. They’re good investments—they’ll probably hold up for many years to come if I take care of them.

This night—like many nights since I’ve stabilized—I think back to a priest I worked with for a couple of weeks when I was young and volunteering as a parish assistant in the Southwest. He was Polish, a member of the Capuchin Franciscan order: I remember the brown skullcap covering wisps of grey hair.

I knew he had been imprisoned in Dachau during World War II and I wanted to talk to him about that experience. We didn’t have much time, so I asked him straight-out: “Do you think suffering is ennobling?”

He slightly smiled, and gave me an honest answer: “Up to a point, suffering can be ennobling. But then you reach a point where you’re crushed.”

Lying in the bed, I think back on my own experiences. Even when I was an active alcoholic, I can easily see the edifying experiences of suffering—though I am not sure those I hurt would agree. But in comparison, the experience of depression and hypomania was qualitatively different. It was as though without God I became untethered—spiraling down and spiraling up in equal measure—without anything to restrain or hold me.

Weil writes that we cannot experience the perfect presence of God—at least not in this life. But we can experience God’s perfect absence: an absence that can send us—that sent me—down into an inert pit of desolation and then up to a dizzying height of grandiosity.

Being afflicted by God’s absence is an inverse image of God’s presence—a revelation of what the world could be, would be, without God.    

The Psalmist (43:5) sings: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within Me?”

Accepting mental illness gives us—gave me–a provisional language for talking about a particular experience of affliction. But visions of emptiness and experiences of nothingness are not solely the signs of those pathological states that disconnect us from the world, from ourselves, and from God. Emptiness and nothingness are intimately connected to, and contained within, the reality of God. For it is the Christian God who is simultaneously separated from and within Himself as His son, Jesus, struggles with and on a rough-hewn cross.