Jacquese Armstrong, Survivor Columnist
I recently had a discussion with a college buddy of some 38 years and discovered her newly developed conception of mental illness. She said that the symptoms and nightmarish journey I’ve been through for some 35 years was caused by the devil in my life implying that my walk with God was either non-existent or unknowing, i.e. “unholy.” I was shocked, hurt and angry.
Shocked, because not only is this lady well-educated, but very savvy and well-informed. Hurt, because she was like a sister to me. Angry, because I’ve heard this before and it couldn’t be further from the truth. I told her she had a very simplistic view and that we should agree to disagree.
My diagnosis is schizophrenia bi-polar type and I went through a period of two and a half decades not responding to medication. In this time, voices plagued my mind 24/7 trying to entice me to suicide. I couldn’t distinguish which voice in my head was actually mine until after that period. Paranoia increased to the point that I thought people could read my mind. My moods yo-yo’ed like a busy elevator. Alienated from myself, I prayed to get through every five minute block in terror and tears. Sporadically, I still experience these symptoms.
However, this is not the first time I have received the “unholy” diagnosis. The first time, I received it was from a minister at a prayer meeting at a church my family then attended. I had recently been prescribed lithium for my mood swings. This was at about six years into the illness and it took a portion of the great burden off of my back. The difference was night changing into day. So, I knew I needed the medication that he told me to abandon in exchange for only prayer, insinuating that I didn’t pray hard enough.
This was not only detrimental to my self-image, it sent me on a short span of questioning God’s existence. I mean, surely what a minister said had to have some validity. Yet, I knew without the newly found help, my burden would be greatly increased again. I chose medication.
Then, after much introspection and the passage of time, I found a myriad of reasons why God did exist and that the minister was uninformed and misguided. Unfortunately, some do not reason this way, or question a minister’s pastoral validity. Some are not the rebel I have always thankfully been.
My question is this: Would these people abandon their primary care physicians or refuse treatment for other types of illnesses? Would they not go to a dentist? An optometrist? If the answers were yes, I could see their point as valid and agree to disagree. My walk with God and understanding of Him are different. I can get with that.
But, when the answer is no, I have to put on my teacher’s hat. But, sometimes I wonder if education works.
The brain is connected to the body. As a matter of fact, it regulates bodily functions. A mental illness is just as medical as high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes or any other “medical” illness you can name. My understanding of my illness (and there are others) is that it is a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes the synapses to misfire. They do not receive impulses the way they should. The Mayo Clinic website explains schizophrenia as a combination of genetics, brain chemistry and environment. They say researchers don’t know the significance of these changes, but indicate that schizophrenia is a brain disease.
National Institute of Mental Health’s (NIMH) website identifies that neurotransmitters, dopamine and glutamate, play a role. Neurotransmitters (housed in the synapses of the brain) are substances brain cells use to communicate with each other. They admit that scientists are learning more about schizophrenia and how brain chemistry is related. But, much more research is needed.
However, these assertions still validate my belief, that schizophrenia is indeed an illness, a brain disease.
At 55, with an onset at 20, I have just had a “tune-up” in an acute partial hospital to adjust my medication because my symptoms seemed to be returning. Now once again, I have freedom and my mind is at peace. I thank God for this. I trust Him completely.
In my understanding, God gives us the gift of medically enlightened humans to assist us with our illnesses. Why would he waste a miracle on something that can be handled on earth? As for the “unholy” diagnoses, I just smile and keep walking with my head held high. You can’t change some minds, but you don’t have to let them interfere with your self-esteem. God is good and I feel that I am blessed.
I am not the only one to have a hard journey—illness or no illness. The trick for me is to learn, teach and inspire. Mahalia Jackson used to sing, “If I can help somebody as I pass along… Then my living will not be in vain.” I hope that I qualify for the list of those who have accomplished this feat.