Peace in Psychosis
“You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” (Isaiah 26:3)
When you have a severe mental illness – schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or schizoaffective disorder – this ‘perfect peace’ (in Hebrew, shalom-shalom, or complete wellbeing) which the prophet Isaiah describes can be hard to tap into.
I know this from personal experience…
If I am feeling paranoid, I might walk into church and feel as if people are giving me strange looks, talking about me behind my back, or mocking me. Their faces seem to contort and sneer at me, and I catch snippets of conversation which seem to make direct reference to me. It is unsettling. I lose my peace.
When I am psychotic, I am troubled by experiences which other people do not share. The ‘evil presence’ which rests behind my left shoulder distresses me; the ‘tormentors’ which flap their wings and taunt me disturb my equilibrium. As heavy, ominous forces press in upon me, I feel as if I am riding a never-ending ghost train. I cower down and shout out. I have no peace.
My thoughts can get disordered. I panic because I suddenly can’t figure out the controls on the washing machine, or switch it on before I have put the clothes inside. I feel as if thoughts have been inserted into my brain via an electric messaging network which exists in the ‘fourth dimension’. I feel commanded to do things which I must resist at all costs. I am caught in a battle. I am not at peace.
Depression also strips me of peace. The sensation that an iron is pressing down upon my head, the fogginess that makes me feel as though I am thinking through soup, the aching hole inside which seems to connect with a pit of darkness or hell itself – all are deeply unnerving. My manic episodes are not dissimilar: I am rarely elated and always agitated, pacing, and unable to sit still.
You see, I have schizoaffective disorder, a condition which combines certain elements of schizophrenia with the highs and lows of bipolar disorder. There are many ways in which it robs me of peace, and yet – when I am not in the throes of a severe episode – I can find comfort and security in scriptures such as Philippians 4:6-7:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The writer, Paul, has a lot to say about God’s peace. Let’s consider these two verses for a moment.
The peace of God transcends understanding
Even though I have been very ill, I have never quite succumbed to the darkness. My peace has dissipated for a time, but something - or rather, Someone - has gently restored it. Sometimes I can’t comprehend how I ever recovered. But, as Philippians 4:7 tells us, the peace that God provides “transcends all understanding”. Even where the reassurances of a friend seem doomed to fail, he is able to settle the deepest feelings of unease.
The peace of God guards our minds
What’s more, this same verse promises that this peace “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”. It is significant that Paul specifies that God’s peace will guard my mind. Christianity can be quite ‘heart-focused’. We ask Jesus to come into our hearts; we search our hearts so that we might confess our sins; and we tell those whom we pray for that they are ‘on our hearts’. The condition of our hearts is hugely important to God, yet it is clear that he is also interested in our minds. He cares about those who are affected by mental illness.
The peace of God goes beyond our prison bars
I may be buffeted by phenomena created by bursts of dopamine which I cannot control; I may perceive spirits which seem to be sent from the devil himself; I may suffer catastrophic falls in serotonin which leave me writhing in a bed of despair. But there are moments when the dis-ease weakens. There is something which surpasses it.
Paul was in prison when he wrote to the Philippians, and at this point was probably resigned to the fact that he was going to be killed (though we do not have a definitive record that this happened), yet still he wrote of this unlikely peace. What’s more, the word he used for ‘guarding’ hearts and minds was the same word which would have been used for ‘guarding’ prisoners. In other words, the bars and guards of his prison were very real, but he was aware of a more profound force of peace which surrounded him – a peace greater than my prison of mental illness.
He is our peace
Ephesians 2:14 tells us that Jesus is our peace, and he has promised never to leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). He is there even when I don’t feel his presence, and it helps when other Christians can reassure me of this. Whether they speak of 1 Corinthians 14:33, which reminds me that “God is not a God of disorder but a God of peace”, or Luke 1:79, where Zechariah sings of a Saviour come “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace”, the gentle rhythms of the scriptures comfort my troubled soul.
We need to pray
It is important to remember that the promise of Philippians 4:7 follows the command of Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present our requests to God.” If we want to experience God’s peace, we have to pray. It’s hard to pray when we are very unwell, and that’s where we need to have others praying for us and with us. We should ask for God’s peace to flood our minds. He knows our needs, but he wants to hear from us.
If you or someone you know is suffering from psychosis or extreme mood changes, it may seem as though God’s peace is elusive. But these verses we have looked at reassure us that it is a force greater than that of any neurochemical imbalance. God is in the business of restoring his people and if we can just hang in there, remembering that “the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26), he will calm the storm in his time.
Let me leave you with a blessing which is my prayer for all who will read this:
“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:16)
Sharon Hastings is the author of ‘Wrestling with My Thoughts: A doctor with severe mental illness discovers strength’ (recently published by IVP) - order on Amazon at https://amzn.to/2OUTZ8B.