If you have visited a mental health clinic or psychiatrist long enough, you have had to answer the question, “On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the best), how are you feeling today?”
If you’ve endured the symptoms of schizophrenia or major depression long enough, you have probably also considered another scale: the degree of your suffering compared to someone else’s. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst, your chronic torment of the mind and soul usually ranks higher.
Is the suffering of schizophrenia unique? Yes and no. Listen to those who have suffered, along with their families:
- “It’s like a waking nightmare. You’re terrified, you’re confused, you have beliefs that are bizarre and frightening and confusing.” About being hospitalized against her will: “It was horrifying. It’s demeaning and debilitating to have choice taken away in general, to not be respected as an autonomous agent. To be put in a hospital is an extreme version of that.”1
Adult diagnosed with schizophrenia who has recovered
- “Living with someone with a mental illness is a series of crises. I grew up learning that when you have a crisis, you handle it, and it’s over. But with this, there’s no rest. There’s always another crisis. … Housing is a constant struggle.”2 Parent of son diagnosed with schizophrenia
- “MI (mental illness) is not of your “casserole” variety illness where neighbors drop by bringing dinner, desserts, and needed support. You are left on your own to pick up the residue, the enigmatic remains in search for a new normal, which lands you in alien territory, often hostile.”3
Parent of son diagnosed with schizophrenia
- “When I looked at the hardships my mental illness caused me, only 20% were caused by symptoms…The majority of the negative impact on my life, that is 80%, came from damage caused to my world, my sense of self and my relationship to the community. My everyday life was turned upside down. I experienced loneliness, an inability to relate to others, damage to career, low self-esteem, and disconnection from community — this is what caused most of the pain.”4 Adult diagnosed with schizophrenia who has recovered
- “There are no crutches, canes, wheelchairs, or walkers for ADHD, depression, bi-polar, OCD, or schizophrenia, and you do not get to use a handicapped parking permit. Because people cannot see the inner turmoil on the outside and because our society has a “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude, the person with internal suffering looks OK and is not.”5
Psychologist who experienced major depression
- “I often say to my son that this is like diabetes: we medicate and manage it. I’ve discovered that it isn’t really like diabetes. Diabetes is something that you can suffer from and still work. Diabetes doesn’t keep you locked in your room. This is a different reality, in quite a literal way.”6 Parent of son diagnosed with schizophrenia
- “The amazing thing about schizophrenia is these are people who have to live their life without being able to believe their senses. When you or I hear something, we know that it is real.”7
I will admit that in times of personal suffering which affected my family drastically I often thought the rigors of my affliction outweighed the troubles of others. Hearing of those worse off, such as a report from China —
“There have often been reports of families caging family members with schizophrenia like animals, because of a lack of understanding, out of fear they will harm others and because they can’t afford treatment.”8
–helped, but I remained in the trap of comparing my afflictions with others. Weighing the load. God had something holier in mind.
Learning about the biblical perspective of suffering helped turn my thinking around, but not right away. As is the case with certain types of struggles, we initially faced our problems in isolation, too ashamed to call out for help. Isolation added to the burden. Introspection increased a sense of uniqueness, an awful uniqueness that left a chip on the shoulder.
The following quote is from a Christian diagnosed with schizophrenia. I believe he says “no” to the idea that symptoms called schizophrenia make suffering unique:
“In addition, no longer did I suffer alone, but amid a great brotherhood of pain-stricken fellows who mistakenly believed, as I once had, that no one else understands our plight. Such people are everywhere in a fallen world. I have met victims of divorce, cancer, attempted suicide, murder, and other horrors. And really, we are not so different from each other. Pain has invaded our lives, a pain more powerful than our isolated efforts to overcome it. We each look within ourselves, trying to make sense of our individual calamities. And while there is nothing wrong with introspection, we run the risk of never looking outward again.”8
What he said sums up part of what scripture taught me. The symptoms are unique, but every illness has its own distinct miseries. The Bible points to what we have in common — suffering.
Maintaining a biblical perspective about the topic gets tough when you’re exhausted, confused, stigmatized, and losing hope. Even if you believe God works together with all things for good, you might find yourself questioning his definition of “good.” The good he refers to is that of being conformed to the image of Christ. The good we yearn for is relief, healing, and peace. Shalom.
Learning and growing in biblical understanding takes time. During that time heated questions come to mind, points of debate, and the slow death of… so many things — expectations, anger, ideas about the Christian life, wanting freedom from pain. When facing the temptation to wrestle with God, again, putting on the heart of a child seems the better way to respond. The best first step I can think of: With childlike simplicity begin to sing praise. Even the thought of it seems foolish, doesn’t it? But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.
Do you remember the old spiritual song —
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows but Jesus
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
As in the psalms, the facts about struggle do not get hushed up, but the fact that all hope is set on a glorious God has the resounding last word. Beaten-down slaves sang that way with little hope of freedom and I want to also. Lord, put a new song in my mouth.
On a scale of 1 to 10 of how much I suffer, or of how much better your life appears than mine, praise is fitting at every level. God inhabits the praises of his people, says the psalmist, which will always offset the weights and measures we hold in our hands.
1 “A Memoir of Schizophrenia” by Adrea Sachs, http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1656592,00.html
2 “Families of mentally ill have their own struggle” by Terri Hamilton, http://www.mlive.com/health/index.ssf/2011/09/families_of_mentally_ill_have.html
5 “Another Mental Health Professional Shares Her ‘Self-Care Story’” by Jacqueline A. Elder, http://www.jopm.org/opinion/letters/2012/04/11/another-mh-professional-on-self-care/
7 “The brain is the ‘most complex thing in the universe,” interview with Professor Sir Robin Murray, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-18233409
8 “Help at hand for mental disorder” by Liu Zhihua, China Daily, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2012-06/28/content_15528203.htm
9 “God of the Schizophrenic” by David Weiss http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/april/schizophrenic.html?start=5