"When I have neither pleasure nor pain and have been breathing for a while the lukewarm insipid air of these so-called good and tolerable days, I feel so bad in my childish soul that I smash my moldering lyre of thanksgiving in the face of the slumbering god of contentment and would rather feel the very devil burn in me than this warmth of a well-heated room.”
--Herman Hesse, Steppenwolf
--Herman Hesse, Steppenwolf
Manic-depression is a passionate disease. It is like a relationship that is bad for you that you just can’t seem to leave. It is utterly paradoxical: as much as you suffer during those most wicked bouts of depression and mania, the strong emotions inherent in both states leave an imprint in the brain. When we are the most emotional—manic, depressed, or otherwise—we feel most alive.
I often catch myself thinking back nostalgically to the days when I was manic because they were some of the most joyful and spirit filled days of my life and I miss them dearly. Depression, strangely enough, is also a tempting mistress. The crushing weight of despair can become like a comfortable blanket to hide from the world under, and the pain of despair is acute enough to be tasted.
The reason I think back nostalgically to those times when I felt most alive is because these days I do not feel alive at all. Biologically I am functioning normally. But my spirit has been subdued, beaten down into silent submission, by an army of medications. I respond to things neither with anger or gladness, but with shrugs and half-smiles; good and bad, it is all the same. Life is a white cake with no icing; a source of calories, but without the pleasure of consuming them. There are times I wish I would choke on it.
There are times in depression in which the pain is so acute that suicide seems like the only viable respite. In mania one is less likely to be preoccupied by death but may die as a result of some reckless activity. But for one who has known thick passion, residing in the gray nothing of passionless existence is like being in a kind of cool hell. It induces a collected panic, like when a paralyzed person tries to move her limbs for the first time. Feeling the movement of limbs had been taken for granted for so long; that is, until they no longer move on command.
It seems that God is not so fond of this gray state either. In the book of Revelations, the Spirit of God says: “I know your works; I know that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish you were either hot or cold.” Such half-hearted commitment to the faith is nauseating to God: “So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you from my mouth” (Rev 3:16).
The expression “hot and cold” usually refers to the act of vacillating between two extremes; a cycle manic depressives are especially familiar with. This can be between being passionate and frigid, generous and stingy, angry and gentle, loving and hating. So when God seems to be approving of this being “hot or cold,” does that mean that the disposition of manic-depressives has special favor in the eyes of God? I think it does.
If we are looking at the gifts mental illness brings into the world—rather than just its deficits—the disposition towards passion is one that can work favorably for us in our spiritual lives. God does not call us to do average things for Him; He calls us to great things. The ability to do great things depends on having a great spirit, a great vision, and the fortitude to carry it out.
When I was manic, I felt fortified to do great things for God. I had towering vision, and a burning energy to actualize those plans. But as is the case during these mental conditions, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” My mind was too fractured to follow through on any of the grand plans I had made to bring the Kingdom of God closer to earth. I wrote a manifesto. I still don’t know if it was God speaking through me during that time, making me work in the heat of my mania. I don’t think my mental condition detracted from my being a willing servant of God. If anything, the burning passion I laid before God’s feet constituted a “holy oblation,” the willingness to serve with zeal that God found so admirable in David.
When I was severely depressed a few years ago and seeing a new therapist, I mentioned that I was distressed at my lack of passion. After listening to me talk about how I was feeling for a few minutes he said, “I don’t think you have a lack of passion at all. In fact, you have very strong passion. It is just a negative passion.”
He was right. My life at that time was filled with the pain of emptiness, loneliness, worthlessness, guilt, despair—all those demons that accompany acute depression. They were like searing wounds that split open and festered on all parts of my body. Was this some commission from God to share in the sufferings of Christ? I doubted it. It did feel like a mental crucifixion, and I did feel completely abandoned by God at this Golgotha. But in my suffering, I at least felt human.
The Desert Fathers espoused a state of being which they referred to as “dispassion,” or apatheia. In this state the intellect is not made a slave to the passions of the senses, nor of the imagination, but is rather brought back into proper alignment with the Divine Intellect. Cultivating this state requires mortification and self-control, detachment from material possessions, prayer, and, of course, grace.
The medication-induced passionlessness I live in now is not a venerable state. It is not the result of fervent mortification or prayer. It is simply a state in which my emotional responses have been dulled and muted. My tears ducts may have dried up and my sex drive may have gone into hibernation, but I still experience the passions of desire in subtler ways. The craving for comfort, praise, and substances is still strong; I notice it the most when I deny it what it wants. With a recent switch in medication I have regained a healthy appetite and so food has become a source of craving. I have strong urges to nap during the day that are hard to resist. I do not consider any of these things as harmful in and of themselves. But it is the attachment to them, and the treating them as idols, which bring us farther away from the path God wants us to tread.
A perfect example of such raving, sinful passion, comes from one of my favorite books, Zorba the Greek. Zorba relates his father’s passion for smoking and how he overcame it in this vibrant excerpt:
“Well, he had all the vices, but he'd slash them, as you would with a sword. For instance, he smoked like a chimney. One morning he…took out his pouch and found it was empty. He'd forgotten to fill it before leaving the house. He foamed with rage, let out a roar, and then bounded away towards the village. His passion for smoking completely unbalanced his reason, you see. But suddenly he stopped, filled with shame, pulled out his pouch and tore it to shreds with his teeth, then stamped it in the ground and spat on it. ‘Filth! Filth!’ he bellowed. ‘Dirty slut!’ And from that hour, until the end of his days, he never put another cigarette between his lips. That's the way real men behave boss.”
God wants us to be passionate people, not lukewarm. But He wants our passions to be directed to the things of the spirit, not the flesh. In this way I feel that the fire of passion and desire which burns so hot in the souls of manic-depressives is advantageous to spiritual development. The key is exercising the will in a way that directs it towards the ways of holiness, not sin. Unlike the flaring of passions and emotions, how we direct our will is completely in our control.
The subduing of passion by medication is a kind of death, one that needs to be grieved, but that inevitably leads to a deeper, more mature faith less dependent on emotion-based response. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). I have come to terms with this crucifixion of my emotions by medication and my faith life has adjusted accordingly. As in the parable of the two sons in Mt 21:28-32, what one feels towards God is less important than what one does for God.