Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Finding a Real God in a Chasm of Unreality

Finding a Real God in a Chasm of Unreality

Editor's note: Content warning for parents. This article contains some graphically violent descriptions.

David Weiss is watching himself commit suicide again. He lies rigid on the ground, his head on a train track, feeling vibrations against his neck as a locomotive barrels closer. He hears the hum of the diesel engine and the moan of the train’s horn. When the mass of steel hurtles past, there’s no scream, only a quiet snap—and his head disappears. His torso goes limp. He smells blood.

Then the hallucination ends.

Though only lasting a second or two each time, such graphically detailed hallucinations are normal for Weiss, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in 2005. A committed Christian, Weiss experienced a faith crisis following his diagnosis and has since rediscovered his Christianity amid the ravages of mental illness. His hallucinations occur several times a day, increasing in frequency and intensity in times of depression or stress. Most are violent episodes in which every sight, sound, and smell is real.

“I see myself committing suicide while looking on from a third person perspective. … Sometimes when my hallucinations are really bad, I am paralyzed, experiencing my suicide in a non-stop barrage of creative death,” Weiss said. “That is when I go to the hospital.”

A 27-year-old from Tucson, Ariz., Weiss grew up in a strong Christian family and accepted Christ after eighth grade. He became a youth group leader and started evangelizing at his public high school. A straight-A student with big dreams, Weiss received a full-ride scholarship to the University of Arizona. But during his first semester, his dreams turned into nightmares.

Weiss remembers lying on his bed at home during Thanksgiving break, too agitated to leave his room. He saw razor blades dancing across the walls and ceiling. “I was afraid they were going to cut me. So I hid in my bed and shook,” Weiss recalled. “I wondered why God would let this happen to me.” When his symptoms continued, he found himself in a mental hospital, facing an uncertain future while his scholarship and aspirations slipped away.

The medical staff quickly released Weiss from the hospital after he said “the right words”—but his schizophrenia persisted. He began doubting God’s existence, sinking into depression as spiritual passion gave way to anger and grief.

“As the years dragged on, I stopped crying,” Weiss said. “I stopped feeling. I just did what I had to do. I learned to dream.”

Weiss’s detailed fantasies soon became more real than the outside world. He once dreamed for two weeks about living aboard a space station where he braved meteor showers, traveled faster than the speed of light, and defeated a Russian ultra-nationalist while simultaneously wooing a pretty French doctor. During the delusion, he neither talked nor bathed, and barely slept.

Meanwhile, Weiss’s parents tended to his needs and clung to faith. He often awoke to find his mother praying Scripture and singing praise songs over him. “Our worst nightmare was coming true,” said Weiss’ mother, Trudy. “Mental illness tentacles reached back generations on both sides of our family. It seemed he felt better for a day or two, and then the decline would start.”

When other treatments failed to work, Weiss underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) sessions, treatment that induces mild seizures to relieve depression or schizophrenic symptoms. But after a record 24 ECT sessions (eight to 12 is standard) and $300,000 in medical expenses, Weiss’s doctors classified him as resistant to both medication and ECT. He would have to learn to adapt to the illness, the “illusion of normalcy” his new goal.

Today, Weiss lives one house away from his supportive parents and studies nursing. Keeping active helps him cope, although he still spends much of the time alone doing homework or sleeping off medication. His daily hallucinations are typically violent depictions of his own death, but not always—he once saw a giant fish smoking cigarettes in his bathtub. Bouts with depression are frequent. Suicidal thoughts remain familiar enemies.

But while the pain is overwhelming at times, Weiss refuses to abandon faith. He wandered for three years following his diagnosis, after which he tried being an agnostic, then merely a theist.

“Before my illness I always thought I had something to offer God,” Weiss said. “When I became ill, I was the one in need.” As his life began falling apart, reason gave way to fatalism and submersion into angry self-pity, “It was there that I met my merciful and graceful God,” he said.

After exhausting all options, Weiss eventually reembraced his faith and worked through his bitterness. Now, when depression rises, he prays. When tempted to isolate himself, he focuses on others, interacting with family and volunteering at a nursing home three times a week.

Weiss and his family attend a conservative church that offers mixed reactions to his illness. His pastors express understanding and many people write letters of encouragement, but some well-meaning inquisitors are skeptical, asking whether he’s secretly gay or harboring unconfessed sin. Other believers have accused him of demon possession or of not being a “real” Christian.

While the church offers some support, Weiss confesses his experience makes him more reliant on the medical community for help. “I just think the church misunderstands the mentally ill,” he said. “Often people try to ‘fix’ me. … I just want to be accepted as I am.”

According to Matthew Stanford, that need for acceptance is a trademark of the mentally ill in churches. Stanford is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University and director of The Grace Alliance, the national non-profit organization that serves the mentally ill and their families.

In a 2011 study, Stanford surveyed 293 Christians who approached their local church for assistance in response to a personal or family member’s diagnosed mental illness. Approximately 30 percent of those surveyed reported a negative interaction, including abandonment by the church, being told their problem was solely spiritual in nature, or having their illness dismissed or denied.

“What this shows is that lots of churches may be affected by mental illness, but by and large, the body of Christ is simply unprepared to minister effectively these people,” Stanford said.

Because mental illness is a problem of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, Christians tend to “over-spiritualize” the issue and undermine biology, Stanford said. He advocates a holistic approach that ministers to both the physical and spiritual aspects of mental illness. Cultural stigmas surrounding mental illness, combined with a general fear of psychiatry and psychology in the church, Stanford said, leaves congregations unequipped to deal with the mentally ill. Yet research consistently shows that clergy—not psychologists or other mental health experts—are the most common source of help sought in times of psychological distress.

“That being the case, I honestly believe that mental illness is the great mission field of today,” Stanford said, noting that 450 million people in the world struggle with some form of mental illness. “The church needs to stop being afraid of that.…You can’t put mental illness in a little box, because it’s a mess. But that’s OK. The church is for messy people.”

For Weiss, life with schizophrenia has been a journey of accepting the reality of grace when disappointment and delusion threaten to overwhelm. He admitted it’s hard to let go of the dreams, but he’s grateful for a renewed spiritual walk and a mercy he didn’t know before his illness

“Events have taken place that have changed my life forever,” Weiss said. “Many of these events have left deep scars on my soul. Though my illness persists, I have finally met the God I had heard about but never truly experienced. A God who heals.”

(c) WORLD News Service. Used with permission.

Publication date: May 21, 2013