I was eighteen years old when I first experienced acute manic psychosis. I had just arrived at the University of Georgia for my freshman fall semester when I suddenly had what seemed like a profound spiritual awakening. I felt as if I was waking up from a bad dream, as if my mind and body were merely figments of my imagination. I felt an incredible transcendence and oneness with the universe, an experience I could only fathom to be spiritual. Back then, I didn’t know anything about bipolar disorder.
My first thought upon being struck with this overwhelmingly blissful state was, “This is what God feels like; I must be Jesus!” It was from there that I began my deluded descent into madness. I ran upstairs in my dormitory, assuming that my friends would be my first disciples, and tried to perform miracles to prove my divinity. When they attempted to calm me down, I punched one of them in the face, calling him the devil, and ran back downstairs. Campus police promptly met me in the dorm lobby and arrested me on the spot.
On my way to jail, I was no longer feeling so ecstatic. In fact, it was the most excruciating fear I had ever experienced. I began believing that the police officers were the Pharisees taking me to my crucifixion. They placed me in my own jail cell, and I began stripping off my clothes, demanding for the officers to come look at my naked body. Throughout the whole experience, I felt almost completely dissociated, as if I was watching a movie of myself with little to no control of the actor.
After a few days of trying to convince my parents that I was returning humanity to the Garden of Eden, they realized my condition might not be from taking psychedelic drugs as they had thought. I was escorted to my local psychiatric hospital, and once medicated, came down from my messianic mission to create heaven on earth. The only problem was, I had never been more certain of God in my life, and the clinicians just kept telling me that it was normal for grandiose delusions to take on religious and spiritual themes. I was not convinced.
My thoughts immediately went to the biblical stories I grew up with: how God tested Abraham’s faith when he was told to sacrifice his son, and how God communicated to Moses through a burning bush. Were these not examples of delusions and hallucinations? Even Jesus was convinced to be the Son of God. Were the holy men of the Bible bipolar? I had a lot of questions, and my questions seemed to be forcing me to choose one side or the other—either spirituality or psychiatry.
It took me about a decade to finally integrate both truths and find some peace around my manic episodes. I studied spirituality and psychology, and I came to the conclusion that bipolar disorder and spiritual experiences didn’t need to exist in opposition. I’ve come to some basic definition of spirituality as the transcendence of ego. In this sense, mania was indeed a spiritual experience, albeit an unmanageable one. This didn’t mean my bipolar diagnosis was bogus, and I’m not saying all psychotic episodes are spiritual. But I can now rest easy knowing that my experiences were both spiritual and bipolar.
If I’m honest with myself, a major sign of my mania is increased spirituality, but at the same time, a major sign of my depression is a lack of spiritual significance. Finding balance in recovery means that I am able to seek both spiritual and clinical solutions to my bipolar symptoms without fear that I am falling out of grace with God. When I was first diagnosed, I had the idea that either bipolar existed or God existed. There was no space for both.
My spirituality has necessarily evolved over the years. Because of my history with manic psychosis, I have to guard myself against dogmatic or superstitious beliefs. I try my best to live a life of love, and I rest assured knowing that the more kindness I spread to the world, the more aligned I am with my spiritual path. Telling my story of recovery has become part of this spiritual process. My faith means a great deal to my health, and without it, my recovery wouldn’t be as strong as it is today. I hope that by sharing my story, others going through the same difficulties might not take so long to make sense of their own experiences.
Chris Cole is the author of The Body of Chris: A Memoir of Obsession, Addiction, and Madness, and he’s a life coach for people in recovery.