My Journey Through Mental Illness

Above: a photo of John Dunn

Allow me to introduce myself as an individual who struggles with a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, which has affected me throughout my entire adult life. Although this diagnosis affects practically all my social and personal relationships, it does not define my relationship with my higher power who has created me to be a loving, caring, creative, vulnerable, and intelligent human being. For these reasons, I would like to make it clear that my journey is a journey of faith which has helped me cope with this serious mental diagnosis. My journey began when I was only a little child who began to believe in God as a Supreme Being which I now know as God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I was introduced to Christianity during my adolescent years when, as I look back on my journey, I began to experience the first signs of my mental illness. Once I entered college in the early years of my adulthood, I began to experience more severe mood swings and psychotic thoughts. As these conditions became more severe throughout my young adulthood, I eventually experienced a minor psychotic break at a time in which very little was known about mental illness or, more specifically, its relationship to spirituality. This is where my story begins.

During the years just prior to my psychotic break I experienced worsening symptoms of my schizoaffective disorder which, although not serious enough to warrant intervention or hospitalization, forced me to drop out of college resulting in the loss of a full Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship to the US Air Force which would have enabled me to enter into training as an Air Force test pilot and eventually a career as an astronaut. Immediately upon discharge from the University of Michigan College of Engineering I landed a full-time sales position in a local lumber yard, which aligned with my knowledge of the construction industry. Fortunately, my symptoms went into remission during the following five or six years which allowed me to advance rather quickly. To be completely honest, I appeared quite stable and very intelligent to both my colleagues and superiors as I became the top salesperson in the company and earned a high salary with well-above average pay raises. The only drawback to this position was that it required long hours and left me with no social or spiritual life and virtually no way to express suppressed emotional conditions which, through therapy, I have learned contributed to the onset of my illness along with genetic factors. As a result of these unhealthy stress factors, I lost my job due to several no-show no-call absences which were a direct result of my psychotic break which shortly thereafter required intervention by state authorities and involuntary hospitalization.

 I continue to have vivid and specific memories of my psychotic break which are all spiritual in nature and must emphasize that although I have subsequently received formal education in religious studies, I was in a state of psychosis at the time of my break and most of my thoughts were delusional. My only realistic belief of my higher power, Jesus Christ, at the time was that he is my only source of salvation along with the fruit of his spirit which include the love, joy, and peace that I was desperately searching for at that time. Ironically, I felt these fruits emotionally the moment I focused on a cross erected above a church where I proceeded to speak to the pastor, my first point of contact for help in my psychotic emergency. This event occurred in the late 1990’s when very little was known to the spiritual, and to a lesser extent the professional, community about mental illness and there were a lot of stigmas surrounding it. Despite the fact that I was very peaceful, although quite irrational, the state police were contacted and I peacefully followed their orders and was taken to the University of Michigan psychiatric emergency room where I was admitted to the psychiatric unit without understanding what was happening to me mentally, physically, or spiritually.

Because my psychotic break was classified as “minor” (although it appeared major to me,) I was able to focus on my recovery in the atmosphere of the psych ward, which was relatively calm (compared to several subsequent hospitalizations) at the time. Due to my peaceful nature and, as I strongly believe, the presence of the Holy Spirit at the time, I was able to cooperate with everyone on the ward, both patients and staff alike. One particular nurse, Joyce, appeared to take a special liking to me and, noticing my spiritual gifts, strongly encouraged me to follow the path of wisdom in my life. During my stay at the hospital, I acquired a New Testament Bible and began studying the Proverbs and examining several character traits and virtues of Jesus Christ.

Because not much was known about mental illness at the time of my psychotic break, I began a long journey through professional counseling and medication adjustments. I was forced to live off disability benefits and lived with my mother for several years. Fortunately, my mother lived directly across the street from a Catholic church where I often spoke to the parish priest, Father Don, and became re-acquainted with sound Christian doctrine. I eventually received the sacrament of confirmation in the Catholic church and, upon obtaining an apartment of my own, graduated from a four-year Catholic university with a degree in multidisciplinary studies in which my favorite subjects were religious studies and philosophy – inspired by Joyce and Father Don. Because of the nature of my diagnosis and the fact that I was very unstable during my college years, I struggled greatly with my performance; however, I graduated with a 3.76 GPA while taking only a few classes at a time and focusing on these classes. In addition to attending college at this time, I met and married my wife of twelve years which I consider to be a success for anyone today – diagnosed or not.

Since my wife has been diagnosed with a major mental illness and I have experienced an extremely high level of medication–which has been drastically reduced by subsequent professionals–my wife and I have had several communication difficulties in our marriage. These difficulties have been worsened by mutual childhood trauma, abuse, and neglect. Fortunately, I have overcome the detrimental effects of these factors through Celebrate Recovery – a Christian recovery group based on the Beatitudes of Jesus Christ and the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Throughout my recovery and my spiritual journey through mental illness I have consistently and deeply prayed for wisdom and knowledge of the “big picture” of mental illness and deep insight into my heart, mind, and soul which has been answered by a deep awareness of my spiritual and mental state of being as well as partial revelation of my purpose in life – the beginning of an even longer journey.

Currently, I view myself as a child of God who struggles with life on life’s terms which happens to include a serious mental disorder. Although I identify as a Catholic Christian, I am beginning to seek an understanding of other faith expressions as an expression of my love for God’s creation. As I seek this understanding, I am beginning to understand how various understandings of the higher power or Supreme Being, can enhance the recovery of individuals recovering from any mental illness. I am beginning to put this wisdom to practical use in the workforce by embarking on a new career path which encompasses my journey. I am commencing on this path with my counselor from Michigan Rehabilitation Services and now NAMI Washtenaw County on a volunteer basis.

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