Bipolar & Spirituality

My two most intense episodes of bipolar had strong spiritual elements attached to them. When I was in a deep depression, I felt like the devil had taken up permanent residence in my head. Which is funny, in a way, because the time I was severely depressed was in the lead up to me getting permanent residency in New Zealand.

Maybe I called this voice the devil because what was going on in my head was so messed up, so loud, so excruciating that I had to label it as out of this world. Labelling it as the devil allowed some distance between the vile stories in my head and my humanity, as a scared twenty-something.

I’m not saying that mental illness is a result of being plagued by the devil. That thinking can lead to terrifying abuses of power, where our most vulnerable are subjected to traumatic practices like unsolicited and very confronting corporate prayer, or even exorcism rituals without proper consent.

This quote from a 2018 Guardian article proves there’s a major cause for concern for attributing hearing voices to demonic possession:

“Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are the traditional candidates for a false diagnosis of demonic infestation.”

What I’m curious about exploring in this essay is why did it feel like a spiritual battle at the time? Why did it seem like my thoughts were inspired by another dimension – as if they were messages from an angel or demon? And how has it altered my relationship with my spirituality now that I’m out the other side of these episodes?

I’m doing my best to tread very carefully in this essay, speaking my truth while acknowledging it’s not everyone’s truth. I am a spiritual person, but when I’m well, when my thoughts are coherent and lucid, and when my behaviour is congruent with my values, I don’t believe bipolar is a result of being attacked by the devil.

I’m grateful that the spiritual elders and community in my life did not see me as being attacked by the devil either. It breaks my heart that this is not the case in some religious institutions around the world and some people – including children – get very hurt.

During my worst episode of depression, I was convinced I was evil and punished myself.

I often made myself vomit to try and purge the “evil” inside of me.

I remember thinking in superlatives – I was the evillest person. Worse than Hitler even. That’s how far my delusions went.

I remember waiting in an airport for a flight to St Lucia to have a holiday with my friends from the UK. I was flying alone, waiting for my boarding call, sitting on the carpet tiles hugging my knees to my chest. I had suffered through eight months of insomnia, suicidal thoughts, and in a desperate urge to escape all this, I waved a white flag to my devil, my dis-ease – “You win. I can’t take this anymore.”

And then I had a psychotic breakdown in St Lucia. Alone in a hotel bathroom.

Just 24 hours before my friends were due to arrive, my whole body, not just my brain, seemed to be hijacked by the devil. I spoke to myself in a sing-song voice, scuttled around on my hands, released a shallow giggle, and perched crablike in the bottom of a wardrobe.

I don’t even know how I managed to check out of that hotel, grab a taxi and meet my friends at the place we were staying for a fortnight.

I want to reiterate because it’s incredibly important, I wasn’t demon-possessed, I was very, very unwell. In crisis.

In a place of paradise, of palm trees and ochre, crimson sunsets, I had given up the fight and lost all touch with reality. Although, in truth, I can’t remember the sunsets. I remember green, lots of green, cigars, tropical fruit, and jet-skis. But most of all barricading myself – and attempting to barricade my friends too – in a hotel room.

My friends had no choice but to send me to a hospital on this stunning Caribbean island and call my dad to come and rescue me and take me home to New Zealand.

This is painful for me to write. Eleven years on. I’m sorry if it’s painful to read, too. I still feel guilty about it. Even though it wasn’t my fault, I felt like I left a bad stain on the holiday for my friends and put them in a horrible position.

The next time I became seriously unwell was after the birth of my daughter. This time, instead of thinking I was evil, I felt like I was gloriously good. I had superpowers. I was psychic.

I prayed a prayer at 1am when my baby was asleep, as was everyone else in the house: “God, I want to be a world changer. I want to change the world.”

And that same night we had a real earthquake, and it was centred in the town where I was staying. That was not a coincidence. That was a message. God had heard me and responded. Apparently.

A few days later, everything started spiralling out of control. I was cycling between mania and depression and slipping again into psychosis. And I thought in that moment, God, you have forsaken me. Why have you forgotten me? It sounds melodramatic, but I felt bereft.

Bipolar and spirituality appears in the research a lot. The Mental Health Foundation lists a symptom of psychosis as a belief:

“You can control events in the world or have a destiny to save the world. Sometimes these beliefs or voices may take on a more paranoid form. You might believe you are being persecuted, perhaps because of your special powers or status.”

I was a spiritual person before I was diagnosed with bipolar. I’m a Christian.

There’s a word, a Christian gift, called intercession.

It’s when you profoundly feel the prayers and struggles of others and take them to God. I believe that I have that. Or at least I believe that when I’m going through a manic or depressed phase, I’m more in tune with what’s going on in the world. I’ve always been sensitive and empathetic, but in times of mental distress these issues affect me even more keenly. It becomes a form of energy that surrounds me and pulses through me. Watching the news becomes too much but at the same time I can’t pull myself away from it.

A friend, whose ex-wife had bipolar, told me: “it seems a lot of people with bipolar feel world events more deeply. I’m not sure if that will ever go away, but you hopefully find ways to manage it.”

When the world feels unstable, during times of division and great instability, if you have the emotional capacity and headspace, I urge you to check on your friends and family with bipolar. We might be struggling more than we let on.

One time during a doctor’s appointment I was chopping and changing between ideas and thoughts and subjects and blurted out, “Trump’s our Vietnam War.” Not only was I going through this existential, mental health crisis but I was feeling all the crises of the world on my shoulders. I felt the world aching and screaming as if it was my pain.

If God was speaking to me like this, I wanted him to shut up. Or at least turn down the volume.

Sometimes at church, when the worship band plays, and the singers sing, I cry.

My tears are prayers to God. I don’t have words for what I’m going through right now, God. Take my tears instead.

I think it’s important to go beyond what’s happening biologically during bipolar episodes and at least be open to its spiritual moments. To be gently, delicately curious of the moments that can feel euphoric or devastating. Where you can feel intimately connected with God or about as distant as you can get. Looking at bipolar through a different lens can shed some light on how to treat our disease holistically and with more compassion.


But, there’s a caveat: always, always, always put the person first and be curious about the meaning they make from their bipolar. They may not attribute any of their symptoms to spirituality. Ask them, “what is going on for you right now?” and whatever you do, don’t judge, invalidate or gaslight their answer.

When I was slipping deeper into psychosis – the second time around – I started seeing 666 everywhere. Maybe they were always there in the phone numbers and the number plates, but now they popped. They were reminders and proof that I was being persecuted.

At the same time, I reverted to a brick phone – you know the solid Nokias that used to be our only option – because my smartphone notifications were adding to my mental noise. I remember trying to call Mum and starting with 6 but not being able to figure out the next number was 8 in the sequence. I kept on pressing 666 on the rubber keys – 666, 666, my distress growing with each wrong press.

I just want to speak to my mum. What’s happening to me?

I can smile about it now. Not a wide smile, a small, tender smile loaded with sadness for the me back then.

It felt so real. Why could nobody else see this? Had I entered a portal that was only accessible by a few?

If that was the case, I wanted out. I didn’t want the pressure of being a change maker or surrendering to the devil. I didn’t want these superpowers anymore. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t me. I felt captured.

You can imagine how dangerous – and sometimes attractive – these unworldly feelings can be when you act on them. They are so heightened and urgent and vibrant and real that it’s difficult to switch them off. It’s difficult to escape their intensity. You can believe you are a conduit to divine energy, that you can drive with your eyes closed, or you’re invincible in the face of danger. It makes people take risks that can be almost impossible to come back from.

I remember feeling so loved by my church community during this time, though. I was working at a church and the vicar came to visit me while I was staying in a respite facility. The first night I had been sectioned – this time in New Zealand – I called her feeling so vulnerable and over the phone she read Romans 8 v 38 – nothing can condemn you. Even though she and many others from church comforted me from Scripture, I’m grateful that they could see my pain for what it was – I was mentally unwell, and I needed to recoup in a medical facility.

Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from you.

My village rallied around me. I wasn’t the easiest person to talk to. Low and dejected one minute and hyper and bubbling the next. I wasn’t making much sense. But they stuck by me and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.

There’s a modern school of – dangerous and discriminatory – thought that says Christians shouldn’t get depressed or anxious or suffer from any mental illness.

We should be able to pray it away and focus our attention on positive things. But I call BS on that.

There are many instances in the Bible where people are crying out to God. People who feel desperate and abandoned. David in the Psalms is so authentic with the way he is feeling.

I believe God carries us through. I believe the sacred can be found in, with and around these experiences. I believe that it’s problematic and messy and holds a bottomless complexity when we say spirituality is just a symptom of mental illness. I want to have some spiritual encounters. I want to feel close to God. I just don’t want all the other crap that comes with it.

I think there still exists a tendency to pathologise things that we don’t understand. But we’re also in an era where we’re getting much more comfortable talking and exploring things unseen – but no less real – in our lives.

But my spiritual experiences when I was depressed were troubling. I hated feeling persecuted, believing I was evil and feeling unable to escape the sense of dread.

But on the flip side, feeling close to God was not all that pleasant either. I didn’t want to be a world-changer or a chosen one. It’s too much of a responsibility. Too much a burden. People don’t like you if you stick your neck out too much or if you’re too different or spiritual.

When I feel well, I don’t feel all that spiritual. There are times when I feel like that part of me has dulled.

Like the times of crisis were sandpaper wearing away at my ability to be open and vulnerable to my spiritual side. Work and life and parenting get in the way. It’s too much to be so spiritual all the time. You can’t get things done. At least you can’t get things done according to your plans.

I felt carried away by spirituality during my psychotic episode. I wasn’t in any form of control. I resonated with all the characters in the Bible that asked – why me? Somebody is better at this job than me, God. Choose them. I’m not a world changer. I can barely string a coherent sentence together.

The problem with bipolar is all the things that we think we want – heightened sex drive, creativity, spirituality, and the rest – feel like a burden. They feel out of control like you’re slipping down a ravine and you can’t find a foothold. At first the slide feels euphoric. Even falling can be fun. Until it’s not.

The times when I start feeling more spiritual, when I’m praying more and listening more to God are not without fear. Is this a “normal” amount of spirituality or is this an early warning sign? Is this conviction that I’ve done something wrong a healthy feeling or is it slipping towards persecution and paranoia?

At times like these, I’m reminded of the “Grand Bargain” mentioned in the book Owning Bipolar. How Patients and Families can take control of bipolar disorder. The “Grand Bargain” goes:

“For the family member it is I won’t think everything about you is bipolar disorder if I know you’re keeping your disease under control. For the patient, it is I will always keep you updated about my disease as long as you don’t think everything about me is bipolar disorder.”

I don’t want to see every positive or negative event as a symptom of my illness. I want to extend some grace to myself – I’m allowed to go through a whole range of emotions, thoughts, and feelings without saying they all point to an illness. I know that I’m always at risk of self-stigma if I’m not careful.

Part of showing myself more compassion is not jumping to any conclusions. Sometimes I need to ask other people what they think. And allowing myself to embrace my spiritual side, to enjoy worship music, to pray for myself and others is an act of love and community and healing.

It’s not all about bipolar. It can’t be. I won’t let it.