The following is an important article by my friend Ruth Anne Dean. In it she tells us about a widely misundertstood disorder of the brain which almost took her life. She is an encouragement to me for the way in which she has endured deep suffering and yet emerged in joy and a persevering faith in Christ:
It was a warm spring day that matched the mood of our six-year old daughter. For her it was a day of hope that seemed to spill from the earth as it was warmed by the sunshine. As we walked home from the kindergarten bus stop she bent over and plucked a dandelion that had gone to seed. I paused to watch her purse her lips and blow the dandelion’s white down into the fresh air as she whispered, “I wish for a puppy.
The sweet side of my children came out especially when they were playing with their pets. Our son always had a cat. For the new kitten he chose a very soft old blanket and made the new kitten bed in his bottom desk drawer.
This was the calm before the storm. Our family of four was not prepared for me to suddenly develop major depressive disorder with psychosis. I had some knowledge from nursing school about mental health, but no amount of knowledge could prepare me for the vortex of confusion and heartache that lay ahead.
I was already struggling physically with Crohn’s disease and the stress it caused. A rheumatoid type of arthritis went with it and caused swelling and pain in my joints. Within three weeks of starting a new medication for my health problems a reaction to a medication caused me to slip into a severe low sodium called hyponatremia. I had symptoms of chills, sweats, weakness, confusion and pallor with this low sodium.
When a person in a low sodium state is returned to normal too rapidly, severe abnormalities can develop in their brain. Unfortunately this is what happened to me causing my brain to take a free fall into hell.
In his book The Case for Grace, Lee Strobel, the former investigative journalist and current Christian apologist and author, provides an excellent description of his brief episode of insanity when he experienced a life threatening health crisis with hyponatremia. Here is his description:
“what threatened my life the most was hyponatremia—my blood sodium level had plummeted to the point where life was unsustainable. Water was entering my cells and triggering dangerous swelling of my brain. Doctors needed to raise the level back to normal to stabilize me, but it had to be done slowly and carefully. If it were elevated to quickly, the brain could be irreparably damaged, leading to death or severe disability.”
“Alone in the bedroom, my yet-to-be diagnosed hyponatremia continued to worsen. I became utterly convinced that everything in my life was gone. My wife was leaving me. My children were denouncing me. My friends were abandoning me. My bank accounts were dry. The house and cars were being repossessed. Police were hunting for me for unspecified crimes. Though innocent, I was headed to prison and disgrace. I imagined myself living in a dirt field, alone, shivering against the Colorado cold, with nowhere to go and nobody to help me.”
“From my perspective, this was no medically induced fantasy; this was indistinguishable from reality. I felt the full emotional impact of every part of it.”
Without minimizing Lee Strobel’s experience with hyponatremia in any way, the consequences of my experience with it were catastrophic and life-altering. I experienced similar delusions, convinced that my family would soon be starving and living under a bridge because of the imminent world economic crisis. On my mind was a picture of me huddled in a small cave with walls of dirt and bare roots with the devil in the background waiting to take me.
My whole life I had eagerly anticipated the joy of being a mother, but now the role I treasured brought nothing but pain. Thoughts of my imagined failure as a mother assaulted me. Another delusion was that I lost my salvation and relationship with Jesus. Repentance was not an option for me, and hell was what I deserved. The emotions attached to these delusions were intense, and profound loneliness and hopelessness engulfed me. This all began suddenly and lasted for one very long year. I was experiencing psychosis which made it impossible for me to grasp the person I had been for the previous 48 years. It was like being alone in a black hole and falling, falling, falling. Every thought convinced me I was worthless. Psychiatric care was needed. My psychiatrist described my brain as being in a total shutdown. My normal brain function had ceased; it was as if I had lost my very self.
My brain continued to deteriorate and I began having suicidal thoughts. One day, alone in the upstairs of our home, tragedy struck. I suddenly felt as if my head was detached from my body and I started running but didn’t know where I was going. I was like a marionette on a string, with a puppeteer in charge of my every move. Unable to control my actions, I ran to the window and fell twenty feet below to cement, permanently damaging my spine. The nightmare continued. Two hours by ambulance to the hospital, seven hours of surgery, seven units of blood and seven days in the hospital. Of that time I remember almost nothing except the shocked, heartbroken faces of my children when they learned I would never walk again. I was still psychotic, but knew my behavior could not be understood by my family or anyone else, including me. I’ve heard actions like mine were a choice. It was actually like a seizure. These actions were something I would never choose.
The term that describes our family’s sorrow at that time is “ambiguous grief.” We were all grieving the loss of me; my body was there, but in it was someone else’s brain. My children gave voice to what they were experiencing. My son missed my laughter when I talked on the phone. My daughter missed the sound of my voice as we talked because I rarely talked. We hoped medication would help me recover my personality but there were no guarantees. When the correct medication and dosage were found, my brain began to slowly function normally again. I was so thankful when normal returned although by now I had to learn to do life in a wheel chair because of the spinal cord injury, but that was absolutely nothing compared to pain of depressive psychosis.
Twenty years passed before I told my psychiatrist about my detached mind experience leading to the fall. He described my experience as a psychotic break, caused by the brain’s chemical serotonin level falling so low that there was an actual break in the transmission of nerve impulses between my body and brain. What I had experienced was something with a medical explanation. My strange behavior which included self harm were symptoms of a mental illness like spots are a symptoms of the measles.
My thoughts while I was ill were strange and illogical, which was very hard for my friends and family’s logical brains to understand. On occasion one would try to convince me out of a delusion by logical reasoning. Absolute failure was the result.
I have found many people who are unacquainted with mental illness do not understand or accept the illogical thoughts of the mentally ill. There are over 200 brain disorders that demonstrate how crippling a brain disorder can be. Here are three of them, imagine yourself living a normal life with any one these:
- Cotard’s syndrome causes a person to think he or she is dead.
- Prosopagnosia can cause a person to not be able to recognize their own face in a mirror.
- Capgas delusions causes a person to think that their loved ones have been replaced by an imposter.
Jesus understood illnesses and touched all types with His healing power.
Mathew 4: 23-24 KJV “and Jesus went out about all Galatia teaching in the synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing all manner of diseases among the people. And His fame went throughout all Syria and they brought unto Him all sick people that were taken with diverse diseases, and those that were possessed with devils and those who were lunatic and torments and those that had the palsy and He healed them.
Over the years Christians have fed the hungry, cared for the sick, taken the orphan for their own, built hospitals and orphanages, and started schools. They have worked to end slavery, infanticide, child labor and widow burning. Treatment of the mentally ill has been bogged down by fear, stigma and lack of knowledge. But mental illness and the pain that accompanies it can be just as devastating as these other scenarios. It is my hope that the reader of this article will see the human brain as an amazing work done by an awesome Creator. It is an organ that can suffer disease like any other organ of the body. When someone is experiencing pain or dysfunction of any kind, we should be a reflection of the compassion that Jesus showed, also helping to provide what is needed to accomplish healing and alleviate suffering. While we are created in the image of our awesome Creator, we are called to do His work of healing in whatever ways He calls us to do.