Schizophrenic Skepticism

Sarah Myers

I don’t believe in God, but at times when I am under loads of stress, I start to think I am the second coming of Christ.

I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2017 but have experienced the spectrum of psychotic symptoms since my late teens. The diagnosis was masked by other mental-health issues, in which I began to hear and see things others did not.

In the 1400s, I could have beaten Joan of Arc to the chase of fame in the heroine quests resulting from her auditory voices. Or perhaps if had I lived across the globe, in Papua New Guinea, I could have made a name for myself as the community shaman. But in twenty-first century America, my condition comes with a label: I am known as a person with schizophrenia.

I briefly flirted with church activities as I grew up in the Midwestern Bible Belt, befriending religious teens throughout my childhood, but I have long since abandoned any interest in participating in church activities.

In 2017, my condition came to a head. It was on the last day of a Midwestern skeptics’ conference, for which I served as the marketing head, when I was released from a one-week psychiatric hospitalization for experiencing these symptoms.

The event of my release incurred an hour-long panic attack and subsequent “flashback”-delusion that I had been tortured at a local hospital for the impairing traumas I suffered. I was put on medications that would for the next two weeks begin to stabilize my hallucinations, delusions, and rampant mood swings.

Briefly that year, I experienced extreme inflations of my self-esteem that would most accurately be described as delusions of grandeur. I felt I was invincible. Identities taken under my mind included being of royal blood to the Trinity lineage, a descendant of Leonardo da Vinci, and the belief that I bore the power of God in the manner of all-knowing, all-creating, and, most importantly, all-obeying form. I believed I was talking to aliens, who dictated my thought process about politics and current events and distorted my thinking. There was no boundary between me and the outside world, and I assumed that everyone could read my thoughts.

Once triggered, typically by stress or a sudden missed dosage of medications—or perhaps some unknowable trigger—a severe feeling comes over me. Without a doubt, I am taller, straighter, and ready to tell the world about this new-found truth I have. While my self esteem, relationships, and identity all wane and wax under life’s constant ebbs and flows, my delusional nature has been a creeping tide of certainty that has brought comfort for brief moments of times during their experience. I am suddenly the reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci. I fly through activities, tasks, and work deadlines. It is a fact, I protest to others during my psychotic trips, that I have all this power. In fact, there is so much power that I have that I must be the second coming of Christ.

I call my father. “Dad, I am Jesus. I have to be da Vinci’s reincarnation. I think divinity is in our blood-line.” I tell my aunt, who also encourages this notion, that we may potentially be related to the Divinity bloodline. “Perhaps the government is watching us,” she tells me. A surge of panic wipes over me as I find myself in the company of someone who encourages such ideas. Later, when I live in my own apartment, I am accompanied by this idea that the government may in fact be spying on me, and I check above my cabinets. I peek across the building through my blinds for signs of implanted technology or cameras that may have appeared after I let visitors into my home. The alien voices start to come back, and I am at once conflicted with the mistrust of external voices and the voices of others conflating my sense of identity and decision-making process. A mixture of paranoia and insecurity—but power—underlies these thoughts. Nonetheless, perhaps to compensate, I am convinced I am invincible. I have all the power in the world with these abilities.

Doctors have noted that I am somewhat unique in that I have maintained a balance between anosognosia (the lack of awareness that often occurs with schizophrenia) and those moments lost in episodes. Over time, I have learned that my support circle reminding me that such ideas and facts are not real, or gently reminding me that I have a disorder, coaxes me back into reality. Once I am back down, I feel what I suppose any neurotypical person would feel after catching themselves in such an event. I feel stupid. I feel shocked at what just came from my mouth. I am very cautious of my surroundings. I feel the need to shrink, retreat, and lie down so that my brain is sure not to take control of my nature again. The feeling of utter confidence in the abstract thought dwindles, and I am left to believe again in only the power of a critical mind and emotional confidence as my very human powers against the universe and its power on me as a tiny creature in its skeptical existence.

It is true that I do not believe in God, but it is also possibly true that I have accepted some form of significance associated with the cultural identities of Jesus and who he was to humanity. A mixture of twenty-first century New Age spiritual underpinnings combined with cultural Christian upbringings grew up alongside my unconscious. The reasons my symptoms led to religious influences, when I myself am not religious, is unclear. But I am not alone.

Religious delusions and beliefs occur somewhat frequently with individuals living with schizophrenia. Elyn Saks frequently believed aliens were surrounding her in her popular memoir, The Center Cannot Hold. Search online, and schizophrenia will be linked to shamanism, mysticism, and supernatural powers as frequently as one can keep up with the live stream itself. A Psychology Today article by medical professional Neel Burton relates symptoms of psychosis, such as hallucinations and visions (which are said to be somewhat common in the population when occurring in isolation), to “a normal or life-enhancing experience, as in, for instance, hearing the comforting voices of ancestors or guardian angels.” Author Kenneth Wapnick attempts to link together the supernatural and psychiatric illness through Mysticism and Schizophrenia, in which he elaborates on the forced conclusion that the illness may be related to “higher level” gifts. Both authors attempt to destigmatize the schizophrenic illness by heightening their societal relevance, but in both cases, this creates the illusion that illness is somehow a gift, thereby discouraging treatment, something rarely seen with physical illnesses, such as cancer.

What is worse is that once back down from the delusion, individuals still refer back to the supernatural for explanations of their psychosis. Sometimes, they debunk the idea that it is psychosis altogether. Esmé Weijun Wang, a writer who came out with her essay series The Collected Schizophrenias in 2019, writes about her experience in dealing with her own diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder while combating the stigmatizing and supernatural effects of acknowledging this identity. She reports briefly engaging herself with astrology and even witchcraft in an effort to offer a socially acceptable explanation of her experiences of delusions and hallucinations.

While she later dismisses these possibilities as realistic explanations in efforts to save her sanity, many do not. My experiences in private support groups, therapy offices, and clinics have led to anecdotal observations of a widespread similarity that seizes this desperate demographic to seek explanations in the metaphysical, supernatural, and spiritual in lieu of skeptical attitudes. I have been to my fair share of support groups with people who medically identify as voice-hearers, shamans, or schizophrenics. In these groups, theories such as shamanic powers or spiritual leading abilities dress the demographic in efforts to restore our integrity among a society that displaces our essence to the point of violent social ostracization. In such cases, treatment for such conditions may be suspended at the individual’s cost in favor of these unsubstantiated claims.

Supernatural notions and theories are harmful to me, for when I found myself situated among individuals who promoted and entertained the delusion that I could in fact be a reincarnation or mystic, my episode would continue twice as long. I suspect these supernatural encouragements can also be harmful to other individuals living with these delusions and hallucinations. Skepticism has, I am convinced, saved me in multiple cases from perhaps losing my mind altogether.

In several such cases, it may have saved me from permanent damage. Once an episode has started and I am at the beginning of its climactic rise, I enact a form of skepticism. I start to question my delusions on the spot. I ask myself, what evidence do I have that there are demons, God, or beings punishing me? I pause. I look around. I start to become more aware of my surroundings and bring myself back to the reality that was slowly beginning to be lost to me. After a few moments of meditating on this skeptical nature, I bring myself to an isolated, calm place, where I am able to limit the sensory input coming in to focus on this meditative technique.

I have not had the delusional idea that I am Jesus since that year, for my ability to grow in awareness and develop my coping strategies and patience in participating in recovery have granted me the perspective to be more in control of my episodes than they are of me. This is the result, I think, because I have accepted the realities of the disorder in its limitations and stress signifiers.

A person with schizophrenia can intelligently engage in ideas, as this culture has seen through the lives of several prominent academics. John Nash, the Nobel Prize–winning economist who was known for his defining work on game theory in A Beautiful Mind, is just one example of such a case where an individual full of rationality can dip in and out of psychosis due to improper mental filtering. The consumption of such ideas regarding the significance of Jesus may be enough for an individual with susceptibilities such as I have to partake in colluding identities.

While religious people have consistent beliefs about an external god, people with delusions and schizophrenia assume the all-powerful being specifically has to do with the individual experiencing such delusion, and such delusion has an episodic time period. The goal of adopting a skeptical attitude toward explaining mental experiences is not to deny people their spirituality but instead to encourage individuals to get more accurate treatment by accepting and recovering from their disorder.

I suggest that a more proactive skeptical nature of one’s mental illness symptoms be a priority for the skeptics’ movement. Do not treat schizophrenics as people incapable of reasoning with their delusions. After the delusional episode has come down, talk to your friend or relative and guide him or her gently to the conclusion that his or her ideas are not real. Encourage the person to seek treatment. In the long run, it could save more lives and more time in the search for better mental health.

Sarah Myers

Sarah Myers is a nonfiction writer that has been published in Free Inquiry, Eclectica Magazine, the National Alliance on Mental Illness blog, and more. She speaks for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and plans to enroll in a computational neuroscience graduate program in the Fall of 2020. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

I don’t believe in God, but at times when I am under loads of stress, I start to think I am the second coming of Christ. I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2017 but have experienced the spectrum of psychotic symptoms since my late teens. The diagnosis was masked by other mental-health issues, in …

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