Sovereign Over Schizophrenia

Fifteen years ago he was the most gifted evangelist in the city. A passionate, funny, and winsome young man who almost single-handedly filled a house church with new believers, mostly other Central Asian young men. Adam* had come to faith after a discouraged house church pastor had shared the gospel with him in a tea house. That night he’d had a dream where Jesus handed him a white stone with something written on it (he had not yet read Revelation 2:17 at this point). Adam and this house church pastor would go on to reach dozens of other locals together. Adam was the persuasive gatherer, and the pastor the articulate shepherd-teacher.

During my gap year in Central Asia, Adam and I became fast friends, and even brothers. We talked of someday working together to see the gospel spread like wildfire in the region, then settling down as old men in his ancestral village, with our families living next door to one another.

Then I returned to the US to finish university. Adam fled to the UK, claiming death threats and persecution. I wrote a letter to a judge vouching for Adam’s story and his faith, and he was granted asylum status. We stayed in touch off and on during my seven years in the US, but it eventually became clear that he was not doing well. The love of the world and the heady freedoms and prejudices of life in the West began to choke out his faith. For a few years he ran hard after girlfriends, weed, and worldly success. Even from a distance I could tell that he wasn’t gathering regularly with other believers, despite his evasive answers. I chewed on the idea of visiting him in the UK in order to try and influence him back toward spiritual health. But it never materialized.

Eventually I moved back to Central Asia and got back in touch with Adam. At this point I started to notice that something was very wrong with the way that Adam was interpreting reality. He started regularly speaking of being watched, followed, and foiled by secretive government plans designed to keep him from achieving his full potential. He spoke of being someone with the ability to overthrow governments, to lead revolutions if he were only given the chance. And because of this, he suspected that secret agents were all around him, drugging his coffee and trying to drive him insane or cause him to give up on his destiny. Most Central Asians are vulnerable to conspiracy theories, but this was different. This was not just claiming that Israel created ISIS for its own schemes, but rather the kind of beliefs that were starting to make my friend deeply dysfunctional in his daily relationships.

During this time he never denied his faith, and when I would press him strongly he would admit that deep down he still clung to Jesus as his only hope. But it was clear to me that his version of reality had shoved Jesus far into the periphery. I remember a number of conversations where things got pretty heated as I called him on his abandonment of Jesus, and on his abandonment of his brothers. But these conversations never had their desired effect. Over time I noticed that any time we got close to an area where he might feel guilt or shame, the conspiracy talk would come out and take over the conversation.

Eager to help my friend, I tried to connect him with a solid church in the UK. This failed, so I worked to get him back to Central Asia, hoping that face-to-face believing community would help him recover and heal. By borrowing money and calling in favors from strangers and his few remaining friends, Adam eventually returned to his hometown in Central Asia. This return, however, did not have the effect I had hoped for. I’ve seen few with reverse culture shock as bad as Adam had it. For a time, he positively hated everything about his native culture and city. And the locals in turn mocked him and viewed him suspiciously.

My attempts to have him rejoin a family of believers failed also. Adam freaked people out. He had forgotten how to conduct himself respectably in his own culture and then as soon as the conspiracy talk came out people wanted nothing more to do with him. He wore a haunted look of bewilderment in his eyes, a mischievous smile, and a scraggly beard. His jaw regularly locked and tensed and he was losing teeth. This appearance didn’t help matters. He further confused people by telling them that he was actually an American, not a local at all.

My pleas with other believers to help him mostly fell on deaf ears or were met with apologies for not feeling like he was safe enough to have around. It began to dawn on me that Adam wasn’t healthy enough to be a part of a church made up of those from his own culture. He just kept using, burning, and offending the people that I introduced him to. Maybe he could find a home in an international church? Yet even there it became clear he wouldn’t be able to stabilize enough to find the community I was sure he needed.

Even around my own family, he had no discernment about what was not appropriate to talk about around our small children. I remember pleading with him to cut out all the dangerous political talk against the local authorities if he wanted to be able to hang out with my family. In a society where people are disappeared or assassinated for speaking out against the ruling politicians, I couldn’t afford for my family to be collateral damage for his subversive talk. Finally I had to make the decision that he and I could only meet outside the home, one on one.

All of my attempts to help Adam distinguish reality from the reality of his own mind’s making came to naught. The more I pressed directly to help him see he was believing lies, the more he doubled down on his own private reality. Even the indirect approach, where I didn’t push back against his perceptions, only worked until he felt guilt or shame, or until another conflict with his family would send him spiraling. I was one of his last friends left, and the yet the costs of our friendship were mounting. I had a church planting role to be faithful to, and I could precious afford the time it took to walk with a friend with this level of need and mental illness. This was especially so because it needed to be time spent isolated from other believers.

Eventually, we learned that Adam was most likely suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, a diagnosis which if correct meant that there was very little we could do for him. His reality was one in which he was always tracked, always outmaneuvered, always kept down from achieving his destined greatness. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t help him to step outside this mindset, to step back from this view of reality and examine it to see if it was true or not. It was his mind’s experience and I learned what many others before me have also experienced – that it is next to impossible to convince someone that their experiences are sometimes not actually real.

We continued praying for Adam’s healing for years. Sometimes he would come around and seem to be doing better. Other times we wouldn’t communicate for months on end, usually following a hard conversation where I felt like I was losing my friend for good. After a Christmas Eve dinner this past year that went about as well as could be expected, Adam and I didn’t see each other for ten months. I never intended it to go that long. I knew that I was one of his only friends left. But Adam seemed to be beyond my reach, and I was no longer sure that my friendship was indeed helping. I was also tired of the sadness in my heart caused by the degeneration of my friend and brother.

We ran into each other several weeks ago at a hole-in-the-wall kebab place in the bazaar. It was a little awkward, but I was genuinely happy to see him again and asked him if we could hang out soon. I needed to share with him the news that we were leaving the country for some time for medical needs. So we arranged a time to meet up. I went into the meeting expecting the same dynamics – the grandstanding, the talk of big plans, the triggered defensiveness. I had no idea I was about to witness a remarkable answer to prayer.

I met Adam near a park and we walked together into a neighborhood with lots of hip cafes and restaurants. Adam wanted to introduce me to a new sandwich shop, one where he claimed to have had an amazing meal of avocado toast. While I found this amusing (just how did the cliche Millennial avocado toast manage to make it all the way over here?), I went along with Adam. His mental illness had never impaired his skill at finding new food and coffee joints that were, in fact, excellent.

It was while we were standing at the counter, waiting on our sandwiches, that Adam started telling me about how things were much better for him now. I listened, prepping myself for the grandiose plans I expected Adam to share with me next. Instead, he told me he had had a breakdown about a month previous, something he claimed was a psychotic episode. Very dark thoughts of self harm had led to him walking to a coffeeshop to calm down. Then, while drinking an americano he’d started feeling a strange sensation crawling up the back of his brain. His brain started feeling like it was tingling and fizzing all around, and this feeling continued for an entire week. Afterward, he had sought out counsel from a neurologist, had done some research, and was suddenly able to see his mental illness as such for the first time ever.

I started leaning in as Adam shared this story with me. This was different. He was actually able to use one part of his mind to step back and view the other part of his mind, observing its patterns of paranoia and knowing that they weren’t ultimately true. He had never been able to do this before, at least not for the previous 7 years.

As my avocado toast arrived (he was right, it was delicious), Adam kept sharing with me about his new-found self-awareness. He had quit coffee since he realized it had become his substitute for weed and had greatly aggravated his paranoia. He could now see how so many of his grand plans and feared conspiracies were only his mind’s strategies for dealing with deep shame. He was even content to take the trash out for his mom, knowing that even if he lacked the opportunity to do bigger things, something as small as that was still valuable and significant. He was back in a rhythm of daily prayer, telling me that it was only the love of Christ that had sustained him through his long exile from reality. He asked my forgiveness for sometimes believing that I was part of the grand conspiracy against him.

I finished my avocado toast, amazed at what I was hearing. Could I dare hope that God had at last answered prayer and provided some measure of healing to my friend’s mind? Does it ever happen that people with paranoid schizophrenia come back from the brink this side of the future resurrection? Yet it seemed undeniable. Whatever had happened to his mind when it fizzed and popped for a week, Adam was now able to see reality in a clearer way – and to notice the unhealthy pull of his other reality. The sandwich shop had messed up his order, and Adam told me that he noticed his brain wanting him to believe that it had been on purpose, just another part of the plan to foil him at every turn, to keep him down. But remarkably, he had noticed this and had successfully pushed back against that narrative, instead choosing to believe reality, that the mistaken order had been just that – an honest mistake.

Adam and I talked for another hour or so. I encouraged him to gently try to reenter believing community. I decided to take a risk and invite him to my son’s birthday party the next day. Many of the local and foreign believers would be there. I was eager to see if Adam would behave differently in that kind of a group setting than he would have previously. Adam agreed to come. He was eager to bring my wife a gift in recognition for all the food and coffee she had made for him when he was still trapped “in his shell,” as he put it.

Adam came to the party and didn’t freak anyone out. He actually made a lot of people smile and laugh and I caught glimpses of the old Adam, one of my best friends, the most gifted evangelist in the city. It’s not that there isn’t still a strangeness to him. A decade of severe mental illness will leave its scars. But unbelievable as it seems, somehow he has been pulled back from the brink, and God has given him back his mind. I shook my head as I saw him exchanging numbers with other men at the party. I prayed that the change would be lasting, and that healing would continue. Perhaps Adam will once again be an active member of a local church, sharing the gospel in the tea houses, inviting others to follow Jesus with him. Perhaps he will be of sound mind enough so as to be a healthy member again of a spiritual family. That would be a stunning answer to prayer. Even though we shortly afterward left the country and he was on his own, Adam reached out for the info and attended the international church service this past weekend.

I know God doesn’t always bring healing in this life to those facing severe mental illness. Many genuine believers even will be overtaken by the fog before seeing the face of Jesus at their appointed time of death brings sudden light and wholeness. But I feel as if I have just witnessed one of those instances where God reverses the natural order of things. My friend’s paranoid schizophrenia, his partial living in a reality that is not real, has been suddenly robbed of its power and control over his mind. I don’t understand how it happened, but I rejoice nonetheless.

Don’t stop praying for those that you love who are lost in the fog of mental illness. Even as they become risky to be around, work to keep the lines of communication open, if possible. I have just witnessed a brother I had nearly given up on supernaturally rescued, a friend restored. Oh, how I wish it had happened sooner, not right before a long separation like this. Yet I am simply astounded at what God has done for my friend. May our faith be strengthened that he is sovereign – even over schizophrenia.

*names changed for security

Photo by Mario Heller on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “Sovereign Over Schizophrenia

  1. This is so beautiful. Not just in the outcome, which is beautiful in itself, but in the way you remained open to meeting with Adam, hearing him and being near him, with needed boundaries around your own family and heart. You pursued him, even if quietly, simply in your willingness not to give up. That is true, rich ministry.

    Liked by 1 person

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