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March 27, 2015
Pebbles, Potholes, and Perspective
Listening to the Spirit and Living with a Psychotic Spectrum Disorder
by Sarah Hancock

Sunday I was approached by an investigator living with schizoaffective disorder who asked me how I identify the whisperings of the Holy Ghost. I just stood there staring at her with a complete stupor of thought. She just voiced my daily concern.

Truthfully, learning how to recognize the Spirit is something we all need to learn in this life. In the Church we talk about listening and acting on the whisperings of the Holy Ghost. However, people living with a psychotic spectrum disorder have a unique challenge because their brains play tricks on all five of their senses.

Theses tricks can come in the form of an auditory voice and even sensations in the body.

I grew up in the gospel without mental health symptoms. I learned at a very young age how to identify the spirit through family home evenings, personal scripture study, Primary classes, and other spiritual experiences.

When I was fourteen, I decided that I needed to get my own testimony of the gospel and began that search. After several months I discovered my testimony through those beautiful promptings of the Holy Ghost.

My testimony was so strong that I wanted to share with others how the gospel had changed my life. I served a Spanish-speaking mission and taught others how to identify the Holy Ghost in their lives. I felt secure in my ability to recognize and feel the spirit.

Frequently I helped people learn how to distinguish the Spirit by sharing with them the Lord's promise to "tell you in your mind and in your heart" (D&C 8:2).

Growing up I never really felt that burning in my bosom. After all, not everyone does. But I did feel that confirming, undeniable witness, the reassuring confidence that no one can deny. I've also experienced moments of intense warning where you know you must leave a situation immediately.

Since experiencing my illness, I can say that psychotic and delusional symptoms can be the exact same. Why else do you think that people living with these disorders are so convinced in what they believe? They feel that delusion (good or bad) to their very core — every fiber of their being.

Many professionals in the field of psychiatry don’t accept receiving personal revelation as a valid life event. In fact, some psychiatrists feel that prophets who heard the word of God were actually experiencing psychosis.

I have been kept on an extended inpatient psychiatric hold for saying and then refusing to recant that I knew God spoke to people on Earth and that he'd actually spoken to me, answering my prayer. I've been labeled as grandiose for saying, "Yes, I am a child of God." I digress.

It's one thing to have professional "experts" determined to force you into denying a hard-earned testimony and it is an entirely different thing to try and distinguish between those familiar feelings of the spirit and those equally familiar symptoms of the illness.

As a child, I learned that as long as I keeping my covenants, I would always be able recognize the spirit as such. I wish it were that simple for people living with an illness on the psychotic spectrum. It’s not.

For that reason, people like me have to really rely on the promise made my Alma in chapter 32, where he discusses faith and compares it to a seed. Like a seed, I have to wait to see what kind of fruits a decision or action makes in my life before recognizing it as the Spirit.

This can be difficult when it comes to receiving warnings. We know that the Spirit will warn us when there is something harmful afoot. Those feelings you recognize as the Spirit are the same feelings that I experience when I experience paranoia or negative delusions.

For example, several years ago my illness put it in my head that my parents would be killed on an Easter road trip. I did all within my power to warn them of this trip and convince them not to go.

Finally, I decided to go with them so that I could warn them of passing cars and other road dangers. I was extra alert (with nearly more than a lethal dose of paranoid anxiety) the entire trip. I was planning what I would have to do when my parents were gone. The entire trip I just knew they would be killed.

Needless to say, they weren’t. On the way home, my parents dropped me off at the ER because I had more than crossed the line of caution and dipped into the depths of paranoia.

I’ve had other events in my life (which I will not go into here) where I honestly believed that it was the Holy Ghost speaking to me, where it was actually my illness. I basically live my life now under the assumption that if I have enough time to plant the seed of faith regarding a decision, I wait to see what the fruit will be.

If not, I simply turn it over to Heavenly Father and let him know that He must make it extremely clear to me which path I should choose.

Whether that means that everything falls into place or everything becomes impossible, He is at the helm. All I can do is continue to do the things that I know I should be doing to keep my covenants. Everything else is left in his hands.

I know we all must learn to do this, but can pose unique difficulties to someone living with my illness. It is both a peaceful and scary process — just keep your eyes peeled for that fruitful harvest.

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