June 12, 2019

By Katherine Ponte, JD, MBA, CPRP

CW: This article depicts an episode of psychosis. 

The end of the world was near. I was a prophet. I had to save us from ourselves. 

It was 2006. I had been living with untreated severe bipolar I disorder for over six years. I became psychotic trying to understand our often-nonsensical world: death and destruction from religious conflict, murderous terrorist plots and attacks and countless social injustices. My inability to rationalize such irrational behavior took me to a place I'd never been before. Reality turned into delusion.  

I Thought the World Was Ending 

At the time, it seemed like every five minutes there was a breaking news alert. I have never been able to stand by and not act on an issue I felt strongly about. I raised the alarm with friends and family, emailing as many as I could about what was happening in the world, about my concerns and fears. Almost no one replied. 
A couple wrote back to ask if I was okay, but no one talked about my concerns. I contacted many media outlets to share my carefully researched and documented concerns. Nobody cared. No one would listen to me. So I turned, as my mother always had, to God. I prayed. I prayed to the many saints of my Catholic faith to intercede on my behalf.
I anxiously turned to CNN hoping for a change in news. Nothing. All was the same. I then turned to other faiths: Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism. I bought various religious books and articles. I built a large altar on my living room table. My husband dismissed it. He had known me to be eccentric before. I visited countless houses of worship to pray, adopting other expressions of faith. I would talk to parishioners, leave "please save the world" notes in donation boxes. I once again anxiously turned to CNN. Nothing. All was still the same.

I Believed I Could Save the World

After the other religions didn’t work, I turned to the most mysterious, even feared, religion I knew—Candomblé—a practice I learned about during my time in Brazil. I turned to Iansa, the Orixa (spirit goddess) of thunder and storms. I dressed in red from head to toe. I placed a tall statue of her atop my altar. 
I called on her to help me. I praised her, worshipped her and prayed to her. I even made offerings of chocolates, wine and money to her. I would blare trance-like music, and dance around my apartment with an indigenous rain stick trying to invoke Iansa. And still no change. The CNN breaking news alerts continued. 

I had a very difficult time falling asleep as images filled my head. All I could see in my mind were black mushroom clouds with black air swirling around. Music blared continually through my apartment from about 9am-9pm, until my husband came home. I knew he wouldn't understand any of it, and I didn't want him to stop me. 

I Found Signs Everywhere 

I empathized with John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I played it on constant repeat. I visited the Imagine Mosaic in Central Park throughout the day and left peace offerings. One time, I left 100 or so copies of Kahlil Gibran’s “On Friendship.” I wanted people in the world to be friends with each other. I left candles, prayers beads, saints, objects of every religion. 
I agonized that I was the only one who could see the world was ending. I played CNN nonstop. I never turned it off, not even when I slept, because I didn't want to miss the good news. 
I had begun sleeping on the couch just to be near the TV. But it was always the same. I was beginning to feel like a failure, but I knew that I could not stop. I was being guided by a greater power. I saw signs everywhere. In music, poems, books, billboards, even in garbage. I brought debris home to add to my altar. 
Then, the final sign happened. A terrorist plot in Toronto foiled. My roots. A place that I’d always bragged represented cultural and religious unity. If it could happen here of all places, it could happen again anywhere. A bright light streamed through my window, and words filled my mind. It was God. I quickly wrote His message. My mission was to continue. I was not to be deterred. I shared this message with everybody I knew, emailing it as widely as possible. I left copies at the Imagine Mosaic.

I Considered Myself a Prophet

It all culminated on one windy, thunderous night. I was Iansa fully possessed. I danced wildly in a trance-like state blaring music. I wore red markings on my face with a rain stick in one hand and swinging an old hammer in the other. I hurled my religious altar through the room, except Iansa. I swung that hammer like a bat at CNN. It no longer mattered what it said, I knew the ending. I ripped the blinds in my apartment down. I stuck notes to my windows—my message to outsiders. 
My apartment was a disaster, completely trashed. I had blocked my front door, so my husband crawled in through the back door. He was shocked. He held me tight, asking me what was wrong. I pushed him away. No one could stop me. But I was also afraid. John Lennon had been a prophet, and he was killed, and I might be killed too. They wanted to silence me. 
My husband called 911. I was restrained and hauled off to the hospital.

I Finally Saw Reality

During my four-week hospital stay, all I could think of was getting back to my mission. Evil forces hospitalized me to stop me because I was getting closer to achieving my mission. A month later, I returned home. I immediately flushed all my medication down the toilet. I ran to the Imagine Mosaic. I yelled as loud as I could that people had to listen to me. I begged them to listen. Someone called 911. An ambulance arrived shortly. I was taken back to the hospital where I stayed another month. I was very closely monitored.
As the medications began to take effect. I very sadly started to realize that I was not Iansa, that I was not a prophet. I was just a very sick person.
I remain convinced to this day that I became psychotic trying make sense of our world. I spoke to my doctor recently about it. He told me that real events are often what trigger psychotic episodes. People with mental illness are said to be highly empathetic and compassionate. Maybe that’s what heightened my sensitivity to what was going on in the world. I’ve seen other examples, though not as extreme as mine. One time, someone in my support group whispered in my ear, “I can’t watch the news, it makes me sick.” I said, “me too.” My psychotic experience may be unique, but the fact that it’s grounded in reality doesn’t seem to be all that unique.
Now when I come across a person who seems as if they might be delusional, I don’t walk away. I lean in and listen carefully. I understand where they’re coming from.
Katherine Ponte is a mental health advocate, writer and entrepreneur. She is the founder of ForLikeMinds, the first online peer-based support community dedicated to people living with or supporting someone with mental illness, and Bipolar Thriving, a recovery coaching service for caregivers and their loved ones affected by bipolar disorder. She is also the creator of the Psych Ward Greeting Cards program in which she personally shares her recovery experiences and distributes donated greeting cards to patients in psychiatric units. She is in recovery from severe bipolar I disorder with psychosis. She is also on the board of NAMI New York City. 

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