George Fox and the Miracle of the Manic Depressive

A couple weeks back I spotted a post on my meeting's listserve, soliciting personal anecdotes from people of faith who have disabilities. I've long been willing to be vocal about having a chronic illness. This is partially to negate the still-potent stigma of bipolar disorder, and partially to ensure that insurance companies cover mental illness as they would any other medical condition needing regular treatment. Within a day, the editor contacted me back, eager to inform me that he liked what I had written and that my story would be published as part of a book he was compiling. When released, it will be called Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability and Inclusion. The book will be published by the Alban Institute.

According to some modern scholars, George Fox could have been bipolar. I admit I've always related strongly to his struggle early in life to find himself. In many a depressive episode, I shut myself up in my room, entertaining no company, much as he did. Then, when I could no longer bear the isolation, I sought company and guidance. Most of the advice I variously solicited was either insufficient or useless. Most was offered with a genuine desire to help, but I suppose I had to find my own way. With greater health came the end of these journey; I found once I became a Friend that something finally fit. I wish I could say that I was scaling Pendle Hill at the time, or that I had a mystical experience of sublime insight but my experience was far more ordinary. I found that simple human company and a kind word went just as far.

But before then, confusion was paramount in my mind on multiple occasions. I recall a time in my life where I wandered from church to church and person to person for several months. Once, a romantic relationship exploded and with its destruction also came isolation from a badly needed social network. She had been active where I attended, and when we fell out, the breakup was so nasty that I was asked politely to not return for six months. This was a request not made of her, for reasons more financial than spiritual. The rug was pulled out from under me twice, leaving me gasping for breath. I had only just begun to put down tentative roots in an unfamiliar city, and I found myself with only one real friend.

So, on another visit to another church, I remember questioning the minister after the service about my prior treatment at a prior house of worship. He entertained what I had to say for a time, but was made visibly uncomfortable by the advanced state of my depression. Upon a later visit to an Episcopal church, a kindly priest anointed my forehead with oil, but this alone was not sufficient to ease my torment. Shortly thereafter, consumed with guilt, I asked a Catholic priest upon an impromptu visit before Mass if I could take Confession. He brushed me off, insisting I had to go through the requisite classes first and fully convert.

All of this is typical bipolar depression behavior. It's a means of seeking to escape inner uncertainty and pain by means of travel. For still another example, in the book The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, the main character, Esther, takes meandering, impulsive bus trips to the seashore day after day until her money runs out. When I was severely depressed, I would fill up the tank of my car and drive around all day, until I grew exhausted. At least I was doing something. If I had to make the judgment based on anecdotal evidence, I would concede that Fox at least struggled from clinical depression. The mania aspect is a bit trickier to diagnosis, relying as we are on personal conduct and not established medical fact.

Fox's deliberate effort to interrupt the sermon of ministers and priests is often seen as a revolutionary gesture. For many, it's the ultimate act of speaking truth to power, regardless of the consequences. Yet, mania, even in a mild state means that shame, guilt, and contemplation of potential consequences are no longer present. It can seem noble and bold, and it can be both of these, but it is also a symptom of a chronic illness in an acute phase. Manic can be deceptive in its early stages. And would we see George Fox differently if we viewed him as ill rather than inspirational or transformative?

A book I read on the same subject, The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot of) Success in America by John T. Gartner, posits that many American leaders had full-blown bipolar or at least a milder form. Referring to George Washington's trusted assistant, the dashing but impulsive Alexander Hamilton, Gartner suggests that the iconic picture of Washington's troops crossing the icy Delaware river should instead be titled, Danger, Hypomanic on Board.

Soon after graduating from Columbia University in two years, Hamilton caught revolutionary fever. In one two-week period he spewed out the equivalent of a book in the form of 60,000 words of propaganda. During a raid, when everyone else had ducked for cover, Hamilton walked straight into an artillery bombardment. He soon caught the attention of George Washington and became his aide de camp, only to impulsively quit a few years later. At Yorktown, now with a battlefield command, he paraded his troops in front of British cannons. The British were too dumbstruck to open fire. Later in the battle, Hamilton led a reckless charge that turned out right for all the wrong reasons.

Hamilton was the main instigator of the Constitutional Convention, but one biographer described him during this period as "restless and depressed," and another "like he was on something." He delivered an impassioned six-hour speech, then walked out for good in disgust, unable to appreciate why the delegates couldn’t simply settle their differences and back his brilliant proposals. Nevertheless, once the document was ready for ratification by the states, Hamilton became its greatest champion, cranking out 51 of the 85 op-ed pieces collectively known as the Federalist Papers. He was also the political point man in winning over New York.

It should be mentioned that in the book the Quaker William Penn is also pronounced hypomanic. I, however, am nowhere near the stature of the people mentioned earlier, but I do share similar past patterns of behavior. Once, having the beginnings of a manic episode, I spent twelve hours solid working on a paper for grad school. Unfortunately, unchecked mania often grows excessive and damaging both to the self and others. My behavior became so eccentric and outlandish that I was actually asked to leave a class in which I had enrolled. I don't usually like to talk about it, because it reminds me of a period of intense humiliation and shame I'd rather forget. But it happened. Yet, until I reached that apex, I was the top student in the class.

The United States contains the highest number of people with bipolar disorder in the world. We are a nation of immigrants after all, and perhaps it takes a kind of manic courage to leave the familiarity of home for the promise of plenty elsewhere. The people who are often the best leaders have a kind of superhuman quality to them, if not by their prodigious output, but also by their vision. To see out into the future and survey the big picture that so many others miss requires a heightened sense of perception. Innately sensitive people often suffer from some form of mental illness. And yet, we desperately need these people for their talents and skills.

When I read that George Fox could have been manic depressive it confirmed for me that I was in the right place. And for the rest of us, does that knowledge make us push away? The stigma of mental illness in any context is often extreme, even with advances in understanding and medication. What would it take for us to concede that leaders, like ourselves, have hindrances, some even severe? There were times in my life that I questioned God's purpose for my life, but no longer. The lesson learned from all of this is for me is that God can use each of us to accomplish awe-inspiring things. I have already observed evidence of this in my own. And when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.

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Comment by Paula Deming on 5th mo. 27, 2011 at 12:01pm

Kevin, if we take this to its logical conclusion, we could ask whether Jesus of Nazareth was bipolar. What's up with that "40 days in the desert stuff," ya know?

And we would have to answer, "Does it matter? Does it alter his message?" Actually, if anything, it enhances his message. Likewise, George Fox wouldn't be George Fox without his idiosyncracies, and if you wish to suggest he had a creative side bordering on what we call abnormal, and celebrate that, I won't argue with you.

But there is danger in psychoanalyzing historical figures, if we use that to criticize or dismiss what people say.  I don't wish to reassess who Fox was and decide he was ill rather than transformative, and, hence, not worth following. Fortunately, that is not your intent here; in fact, you are pointing out that possible mental illness can be a blessing. I assume you know that in the Middle Ages, people considered the "idiots and imbeciles" to be angels in disguise and took good care of them?

On the other hand, if one is mentally ill and has erratic behavior as well as gifted ministry, the critical component that accounts for success is leadership. You cannot have a following without leadership skills, because your extreme behavior will get in the way of your message.  The leadership skills you write about in Fox and Hamilton are a critical component to the character of these men. Bipolar syndrome alone does not a leader make.

Sadly, for close to a year I have been holding a Friend in prayer whom I believe is bipolar (and your essay drove home that point for me again). I had hoped to enjoy a spiritual friendship with this Spirit-led person, with his illness considered irrelevant; he taught me many things about worship and the Living God. He begins to form relationships with Friends and meetings through his special message of Love in Christ. Unfortunately, his behavior is so extreme that he quickly unravels those relationships.  Leadership skills would go a long way towards salvaging the damage he causes.

Thank you for a thoughtful essay. It has been a help.

Yours in the Light, Paula


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