Mental Illness and Faith: Bridging the Gaps

Written by S.G.Nox

I have a thing in my head. I think of her as being like Iliza Schlesinger’s “party goblin” from her comedy specials. “Your party goblin sleeps in the back of your brain,” she explains. “And she will awaken when you say, ‘I’ll just come out for one drink.’” The party goblin controls your actions and yells things when your drunk, to the point that when you wake up the next morning, you’ve got no idea what happened the night before.

Unlike Iliza’s “party goblin” my gremlin doesn’t party. She sleeps in a cage in the back of my brain, surrounded by dirt, and trash. She wears her matted, tangled hair in a low, loose bun; with strands sticking out at odd angles. She hasn’t ever changed or washed her baggy, black clothes. She has large, dark bags under her eyes.

She’s me, but only the worse, angriest parts of me. She is my self-deprecation, my self-doubt, my laziness and my unwillingness to compromise. She is everything that I hate about myself, and she regularly reminds me of those things. She is me, and I hate her.

Most of the time lately, she has been quiet, but occasionally she is loud. She rattles the bars of her cage and screams things at me, so loudly that I can’t ignore her words. Sometimes she gets out and wreaks havoc. When my rational brain awakens after her tantrum, I barely recognize myself am left alone in whatever situation she has lead me into.

I’m not sure when or why I started personifying my depression in this way. I think it was in the months before my diagnosis of bipolar 2. Perhaps I find it easier to pretend that there is some demon in my brain rather than acknowledging that my brain is causing this harm on itself.

“She’s angry again.” I tell my best friend. “She wants out.”

“Ignore her,” my friend says, already knowing what I’m talking about, because I’ve used this metaphor for months.

The trouble is that ignoring her is not so easy, especially when my depressive episode is as its peak. Because she is an internal force she knows me well and knows precisely what weapons to use against me.

 I’d be remiss if I only acknowledged the internal forces that scream within me when I am in a depressive episode. I’m a Christian, a seminarian, and I would be remiss if I didn’t speak on what impact that has on my bipolar, and my well-being.

I’d like to only speak about the good things. It would feel so good to pretend that my faith and my fellow people of faith have never had a negative impact. This isn’t a story I can tell though. I recognize the problems with first acknowledging the bad, but I feel that the worst parts make the good ones that much sweeter. So, I will tell my story of faith and crisis in this order.

My worst symptoms started during my junior year of college. I was a regular attender of a campus ministry Bible study that happened every Tuesday.

During my first year (I transferred to my undergraduate college as a sophomore) the Bible study had been led by the college chaplain, a jolly man with a preacher’s voice and a servant’s heart. He had proven that he was someone I could run to in my weakest moments, especially when my roommate died the year before. The college, though, had scheduled one of his classes during our meetings, and insisted that he pass the ministry to someone else in order to pay more attention to the needs of the athletes.  I missed his leadership dearly, but promised myself to give his replacement, a young alum of the college, a fair chance.

The alum, I’ll call him Dan, was a Pentecostal, a man of excitement and a personality afire, not unlike his red hair. He was friendly enough, charming, and had a belief for faith healing. The problem - I thought it was a problem - is that he was quite pushy. He pushed his beliefs in faith healing onto us, insisting that we too could heal and be heal by the Holy Spirit. (Know that I am not knocking his faith or his theology, but more taking issue with his actions.) Anyone who has been pushed away by the Church due to any kind of illness, mental or otherwise, might know what happened next.

My junior year I regularly came to Bible study in states of deep depression. I was trying new meds regularly, and none of them had helped in a meaningful way. Every week, Dan offered to pray for me, insisting that he could pray the mental illness away. “You just have to believe, even a little bit,” he said, “God doesn’t want you live like this.”

Every week, the prayer failed, or perhaps it was just that I had failed. That’s what I told myself. I just wasn’t believing hard enough, praying enough, reading scripture enough. If I were a good Christian, I wouldn’t be suffering or struggling so much.

This, I feel, is a toxic trait of Christianity (though perhaps it extends to other faith traditions and cultures, I can only speak to my perspective). “The joy of the Lord is your strength,” someone reminds me, to which my snarky reply is, “that must be why I’m not strong.” On my anxiety, I was regularly told to “let go and let God.” ‘Here I am, God’ I cry loudly to the sky, ‘if you would take this from me, I would be eternally grateful.’ And yet the constant fear and shame still sit on my shoulders.

Some Christians have this nagging belief that following your faith means that you will not struggle. Or perhaps the specific subtext is: you will not struggle in your own mind, because sometimes I feel that mental illness gets the specific treatment. I reject that outright. I believe in God. I follow my faith. I mean, I’m trying to go into pastoral ministry for crying out loud. And yet, I struggle. And somehow, I have to deny my gremlin the use of my faith against me.

My faith and my illness have the tendency to leave a bitter taste in my mouth. I struggle with my faith regularly. And yet, there’s something in it that melts away the bitterness, and replaces it with the sweetness of the Lord.

The thing is that God loves me even when I don’t love me. This is something I can say surely, with no doubt. Gods loves me in my doubt, my despair, my depression, just as much as he loves me in times of joy. I believe that God can bring out the best in me, and use my bipolar to further His kingdom, and to show people his love. That isn’t to say that God will cure me, but rather that God will illuminate my weakest points as a show of His strength.

With that thought, I feel I need to speak to the rampant thought in Christianity that God causes us to struggle. “Everything happens for a reason,” and all of that. It’s called determinism, and I don’t buy into it. I don’t think that God caused me to struggle with bipolar disorder, just as much as I don’t believe that God causes natural disasters. I do believe that God shines in those moments.

I was sixteen when I was first called to ministry (yes, I do believe that it is a calling). At the time I was sure that my call was to pastoral ministry. That changed five years later when my diagnosis of bipolar came. I began to see my call in a different way; I realized that my call is to the people who are messed up in the same ways that I am, and who struggle in the same ways that I do. That isn’t to say that I don’t minister to the neurotypical, but that my experience with bipolar can bring a whole new level to my ministry.

So, when the Dan(s) of my current life tell me that God doesn’t want me to live this way, I say: “how do you know? How do you know that God doesn’t plan to use my illness for something beautiful? And how do you know that modern medicine shouldn’t have a place in my prayers for healing?”

The Church has made a mess of itself in its attempt to turn away those with mental illness, claiming that our faith should cure us. My prayer is that we can start the conversation, the bridge between faith and illness.  I pray for the day the Church helps to heal the hurts that come with mental illness, instead of contributing to the cause.