Mental Health and the Church

I step into this post cautiously because I do not, in any way, want to rank suffering.  Suffering is suffering, and pain is pain. Each person experiences it in his or her own way, and each person’s experience is valid and real.  Some may experience physical illness as the lowest point of their lives, others may experience the loss of a loved one as the bottom of the pit.  Others may say that betrayal and rejection has been the most agonizing experience.  I am simply here to share my experiences of suffering and God’s presence through those seasons.

As people have approached me in sympathy, compassion, and pity for my physical suffering over the past few years, primarily the past couple months,  I have felt a rainbow of emotions.  I have parts all over the place clambering about with different responses to the compassion and care of others.  Some say, “This is what I deserve. If you knew how terrible I am, you wouldn’t feel sorry for me.”  Others say, ” Oh, thank you. Please sit with me and hold me while I cry.”  Others say, “What are you talking about?  I’m not really sick.  This is all going to wash over soon when the doctors realize that all of these numbers and tests are wrong.  I’ll be fully functioning again before you know it.”  Still others say, “Do you have any idea where I’ve been during my 34 years?  This suffering doesn’t even seem like suffering compared to the torture and pain that the first 29 years of my life held.  Please don’t feel sorry for me.  My life is glorious.”

While some of these parts are legitimate voices coming from different broken pieces of me, I believe that some of them are a little bit more grounded in truth and healing.   I’ve addressed several of these parts in previous posts, but there is one that has popped up more frequently over the past week.  It also seems appropriate for this day when we open up awareness to suicide and suicide prevention.

In public, I do not respond to the sympathy of others with statements like, “oh, this is nothing compared to what I’ve been through in the past.  Living through severe physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse, 20 years of anorexia, major depression, anxiety, and three suicide attempts really took the cake. Being on portable oxygen, needing a wheelchair to get around, and getting infusions twice weekly while still not really knowing the cause of my life-threatening symptoms is kind of like paradise compared to what I’ve lived through.”  For some reason, that doesn’t feel appropriate.  But it is tempting sometimes.

This is an aside from this particular post: As I have reflected on my last post about God’s healing,  I have explored my resistance to praying for physical healing.  I believe that indeed through my suffering, God has shown me a deeper, more intimate form of prayer than I have experienced before.  I believe that while it is important to pray for physical healing, it is easy to miss the more soul-level healing that God longs to perform in us.  I see Him working that soul-healing in my life every day.  I also think that I have some issues of worthiness of healing. I struggle to believe that my physical body is worthy of wholeness and healing.  This belief is based in my trauma-brain and messages that I learned through the years. I am having to sort out what are messages from God about healing of mind, spirit, and body, and what messages are lies imparted by the enemy through the voices, actions, and inactions of primary caregivers in my life.  This gets tricky, because they are tangled up like a mess of necklace chains that have been shaken around in a jewelry box for way too long.   There are some really valuable pieces of jewelry knotted in the mess, so I can’t just toss it all out.  Please bear with me as I painstakingly untangle my mess of necklace-chain beliefs.

What I really want to communicate in this post is that emotional, mental, and spiritual agony is real, and it is terrible.  Those who suffer with these difficult issues desperately need community, support, unrelenting love, and pursuance, whether they act like they want it or not.   I needed it.  I needed people, and I didn’t have them.  My issues terrified people.  There were no easy answers or easy fixes.  There was no fool-proof medication or one specialist who could take my case and find a cure.  It was so easy to blame me, the one with the mental illnesses, severe trauma, and brain on fire.  I was so desperately incapable of helping myself, but I was considered untouchable.  That was a disastrous recipe.  My unspeakable trauma was the blackest darkness of my first 15 years, and my suicide attempts housed the blackest darkness of my second 15 years.  There is no possible way that words can capture the darkness of suicide, and there is no possible way to explain the impact that surviving three suicide attempts has on your heart and mind.  I needed community, love, and support.  I was utterly unable to care for myself.  I found massive amounts of judgment and condemnation.  No one knew what to do with me as a suicidal person.  So they stayed at arms length and hurled accusations.

“You are so selfish.”

“You let everyone down.”

“We can never trust you again.”

“You must not be a real Christian.”

This was the bottom of the pit.  I. failed. everyone.  Or so I thought.

Being physically ill is rough.  There are days that I think I might die.  Sometimes this is a legitimate thought.  There are days that I have to squint really hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and even then, I just have to imagine it being there.  But I am surrounded by love.  I am so well cared-for (when I allow people to care for me).  God is bringing me higher up and deeper in.  This is not a black pit.  Too many people are bringing light into it.  Somehow, my soul has been awakened to the comfort that God is bringing into my pain.

The church is great at caring for the physically ill (at least my church is). But, friends, do we know who is looking into the abyss of ending it all?  Do we know who is up all hours of the night, dancing on the edge of sanity because of severe anxiety or OCD?  Do we know which mamas are facing postpartum mental health issues alone because they are too embarrassed to share the thoughts that are going through their sleep-deprived, hormone-imbalanced brains?  Are we even making eye contact with those who teeter on the edge of psychotic episodes on Sunday mornings?  Are we too afraid of them because we can’t fully understand what they are facing?  They don’t understand it either, and they desperately need community, love, fellowship, and flashlights in their pits.  I needed all of those things.

Some people are caring for those suffering from mental and emotional issues like champions.  They make it their mission to shine light into their darkness, and they often even climb into the darkness, huddle next to those suffering alone, and offer their humanity, which, ironically, is where we see so much of the Divine.  I pray that we can jump on board.  Celebrate Recovery is incredible.  Support groups for sufferers and family members are great.  Please, please, lets not add to their shame and self-hate and isolation.   I am thankful for where I am, and in retrospect, I am thankful for what I have been through.  As a voice from the other side who has been through quite a bit of suffering,  I just want to advocate for those suffering from mental illness, and in particular, those who struggle with suicidal thoughts or actions. Unless you have been there, it is difficult to imagine the torment, and what do we need more than people to show us the face of God when we can’t catch a glimpse of His face on our own?

3 thoughts on “Mental Health and the Church

  1. Thank you for addressing this issue. Everything you said is so very true. There needs to be more openness and less shame from the church concerning mental illness.

    1. It is certainly not a new issue, and the church has come a long way. I think that this is the place where “wounded healers” come in. It is hard to understand unless you have been there in some capacity, and to reach out to that community might make one more vulnerable to scrutiny. I understand where the shame comes from, but it destroys individuals and the church at large.

      1. I hope to some day be where you are in your healing and be able to speak the need with others….and actually help someone a long the way.

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