I was lying on a couch, and I had been hyperventilating for a half hour. There were several other people in the room and the tension was palpable. Dirty laundry was being aired, grievances long held in secret being shared…everyone was upset. We were having an upsetting conversation, so it made sense. But I was about to pass out. The lights were kind of funny, I was dizzy, and I couldn’t breathe. As I lay there, trying desperately to exhale fully, one of the people in the room came up to me with tea and said gently, “It’s okay, Rebekah. This just means you’re having a soft heart about all this.”
That scenario has played over and over in my mind as I’ve started to look back at my life through the lens of my newly discovered anxiety. There are so many instances I can think of that make sense in retrospect now that I know this about myself. But this experience is the most blatant example of the damage that the church does to people with mental illness when we persist in looking at things in the black and white terms of sin. When people with normal brains get upset, they don’t almost pass out. A panic attack is not a soft heart, it is anxiety. In my case, anxiety finally bursting its way out from deep under the surface. They totally missed it because they were totally focused on my perceived sin.
As much as I’d love to, I can’t even blame them entirely, because I missed my own anxiety for thirty years. The culture I grew up and remain in is very concerned with personal sin. The motivation behind it is kind, in that we want ourselves and others to get back to the place where we’re right with God. You can’t really do that without coming to terms with your sin in some way—after all, the entire premise of Christianity is that you’re so incapable of bridging the gap between you and God that Jesus had to come down to make a way for you to be in his family. This is generally agreed upon by most branches of the Christian faith. But when you have a mental illness, of whatever severity, your brain literally works differently than other people’s do. So you may find yourself, like I did, using the same words as others to talk about very different things. In this case, the word is sin.
Before I was capable of conscious memory, I decided that some feelings were wrong. This happened when, like most toddlers, I was punished for behavior that was inappropriate. Rather than taking from it the lesson that the behavior was wrong, the way that most of my siblings did, I decided that the feeling behind the behavior was wrong. Taking it even further, as is typical of my deeply intuitive brain, I came to the conclusion that it was wrong to want whatever it was that prompted the feeling that then resulted in the behavior. This all happened by the time I was two, so I don’t remember deciding these things and I never thought about them. I coped with varying levels of success until I got married and had kids.
Then, faced with feelings I could no longer escape, because you don’t just have a kid and then not ever have to interact with that kid, I began my downward spiral. This spiral covered every aspect of my emotional and physical life, but I’ll give just one example to keep it simple. In the entirety of my life up to having kids, I had never let myself be angry. But when I could no longer keep down my panic at the intense emotions of young children, I would explode. I used the same words I heard other parents using—the idea that circumstances don’t create emotion or sin in you, they just bring out what’s already there. And it’s wrong to yell at your kid, right? So that’s sin. Right?
But the thing is, my anxiety that was unseen and therefore not dealt with was manipulating my responses in a way that was completely outside of my control. But sin is sin is sin in the Christian church and the only cure for it is Jesus, prayer, and trying hard. So instead of finding ways to confront what was really happening to me, I kept trying to control my “temper” and I continued to spiral. I had friends during this time who knew something was up, but I couldn’t hear it because I genuinely thought that what I was facing was what everyone faced: the sanctifying struggle against my sin. Except it didn’t get better, it got worse.
We can’t stop talking about sin in the church. I know this. The truth about who we are and how much God wanted us in his family anyway is our hope. But by largely limiting our discussion about the world’s and our brokenness to the category of personal and purposeful sin, we are keeping a whole host of people trapped in confusion, guilt and despair.
This has been part two in a three-part series about our words. In part one I talked about how in “mom” culture we can use the same words to talk about different things. This segment discussed the way the church plays a big role in the struggle of people with mental illness because of words, and part three will cover a differentiation that I think is helpful for people in the church with mental illness. Thanks for reading!