I experienced my first bout of serious depression when I was thirteen years old. I had spent most of my early childhood escaping my emotions through reading. Even though my childhood was a secure, healthy, and happy one, my anxiety had manipulated my experience of life since before I can remember. Reading was my coping mechanism of choice, which honestly is a pretty healthy one, if we’re going to rate ways of shoving down all negative emotion. I was homeschooled in elementary school, so I could basically race through my schoolwork and read for hours on end. I experienced a wider range of emotion vicariously through the books I read than I allowed myself to feel in my reality. Half way through sixth grade, though, I began attending a small private school, and my coping mechanism was no longer available to me; I had to be present, all day, for all my classes. This was my first experience of facing “bad” feelings without an avenue of escape. I had hit puberty, I was experiencing normal insecurities about myself and my body, and since I had not let myself learn how to process anything negative, I spiraled. I developed an eating disorder and plunged into a deep depression.
To my memory, I was never someone who questioned my salvation, even though I grew up in a church that taught that you could lose it. But I certainly wondered about my place in a church that vigorously celebrated the joy of the Lord and the expression of the Holy Spirit, when I didn’t always feel that joy. Sometime midway through high school, I began to chafe at what I felt was a hypocritical and limited portrayal of the Christian life. I felt like it wasn’t ok for things to be hard in that church. People tended to share their struggles in retrospect, once they’d been triumphed over spiritually. When I started attending college I kept going to my childhood church, albeit more sporadically. I visited other churches and skipped more Sundays than I ever had. During my junior year of college, I experienced a heartbreak that left me devastated. Anytime I’d go to my church, I’d stand in the back during the hour-long worship set and just weep. I couldn’t pretend, I couldn’t keep it in. And I think my open struggle had an impact on others maybe trying to keep it together…I was astounded by the number of women who came up to me during that time and thanked me for my tears. While the theological and practical issues I took exception to remain issues in my mind, I certainly felt a large amount of angst as a person who grew up in the church needing to find her own way, the bulk of which has subsided over the years.
Fast forward several years, a different town, a few kids, and I found myself in a new church with an actively preached theology of brokenness. Each week we would kneel as a congregation and confess how much we needed Jesus. Then we would stand and remember that we were a part of his family. We were encouraged to live in the open, to not pretend. But what I didn’t realize was that the focus on specific personal sin was causing extraordinary confusion in my life and ultimately ended up masking and exacerbating my struggle with my mental health. I would read a confession about not loving our neighbors, choosing instead the comfort and security of our own lives, homes, and agendas. And I’d think, yes, that’s me. Thus, the growing agoraphobia from my anxiety was misdiagnosed as the worship of comfort and went unaddressed another day, another week, another year.
As I’ve begun the process of sifting through my life, my motivations and my reactions, since my diagnosis, I’ve begun to think about sin a little differently. I’ve had to: after all, so many of the things I was hearing called sin (and I’ve heard everything from procrastination to depression labeled such) were things I felt or did that were either outside of my control or simply how I worked as a person. And I began to realize a couple of things.
First, God didn’t make us on the same level as him. Even before the fall, before we ever sinned in the garden, we weren’t on his level. We were less, we were weaker, and we were varied from each other. And that wasn’t wrong. So, while a pastor may have to write sermons or confessions in a sweeping, one-size-fits-all fashion, we don’t have to live that way. Procrastination for one person is laziness, for another it’s motivation and enables their brain to wake up. Being bummed might be discontentment for one person, for another it is their brain blocking their ability to feel happiness. Even Paul understood that some things were sins for some people and not for others, so I think this is biblical.
Second, you’re not perfect because the world is broken, not just because you specifically choose sin. Sometimes you do, but sometimes you are experiencing the brokenness of the world in a specific way that others don’t. My anxiety is something that has made me look and feel a particular way, interpreted at times by myself and others as my personal fault or shortcoming. That cycle then drove me deeper into anxiety. I am learning now to not place such moral weight on things that are actually symptoms, to let them just be what they really are. Lightening up that load makes it possible to practice the physical and mental habits that will help me interpret the world and my feelings in a more accurate and appropriate way.
The words you use to speak to yourself about your identity as a human and as a Christian are so important. This is true for all Christians, but it’s even more important for those of us with mental illness. You can’t just accept things the way they are, because if you do it will destroy you. I have been there for years and I’m starting to dig my way out, with many varied forms of assistance. You don’t have to live your life trapped in confusion and guilt over things that are outside of your control. Accept that they are, and reach out for help. It’s my hope and prayer that the church will develop a better method of relating the gospel to people with mental illness; for better or worse, that may begin with those of us who have experience speaking up. There is no perfect church. You won’t be able to find one with people who don’t say the wrong thing sometimes. But there is room for growth in the system as a whole, and I hope my story makes it easier for you to share yours.
This has been part three in a three-part series about our words. In part one I talked about how in the “mom” culture we can use the same words to talk about different things. Part two discussed the way the church plays a big role in the struggle of people with mental illness because of words, and this segment covered a differentiation that I think is helpful for people in the church with mental illness. Thanks for reading!