Mental Health and Transitions

The Church

By T. Jaden Ozwell

This is a series about the impact personality disorders, depression, and anxiety have on the life transitions of twenty-somethings and beyond. The fourth and final article will address how mental illness has affected me spiritually.

Part 1: Introduction and Personality Discorders
Part 2: Depression
Part 3: Anxiety Disorders

When mental illness is mixed with spirituality and the church, all kinds of things can happen. Some churches are incredibly welcoming and helpful to those with mental illness; some are quite the opposite. The same goes for the parishioners themselves. Meanwhile, different kinds of mental illness have different levels of visibility and effect upon the external Christian behaviors of going to church and being involved. One thing that all forms of mental illness have in common, though, is that they affect your relationship with God in one way or another.

My experience of mental illness started in the midst of being raised in the church as part of a family that was highly involved, usually on a twice-weekly basis. I prayed the sinner's prayer at a young age, and was baptized as a tween. Essentially, I had everything going for me to be an engaged, church attending, Bible believing adult.

Once depression, anxiety, and my personality disorder began rearing their heads, though, that simple trajectory became not so simple. How I responded to God, the way the church responded to me, and the way I subsequently responded to the church, all changed.

How I responded to God
At first, I just begged God to "take it all away." I was in my teens, and didn't know what else to do. I didn't have words for what I was experiencing (depression and suicidal ideation), and all I knew about hard times was that God could change them.

As it happened, God didn't fix or remove the difficulties. That is not to say that I don't think he was/is there, but my depression deepened and anxiety symptoms continued to build. I became angry and bitter that God had given this situation to me, and then wouldn't take it away when I had clearly done my part: asked him to fix it. Instead, he slowly — over the course of many years — brought the right doctors, counselors, and friends into my life who have helped me learn to cope.

That didn't remove the bitterness, though. I desperately don't want my life to look this way, and it is hard to accept that an all-powerful being who could just reach down and fix it doesn't. I am trying to accept that God walking with me through these trials is blessing enough, but it is a hard switch to make.

How the Church Responded to Me
In recent years I have found churches that are supportive and encouraging when they find out about my mental illnesses. Before I even knew I had a personality disorder, there was a pastor who was encouraging me precisely the way I needed in the midst of that brand of turmoil. When I was losing hope, my current church sent me letters of encouragement and expressed joy every time I was able to make it to a service — all somehow avoiding being judgmental. They have been willing to listen and understand and even ask me how they can help with all sincerity. It is a beautiful picture of the Body of Christ taking care of its other members.

Before these experiences, however, the church was generally unhelpful. I was told that depression was due to a lack of faith and "joy in Christ," and that my suicidality was a horrible sin that just needed to stop. Church became an unsafe place where anxiety spiked into panic and silence became the only way to avoid judgment and misunderstanding.

How I responded to the Church
I tried very hard to do what the church wanted me to do. I prayed so hard, so often; I tried to have superhuman amounts of faith; I prayed for God to give me faith; I tried to accept my situation as a trial from God. As I got older and began understanding faith better, I tried even harder to stop trying and "give it to God."

What was most damaging from these experiences was that I was offered a fix — and it didn't work. All the pastoral counseling and striving in prayer and faith didn't change the fact that my brain was chemically out of whack, or that I had a then-undiagnosed personality disorder. Do I think God has the power to do it? Of course. Do I think we should promise things in God's stead? Absolutely not.

Now, years after leaving churches and nearly abandoning the God I thought abandoned me, I know that me trying harder isn't what causes God to move, and I value my relationship with God infinitely more than my feeble attempts to try and get him to do things. But my relationship with the church is still tenuous. To be perfectly honest, so is my relationship with God. The day-to-day is troublesome when my depressed and anxiety-ridden body call out for the same healing my teenaged soul did many years ago.

But I keep trying — not, anymore, to "love God right" or "do church right." I am just trying to be in a place where I accept God's gifts, and can worship with other believers.

Image Credit: Chris Smith; "Holy Name Cathedral"; Creative Commons

TagsChristian-Life  | Depression  | God-Father  | Hardships  | Health-Wellness  | Ministry-Church  | Personal-Life  | Personal-Relationships

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Published on 5-3-15