Meandering thoughts on mental illness and doubts

I know I haven't been writing, but I have been busy with fostering and work. I got hired in at the Hermitage a couple weeks ago, and the adjustment of schedules has been a little difficult. I'll write more about my awesome, kick-ass job later. Today, I want to talk about mental illness.

I read Salon.com with some regularity. Maybe twice a week I pop over there to see what's up, and what's new. A couple weeks ago I found this article, and as I adore Greta Christina, I read it! (She's an amazing speaker and writer, and you can see her blog here).

I remember I had seen a headline at CNN that Rick Warren's kid had committed suicide and that week Warren had finally started preaching again. I didn't know anything about the gent, except he was Warren's kid, and well, I have a very low opinion of Rick Warren. That doesn't mean I celebrated his death, or anything like that; in fact, I felt bad for his family, like everyone with a heart does when we hear about a death. I also hoped that they found some inner peace, as their beloved son wasn't hurting any more. And that, I thought was the end of it.

Until I saw Greta's piece for Salon. “We’re all mentally ill.”...“You have fears, you have worries, you have doubts, you have compulsions, you have attractions…”

Those were part of the sermon Warren gave, when he was speaking of his son's mental illness, and ultimately his suicide. “We're all mentally ill” he says.

Now, I would encourage you to read Greta's take on it, and my meandering goes parallel with her thoughts, that Warren was trying to de-stigmatize mental illness-- but that he's totally failing in that regard. In fact, I would echo Greta's idea that Warren's sermon “trivializes [mental illness]. It contributes to the stigma. And it makes it harder to recognize and treat.”

I know this first hand as a former evangelical kid, and as someone who has struggled with depression my entire life. That's why this article stood out to me, and why I'm writing about it now.

I was taught as a kid, and I've talked about this before, that if you were depressed, it was only because you weren't letting God have total control of your life. This meant that I wasn't praying hard enough, that I was worrying too much, that I wasn't being submissive enough, that I was a bad christian... that if I only “Let Go, and Let God” I'd be fine!

This is utter bullshit! It's so much horseshit that I can't even explain it to you. But it is something that christians* have heard, have had pounded into their heads for decades. We are taught that god is testing us, that we just have to be submissive to his plan, that we're trying too hard to take over control of our lives. We're told we're defective, and some times, that we might not be real christians... imagine that, not being a real christian ™ because you have doubts in yourself and in the world, because you're an insomniac, because you're depressed, or have OCD. It's a pretty terrible thing to teach your kids, and yet I'd venture that millions of conservative christians have been brought up this way, and except for the LDS**, they avoid anti-depressants like they would steal your soul!

Yes, steal your soul. I was maybe 16 and my mother was shouting at me for being down and depressed, and told me to pull myself together. After the rant about how God would make me better if I just let him, I asked her if maybe I should see a doctor, or psychologist or something. “No! Those people will mess with your soul!” she just about shrieked at me. She was completely serious, too! She, and her peers at church, truly felt that a psychologist, or any mental health professional would some how un-salvation me, make me a Satanist, or medicate me into atheism, or well, pick your idea of the Worst Possible Thing Ever!!!

She even make a stirring motion with her hands, as if psychologists have this ability to reach into your body and physically do something to your souls-- weird huh?

Then she made me an appointment with the pastor, which I kept, and which was totally unhelpful. He was really good at speaking, like a college professor-- but his people skills left much to be desired. He thought I wasn't smart enough, that none of us were anywhere nearly as smart as he, and he treated us with the indulgence usually reserved for slightly mentally deficient pets or dementia patients. It was humiliating, to say the least.

I think that's why this article struck me so deeply. It's certainly why it's taken me awhile to write about it-- I flashed back to that place of being told that I was worthless without god, and that by trying to be a good person, to work hard, to get good grades, that I was not letting god have his way in my life, and therefore everything I did was even more horrible. That whole “all our works are as filthy rags” thing got thrown at me, a lot! No matter what I did, it wasn't good enough... and still I was depressed.

So I stuffed it down, I did my best to pretend I was fine, and deal with it in whatever way I could. I dealt; I ignored; I would just say “I'm feeling down”; I'd pretend.

Years later, it was the Summer of 2003, and I was in a really bad way. I had accepted that I was just not a normally happy person a few years before-- that my normal was just lower than everyone else's, but it never seemed like it interfered with my life-- or so I thought. I finally went to see a therapist, because I just couldn't get out of the funk I was in. I thought there was something wrong with me, that I was defective, because I wasn't able to handle it on my own any more. I was a strong woman, I thought, I should be able to handle this-- it was just a little period of the blues... right?

I really thought I was just being an asshole, that I was attention-seeking, that the therapist would shake me and tell me to pull myself together! I thought maybe that's what I needed... something to get me heading back in the right direction.

Imagine my surprise when the therapist, her name was Laura, told me “You're depressed! Of course we can help. We help with broken hearts here,” and then explained that I was normal, that depression happened, and that I wasn't defective when I had an episode... that I was just put together this way. It was a revelation. It was crazy, validating and amazing!

It made me uneasy, too, because I had been taught that mental illness didn't exist. Even as a then-Pagan, I was struggling with christianity's hold on me-- it's not something you can just take off like a dirty shirt, it's something you have to dig out like a splinter. Or a cancer.

That explains my mental state when I read Warren's excerpts in Greta's article... I immediately felt less-than, like a failure, like I was defective. Then I shook myself, and finished reading.

Mental illness isn't being full of doubts about something.
It's not attractions, and it's not most compulsions. (I'm not including OCD, because that is a mental illness; however, most of us have random compulsions, I was taught though, that compulsions are a sign of being possessed by a demon-- or “oppressed” if you were a real christian ™ because blah blah blah)
It's not being worried, or wondering if I'm going to be all right.
It's not hating everything today, or loving everything today.
And it damned well isn't being an atheist!

That's what I got from his sermon, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that I wasn't the only one who read it that way. Having doubts about religion is normal, and frankly if you don't have doubts you're an automaton... everyone questions, and most of us accept that. However, good christians ™ never question, they accept. They “let go, and let God”. So therefore doubts, agnosticism, atheism, must be a sign of mental illness-- because God would wipe those doubts away if we were really trying.

This is so horrible, I can't even begin!

My doubts started young, as I've shared before. My doubts probably saved my life-- and I'm not the only person who feels that way. Doubting that there's a god who loves me, sent a messiah and all that made me really look into the religion of my childhood and made me have to make a choice whether I accepted those stories as Truth.

Doubt helped me find myself. Doubt helped me walk away from a ruined marriage, helped me build a new life for myself and my kids; doubt helped me be brave enough to ask the hard questions, and eventually led me into a new life with a loving partner. Because I was brave enough to ask questions, and really really look for the answers!

Doubts help us find the real answers, rather than accepting what we're taught as Truth, with a capitol T. Instead, when we're brave enough to face our doubts, we find the Truth, and stop swallowing the sugar-coated lies we're given.

I've said before that I want the ugly truth, over a pretty lie... doubts, facing them, accepting them, embracing them, has helped me so much when it comes to seeing reality as it really is, rather than what I want it to be.

I can put myself into the place of Warren's congregation, though., I remember hearing about how all I needed to do, in order to make my life a little heaven on earth, full of joy and happiness and laughter and love and perfect harmony, was to let god have total control of my life. That meant I would have to let some invisible person “guide me” into making choices that mirrored what my pastor, mother, Sunday school teacher, whatever, decided was what god wanted... and that I had to use the Bible as a map for every day living. Yes, it's as screwy as it sounds, but it fucks you up when you're a kid, and trying to be good, to love god, to make god happy... It fucks you up a lot!

I just hope that any mentally ill people who hear Warren's sermon dig deep into themselves, and decide they'd rather Know, then Believe... because doubts are about accepting what you don't know, and finding out more. Where as believing is accepting that you'll never know, and God likes it that way.

I'd rather Know. Even if it's uncomfortable.



*I am including conservative denominations, JW's, LDS and “non-denominational” christians in here. I've never heard mainline protestants that had anything against mental health professionals-- only conservative ones.

** I read that anti-depressant usage in Utah is higher than anywhere else in the country. You can see the article here, and it is an interesting thought, isn't it?

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