I consider myself a Christian. I believe in God, I read the Bible, I go to church. My faith plays a role in certain aspects of my disease, but this wasn’t always the case. Earlier in my Christian journey, and before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I had experiences that would lead me to believe that Christianity and mental illness could not be reconciled. That information came not from the Bible, but from how some Christians exhibit their faith.
Some years ago, I was in the midst of a depressive episode but I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I knew that I was tired and teary and my brain was foggy. I’d thought about getting into therapy to talk about my feelings about a recent breakup and accompanying weight gain. Instead, my father convinced me to become more active in our church. This was supposed to deepen my relationship with God and make me feel better.
I took my dad’s advice and took a more active role in the church. When my favorite minister invited me to attend a women’s spiritual retreat one weekend, I agreed because I liked her and believed that it would help my mood. Expecting fellowship and sisterhood, what I experienced instead made me feel even worse.
Most of the women at the retreat were what I call “I’m blessed” Christians. You know, the kind of people who say “I’m blessed” whenever you ask how they are. They might as well answer “I’m Black.” These “I’m blessed” women that I met didn’t leave room for the emotional vagaries of the human condition, and certainly didn’t leave any room for me to talk about what I thought of as my emotional issues. “I’m blessed” is pretty much a non-starter, at least for me, because I never know how to respond. “Good for you” seems dismissive, and the only appropriate response is another declaration of faith. If all I was supposed to do was talk about God and religion whenever anyone spoke to me, I was sure that Christianity and mental illness — or at least emotional issues — had no place being together in this environment.
The women that I met at the retreat were also the kind of people who say, “I’m too blessed to be stressed.” I know they meant that their stress is mollified by their faith, or that God’s blessings are with them even in times of emotional tension. But did they feel stress? My whole reason for getting more involved in the church was because I was stressed. But being around a group of women who seemed to agree that anxiety wasn’t possible for them made me feel alone and so wrong. So when my minster packed her Bible into a case — one that everyone else in the room seemed to have but me — and asked me how my day was, all I could muster was a wan “It was a blessing.” What I really wanted to say was, is there any room for my feelings in this religious expression?
Fortunately, I eventually found professional help for my mental illness and a spiritual home in which I feel comfortable talking to my pastor about my condition. Instead of claiming my unlilateral blessings under all situations, I acknowledge the role that God has played in getting me to seek help and in making me smart enough to get the help I need when I need it. Unlike the Christians I met early in my struggle, I connect with God for strength that’s particular to my situation rather than repeating the platitudes that mark some religious experiences. Of course Christianity and mental illness can coexist in the same person, but Christians need to be more mindful of how their expression of faith affects us.