Perspectives: Faith & Mental Illness, A Journey of Authenticity, Kindness, and Honesty
It was my final year of university. I woke up and went to bed each day engulfed in fear. Fear that I was destined for doom. Fear that I had unwittingly done some unthinkable wrong towards God and couldn’t be forgiven. Fear that I wasn’t who I said I was, that I would never be who I wanted to be, and that the secret of my deep-seated wickedness would come out, destroying all that was good around me. I wrote in a journal entry during this time that “I just look at myself and see evil.” This manifested as anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, perfectionism, and a later-diagnosed mild OCD. Constantly in massive amounts of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual pain, I carried a false core belief that I wasn’t worth getting better. I deserved the pain, and eventually the pain would correct all the was wrong about me.
I also believed in the existence of a loving God that cares about each of us individually. Yet it was impossible for me to accept this love for myself. My view of God included endless amounts of love for others, but what was expected of me was to get myself together and keep it together. So I struggled for years to make sense of faith and my poor mental health. However, as I approached graduation, I realized something was changing. For me, some things had started and would continue to become increasingly true on my journey:
I had permission to be imperfect and to be in pain. One of the things that got me tied up in knots was not understanding WHY I was in pain. I expected faith in God to include a painless existence. I came to grips with the fact that living in faith doesn’t exclude you from raw human experience, but, among other things, gives you something to rely on in the midst of it. And human experience is riddled with imperfections – my own and others. And that’s ok. No one, not even God, is expecting me to be perfect.
I was able to read scripture through a lens of love instead of fear. Every time I sat down to read my Bible, I felt judgement, fear, and loads of not-enoughness, often ending my time reading in tears of pain and rejection. My approach shifted as I really began to accept that God loves me(and all of us) first. That the stories we read are for us to feel near to and known by a God that loves and cares.
I was able to show up with authenticity in specific relationships. I had people who I could be honest with, who would ask if I was eating, challenge me to be kind to myself, and, most importantly, I started trusting them. I believed they actually cared about me and were responding to my struggle out of love.
I had permission to ask questions. About God, about my faith, about my experiences, about the experiences of others, about my expectations. I stopped being afraid to bring my whole self – along with all my unsureness – to the table. I had questions – lots of them – and I couldn’t stay afraid of them.
I don’t know exactly what happened to start the change, but one thing I can say is I was tired. Totally exhausted, I slowly started to give up on my ways of approaching myself, my mental illness, and my faith. I realized the way I was approaching all of it was contributing to the problem. Trust, there was not a 45 degree angle of improvement. I had starts and stops, lapses and relapses, days where I was utterly confident and days where I was basically a mess. I believe this is what healing actually looks like. Feeling tangled up between your experiences, your faith, and mental illness? Friend, you are not alone. And what helped me most was being kind to myself throughout the journey. Part of being kind to ourselves is allowing others to be kind to us as well – and often first. May you know this kindness and may it light up the dark.