A hill worth dying on
I am not usually a confrontational person. There are lots of things I either do not have opinions on or am willing to agree to disagree on. Lately though there has been a bit of a fire rising within me surrounding a certain issue. While I am not confrontational about most things I do believe there are a few hills worth dying on. This is one of them for me. The issue is perceptions of mental health issues within the church/Christian community. It is not my goal to offend people or debate people. I just feel the need to express my views which grow out of my own personal experience.
I think the reason that mental health issues are not always looked at the same way as other illnesses is that they are not quite the same. I agree to an extent. I realize that I contribute to my struggle with Depression in a way that someone with cancer may not have. I know that sin and my habits and choices are present here. But let’s think for a moment. What if someone made the unhealthy choice to smoke for 30 years and they get lung cancer. Should they not undergo treatment for their life-threatening cancer because their bad habits contributed to their illness? What if someone is irresponsible and doesn’t wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle and when they crash they suffer traumatic head injuries? Should they refuse treatment because the head injury may have been prevented or lessened if they wore a helmet? I have heard it said many times in defense of taking medication for mental health issues that if you have cancer you get chemo, if you have diabetes you take insulin, if you have a headache you take aspirin etc. This is true. And frankly, I will take aspirin even if that headache is self-inflicted because I have been going too fast for too long and my body suffers from fatigue, dehydration and lack of ample nourishment.
I acknowledge that mental health issues are complex and those that suffer from them are not always purely victims. An alcoholic may be a victim of bad genetics, a bad upbringing, abuse, etc. but sin still plays a role there. Someone with Depression or an Eating Disorder needs to make conscious choices to alter their thinking and lifestyle in order to really be healed from their disease. That being said, there are many reasons why mental health issues are not self-inflicted, and why I believe medication is often an essential component in a complete treatment plan for recovery. For one thing, there IS a physical, hormonal issue involved in most cases. I do not pretend to be an expert in the science behind the chemical imbalances that occur in the brain, but I consider myself an expert in the toll that those imbalances can take on a an individual. I know how screwed up I get when I am suffering from Depression and Anxiety. I cannot think clearly and no matter how hard I try to fix my own problems, my muddled brain and over-the-top emotions will not let me. I am not myself. I have thoughts that are not my own, that are non-sensical and I feel powerless against them even when I know the truth. At one point in my life I actually heard voices. I felt like I was held prisoner in my own head. (I am aware of the possibility that this was demonic and was in Christian Counseling where that possibility was explored and ruled out. Medication was prescribed and the issues were resolved. As far as I know demons do not respond to anti-psychotic medication.) There have been times in my life where my body needs medication in order to function in a healthy, productive way, and now is one of those times. The way I like to put it is that medication does not solve my problems by any means. It does not take away my responsibility to tell myself the truth, to try to not be controlled by my emotions or my anxious thoughts, to follow good habits. But medication helps me to do that. When a person suffers from Depression or anxiety everything is right up in their face. It is overwhelming and impossible to make sense of, no matter how hard a person can try. Medication pulls the “stuff” back and allows a person to assess life so that they are able to deal with taking an active role in their own recovery.
One of the things that bothers me more than just about anything, is when people, even those who are well meaning, tell people that God will heal them, they just need to pray more. Please do not say this. Please do not make promises on behalf of my God that He never made. Please do not put words into His mouth. God may chose to heal me. My God is the God of miracles and He certainly could heal me instantly and completely if He chose to. But God has not chosen to do that for me. I firmly believe that this is my “thorn in the flesh”-something that I will have to struggle against on and off for the rest of my life. It is something that reminds me I am human, reminds me I need God, reminds me to take my thoughts captive, reminds me to be compassionate and creates in me a desire to help others, reminds me to long for heaven. That being said, I will take medication when I need it because of just that-I need it. Not as a crutch that enables me to continue to just keep on living in my old habits, but as God’s way of allowing me to be healed enough to be functional, and healed enough to see the blessing in my thorn.
For those people who say that if I prayed enough or was close enough to God I would be healed-that is ridiculous and more than that, it is demeaning and destructive. For years I was told this and I was naive enough to believe it. I believed that because I wasn’t healed that it was my fault. I prayed more. I did more. I fell prostrate before the throne of God and begged Him to heal me. I communed with God and was closer to God than I ever was before. Yet I was not healed. In fact my Depression got worse. It got so bad that I remember sitting on my bed beside my tear stained bible with a knife ready to slit my wrists, and I don’t know what I would have done if my dad hadn’t come home unexpectedly. I so longed from deep inside me for the pain to stop and to be able to see and think clearly. I cried out to God longing to be in His arms in heaven because try as I might, pray as I might, fall into the arms of God as I might-the healing did not come. Then I went from thinking it was my fault to the next “logical” explanation that comes from this way of thinking (that you can pray and God will fix you). I started to resent God. If He promised to heal me if I did “x, y and z” than why didn’t He? He couldn’t be trusted. He was an unloving God. I resented God for not keeping a promise that He had never made. Please do not make promises on behalf of God. This demeans God’s sovereignty and wisdom. It also is the fast track to confusion, shame and resentment (all of which fuel mental health issues, by the way). If God chooses to heal a person miraculously it is to prove His own mercy and power. If He does not chose to heal a person He may be trying to prove His mercy and power through their struggle. And if He does not chose to zap healing to a person when they pray maybe His plan for that person is that they find healing through His gifts of wise counseling and medication. The medicine is a tool that helps give a person the healing their brain needs so that they are free through counseling to make the changes in their thinking and daily lives that can continue to battle mental health issues.
I know the area of mental health issues and medication are a “grey area” in the faith. I know people will adamantly disagree with me. When it comes to any grey area, particularly one I cannot entirely understand without experiencing it first hand, I choose to air on the side of grace and compassion. It can be so destructive for people to believe that their mental health issues are entirely their fault, especially when those thoughts are being given to them from people in the church. Not everyone who suffers from mental health issues needs medication, but many people do. Sadly, often times, that option is made to seem sinful and weak to them. I know why mental health issues are perceived differently than other physical illnesses. They are different, both in cause and effect. As far as the effects, I have seen people’s lives turned upside down much more drastically as a result of mental health issues than any other health problem. I would hate for someone who is hurting to be caused more hurt because they feel like they cannot take medication to treat their illness. That is a lonely, helpless feeling. I would also hate for those people to hurt themselves or others because they are not getting the help they need. Another result of this legalism is that those who are hurting feel looked down and abandoned by Christians, church leadership, and even God in their time of need. As, I said, it is a grey area. But please tread carefully realizing that your words and actions carry the power to be constructive or destructive. Please assess situations on a case by case basis and not with blanket statements, not taking into consideration the facts pertaining to each individual.
If you disagree with taking medication for mental health issues, I highly doubt that my words will change your mind. You have probably heard it all before. Let me just say this though, please do not make me feel like I am “less than” because I suffer from mental health issues. I am NOT a worse person, a worse Christian because I have this illness that I have to battle against. This is my plight. For whatever reason God gave this to me and He uses it make me stronger and better-to refine me. But let me tell you this, believe what you want about medication, but I firmly believe two things 1.) At numerous points in my life I would have been dysfunctional without it (if I was even still alive) 2.) God has used it in beautiful ways in my life bring me that healing that I longed for and prayed for.
I have found this verse to be a beautiful caption on my life with Depression :2 Corinthians 12:9: But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.