Spirituality and mental illness

As a faithful follower of Christ my entire life, my spirituality and connection to the divine have always meant everything to me. My life would not be what it is without my knowledge of and faith in God, my Heavenly Father, and His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ. I have always depended on the great gift of the Comforter that Christ left with his disciples, the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit. I’ve been taught since I was young how to understand what the Spirit is trying to communicate to me through his still, small voice. It is explained to people in various ways because it can affect and teach each of us a little differently, so each of us must learn exactly how he sounds to us. A scripture in my faith’s canon says that the Holy Ghost will speak to me in my mind and in my heart, and that really rings true in my experience. I can often just feel ideas popping into my head, and I can feel in my heart a good feeling that confirms they are from a trusted source.

But my challenges with my mental health over the years have thrown wrenches into that beautiful process off and on, in various ways. The depression, irritability and anger I’ve felt have blocked that positive flow of messages from a loving God, leaving me to feel adrift and alone and cut off. I’ve sometimes felt that there are just no answers coming to prayers, and I’ve given up asking. I’ve even gotten angry at the heavens then for leaving me in that isolated state, with no communication coming my way. All of it leads to me feeling that I’m alone and undeserving of God’s love, that for some reason he just isn’t paying attention.

Even medication I’ve taken has caused difficulties of its own. As I wrote in my previous post about my long list of medications over the years, when I tried Abilify for a few months about a year and a half ago, I felt absolutely numb. It was unnerving because I’m usually a bubbly person who often sees the bright side of things and, in terms of faith, relies on (even might take for granted) the wonderful peaceful feeling that comes from turning to prayer and scriptures and other messages of a spiritual nature. I know that when I listen to good music that reminds me of God and Christ or when I read a scripture or an inspirational magazine article, I’ll feel uplifted and recharged. I’ll feel the influence of the Holy Ghost, a marvelous gift. So for the few months I took that medication, I didn’t feel anything, including those spiritual feelings. I didn’t feel bad, but I didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel peaceful or Spirit-filled whenever I did all the things that would normally make me feel that influence. It bothered me a great deal. It was a strange feeling to go to church, where I would normally feel happy and inspired, and just feel … nothing. A black hole where there would normally be gardens in bloom with all colors of gorgeous flowers of faith.

What got me through that time was just the knowledge I had still in my mind about all the experiences I could remember. My brain had stored away the memories of knowing that God had answered my prayers at specific times and that I knew that the Holy Spirit had usually been in my heart. I couldn’t feel it then, but I trusted in my head that it had happened before and would come back to me, no matter what wacky tricks this medication was playing with me. And sure enough, when I got off that medicine and got to mostly myself again, I did feel that peace again. The black hole was gone, filled again with light.

So the wrong medication can play tricks on faith. Depression and other mental illnesses can do their own brand of damage. I’ve been through that emptiness before and am kind of feeling it again, and I’m sure I’ll keep experiencing it throughout this mortal existence. It’s not pleasant, and I’d rather not have to go through this. But my feeling is that this is my cross to bear, so I’m doing the best I can to handle it gracefully. Saying I’m doing my best is the truth, but even then it feels silly to say because “my best” can sometimes not be a whole lot. I feel alone inside of myself and that God isn’t sending me answers or the positive feelings I need. But I know in the part of my brain that’s not “messed up” somehow that he’s still there.

I think what I want most to do here is connect with other people who experience these feelings. I think that faith communities are slowly doing better at directly and publicly addressing matters of mental health in the context of religious belief, and that’s wonderful. But depression and other mental illnesses work hard to isolate their sufferers. Those of us who know in our minds and in our hearts that God is aware of us and loves us but sometimes don’t really “feel” it the way we should because of neurochemical vagaries can talk to each other to buoy each other up not just in our specific trials but in our faith. We’ve been given a great gift to have a Savior and the good news of the gospel he has taught. I believe there are still miracles today. Honestly, though, some days, amid the clouds that create a darkness of despair in my heart and head, I don’t feel a conviction that God will work a miracle in my life. And since I know that isn’t true, deep down, I have to work hard to combat the feeling that is false. A dear, dear friend of mine told me a couple of times that she and her mother were able to talk to a well-known Christian writer of our faith after he gave a talk they attended. She wrote me to remind me what he had told them: “He suffers from depression and told my mom and me that being faithful means that you remember the Lord is with you and mindful of you even when the depression doesn’t let you ‘feel’ it. He is still there!” I just cling to that like a little round life saver thrown to me in an ocean of big waves. Eventually the waves die down, and I’m still clinging on for dear life: alive and well yet again. Still.

Life of the mind

lifeandlims View All →

I'm a book reviewer, editor, and writer with four daughters and tons of projects always keeping me hopping. I blog at Life and Lims and run the book review site Rated Reads.

8 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Keep writing. I am certain, even if people are not “dialoguing” with you via your blog, that they are reading your words and feeling grateful for your honesty and openness.
    Even if a woman does not have a diagnosis or struggle with mental illness, I think a mass majority of us would high-five you, regarding your intermittent feelings of isolation and anger. Because, unless they are some sort of super-woman, there are certain times of the month that women experience those same feelings, off and on, month after month, year after year, throughout many decades of their feminine lives.
    And there is no power under heaven that can stop it.
    Yes, I speak of that horror of female horrors: PMS.
    My husband knows about my Judgment Day Plan.
    It will go like this.
    My life will flash before me, and just before I am handed my ticket to hell, I am going to have Bill Gates, or perhaps Steve Jobs, help me to set up a PowerPoint, of sorts.
    This presentation will have calendars, beginning when I hit puberty.
    On each day my negative behaviors were affected by hormones, there will be a red dot.
    These slides will go rather quickly, through each month and year, until my death. I am sure those in judgment of me will have quick minds, so they will not mind the speed.
    In my defense, all I will say is that any day I was hormonal, any sins, of commission, or omission, should be stricken from the heavenly record.
    And you know what?
    I think God will like it, because He knows how difficult being a mortal with imperfect bodies is, and so He will apply MERCY to my soul in massive doses.

  2. Beautiful in its tenderness and poignancy. I know the feeling of being bereft. When you know how sweet that communion can be and then have to endure the numbness when it seems that the Spirit’s warmth has departed. How to explain nothingness? It can be dispelled when you have the faith that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This gives me great comfort. If my Father in Heaven loves me and believes in me, maybe I can learn to believe him.

    • I am finding that despite my faith in some things being great, it is and probably always will be a struggle (in this life) to just “believe” him the way I’d like to. Thanks, Erin, for your observations.

  3. I appreciate your honesty in writing about what you have been/are going through.
    Even after finding something that works (for me EMPower, a vitamin/mineral supplement specifically designed for mental illness- check out truehope.com) I find there are still black days attending church, empty, watching others around me wiping away the tears while I sit, empty and alone. It is those moments that take the most faith.
    I think of some of my favorite scripture stories in the Book of Mormon that talk about remembering…Nephi who counseled his brothers to remember the ways their God had delivered them in the past and Helaman who counseled his sons to remember the rock upon which their faith is founded. It is that remembering that keeps me going, knowing there will be future times when tears will be coursing down my cheeks as I feel that strong sense of the spirit once again.
    I know that as I have written down the many evidences of my Savior’s care for me over the years, and as I take time to reflect on these experiences, it has confirmed to me that He is always close despite the lack of feeling in the present.
    And I continue to pray for deliverance as I search for answers to help me in my journey of feeling.

    • Pam, thanks so much for weighing in. I know what you mean. And you should check out my (very long) post on the medications I’ve tried, including the EMPower (“Medications and Me”).

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