On Fridays I will address a question related to depression and find the answer from an expert. If you have a question you want answered, please ask it on the combox of this post, and I’ll try my best to do some research and feature it in an upcoming Friday post.
I was invited by Mark Brown of Brownblog.com to respond to the question: How do you grow your faith as a person with a mental illness? Here’s what I wrote on his site:
This morning was fairly typical: I was both inspired and ticked off by the reading of the day, in Mark’s gospel, when Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. Jesus grabs her hand and her fever immediately leaves.
“Nice, Jesus, good going with that one, ” I said to the Son of God, half sarcastically and half sincerely. Because all of us who live with severe depression, bipolar disorder, or any mood disorder know that our illness is chronic. Even on the good days, we wade through some pretty thick crap, and sometimes it feels like we spend the entire day on our knees, begging for that tap on the hand — when the negative thoughts will painlessly evaporate and our hippocampus will stretch instead of shrink, when all the cells housed in the prefrontal cortex of our brain get ready to party, and tell our nervous system that there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of.
But that’s not the way faith works when it comes to a mental illness. At least not in my life and in the lives of most of my readers.
The healing process is slow. Really bloody slow. Most often we take three steps backward for every four forward.
The most difficult task for me — and for many believers — is to weed out the illness from the spiritual flat tire. Because yes, depression can be a telltale sign that something is amiss in our lives, that some aspect in our marriage, in our jobs, in our relationship with God needs attention. It’s screaming: “Yo, me! Some care, please… over here!” That is, if we slow down long enough to listen. And I don’t mean just depression. Any illness — arthritis, chronic fatigue, sinus infections — can indicate that a piece of our mind-body-spirit puzzle is hiding underneath the couch cushion, waiting to be found.
I agree with author Tim Farrington who writes in his forthcoming memoir, “A Hell of Mercy,” that “doubt as to whether you are in a dark night or ‘just depressed’ is probably a very good sign; it means you’re alive and paying attention and that life has you baffled, which is the precondition for truth in my experience.” And I also agree with Peter Kramer, author of “Listening to Prozac” and “Against Depression” that with more education and research, depression will be stripped of its charm and its virtues, that “we idealize depression, associating it with perceptiveness, interpersonal sensitivity and other virtues.” When treatment for depression becomes routine, Kramer asserts, “we may find that heroic melancholy is no more.”
I know my position sounds wishy-washy: because either depression is an illness that we treat systematically without regard to the life of the spirit, or we pray away our sadness, because, if we believe enough, Jesus really will tap us on the hand and make it all go away.
The water between those continents is murky, and I wade in it every morning as I pray. Even as I write this, I’m blasting Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” hoping it will give me the spiritual gas that I need to drive my bipolar car, to ignore the negative intrusive thoughts and keep writing these paragraphs. An hour ago, when my jumbled brain and I sat down in front of a blank screen, I prayed that God make me an instrument, a mere pencil in his hands.
Every day my biggest job is to try to grow my faith as a person living with a mental illness. I ask God to help me know what my job is … the cognitive behavioral techniques, the gratitude worksheets, a better sleep schedule, more therapy, or less caffeine and chocolate. And then I beg him to take the rest … all the stuff I’m pretty sure I can’t control.
I agree with Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche, an international work of communities for the mentally disabled, that the healing process is gradual for the majority of believers. It’s no tap on the arm. Vanier writes in “Be Not Afraid”:
Being reborn in Jesus is not rapid for many of us. It is a quiet, gentle growth, like the growth of the child in the womb of his mother and like his gradual growth in knowledge, affection, physical strength, and understanding after birth. The healing power of the Spirit is a quiet, gentle power. He makes die in us all the fears, the desire to possess or to destroy, the hurts and the frustrations, all the power which wants to dominate. There is a growth in the power of listening, the power of compassion, of patience, of learning to wait for the hour of God. We learn to surrender to the power of the Spirit and the power of God, to stop agitating, to let God take over our lives, to abandon ourselves to the Supreme Healer.