The Cross and the Bell Jar


“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.” - Sylvia Plath


The first time I remember consciously wanting to kill myself was during a chapel service at Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas. I was scheduled to preach.

Members of the traveling ministry team I was a part of were leading worship, and I was sitting on the front row of the sanctuary, going over my sermon notes. I closed my eyes to pray, but instead saw the image of a specific, particularly curvy hillside road by my house. I imagined driving my car over the railing. I heard a voice inside my head say, “Tonight. Just do it. Get it over with.” I was terrified that I could even think such a thing. I was even more frightened by how my body responded to that thought. There was almost a magnetic pulling. I wanted to die. I wrestled with that thought until my name was called and I got up to the pulpit to preach about the victorious power of the Holy Spirit.

*     *     *

I have suffered from major depression and anxiety disorders since I was in the second grade. Though I do not have much memory of it, my mom recounts me coming directly home from school and then going straight to bed, neither wanting to eat or play. I remember breaking out in hives on a pretty regular basis. I have frequent panic attacks, as well as what I affectionately refer to as “night terrors” where I wake up in a suffocating panic because I believe I have died or because I forget where I am and overwhelmingly feel unsafe.

But for the majority of my life I haven’t had the right words to express my experience. My young, undeveloped mind did not know the proper way to articulate what I felt in those times, let alone how to express that I needed help. Growing up in the church, I was told repeatedly that words like “depression,” “anxiety,” and “mental illness” were just the corrupt world’s way to explain and excuse away a spiritual condition. What these people were feeling was either conviction from unresolved sin in their lives or just plain dissatisfaction that comes from believing in secular humanism.

If I close my eyes, I can still hear booming pentecostal voices proclaim that “we don’t have a mental health problem in America, we have a sin problem in America!” Americans would rather come out of the closet than clean it, and psychiatrists were more than happy to just give them a pill and tell them it was all okay. But we knew the only real cure for these problems was complete surrender to the healing work of Jesus Christ.

It is interesting, now that I am looking back on it, that I mostly heard this talk from traveling evangelists. It makes me wonder if the issue of mental health was one that needed to be addressed at different churches in bigger cities. Because in the tiny New Mexico oil town where I was raised, the idea that anyone, whether Christian or Atheist, could talk openly and safely about their depression seemed laughable.

I didn’t believe in depression, but I was depressed. I had to explain this somehow. Going with what I was taught, I believed that what I was feeling was either the result of sin in my life or because of demonic forces that were trying to impede my ability to bring glory to God.

So I prayed. I prayed a lot. I would feel worse because I didn’t feel better so I would pray some more. I repented for everything I could think of. I repented for not being able to receive forgiveness and feel better.  I constantly searched for any unnoticed sin in my life so that I could cut it out. As you can imagine, that only amplified the sexual shame I was feeling for my budding teenage body (and the connected sexuality). This is not to say that there weren’t good times. Most of the time, I was happy and confident in my relationship with God. I had good relationships and felt well loved a lot of the time.

But depression can come on you like a wave. And when it would hit me, I would spiral out for weeks, and then eventually months and years. Sometimes praying up to six hours a day, becoming increasingly despondent by the fact that not only was I still depressed, but I felt even worse than before. I became fascinated with the practice of self-flagellation. Like the medieval monks before me, I physically harmed myself in the hopes of finally being freed from my mental anguish. But it didn’t work.

*     *     *

And so, perhaps inevitably, on a beautiful spring day, right before preaching a sermon at a Christian college in central Texas, I had the idea to end my life.

I rebuked it. I cast out whatever demon it was that was putting that thought into my head. But the thought persisted. For weeks, I could not go to sleep without playing soothing worship music to help drown out my thoughts. But even then, my brain would get stuck in a loop of sayings. My thoughts would just repeat:
kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself.

Over time, that voice started to seem more and more logical. Perhaps death was the only way to end feeling so sad and numb and broken all the time. I was clearly a sinner, too weak to stand against the work of Satan. Maybe I didn't deserve to live.

I tried to seek help, of course. But only in accordance to my own understanding. At altar calls and during prayer meetings and at bible studies, I would tell people that I was under “a lot of attack from the enemy” and have them pray for me. Some people would gently accuse me of being weak in my faith. There would always be someone who suggested that I check my heart to make sure there wasn’t any unresolved sin.

When I talked to pastors and spiritual leaders about my problems, again only speaking in opaque and highly spiritualized terms, I was told to be strong and claim the victory that I had in Christ. I sometimes got the impression that I was seen as a bit of a Ned Flanders. Maybe a little too spiritual and sensitive for my own good. And I get that. I was clinging to God to survive, but on the surface that can look just like pompous religiosity.
I do remember using the word “depression” a handful of times, because I distinctly remember my pastor telling me that I had nothing to be depressed about. I was told I was just letting the enemy walk all over me. What I needed to do was just claim my victory in Christ and then start living like it was so. Especially because I was in leadership and there is an expectation that we present ourselves as spiritual strong and put together.

I am not alone in this kind of experience. I am lucky to be part of a highly irreverent support group of “former fundamentalists” and I asked them how their church dealt with any mental illnesses they had and the responses were heartbreaking, but also very similar in nature. As one friend put it,  “Any struggles with this stuff were definitely seen as moral, spiritual, and personal failures. Help was not offered, but sometimes punishment was.”

One friend was told she was a “satanist” because she was depressed (and wore black) and a “sexual deviant” because she self-harmed.
Another had an exorcism done on her to “cast out the spirit of fear” from her to treat her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
One person’s mom would point to other people who had issues “but got through it just fine all on their own” to guilt her for still struggling with her sadness.

Several of us tried our best to find refuge in the Psalms or Ecclesiastes or Jesus’ struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane. That maybe it was okay to be sad.
Some of us believed we were meant to suffer. That this was for a greater purpose.
A lot of us blamed ourselves.
But this all just a small sample. Stories like this are countless. You probably know a few stories yourself, don’t you?
Doing a little research this morning, it does seem like the Evangelical church is doing better at recognizing mental health issues and addressing them more appropriately. The lateness of this response is, to me, more evidence that the church does not transform culture but instead follows begrudgingly after it.

It should also be noted that of the Christian responses to mental illness that I’ve read today, most still included sin as at least an indirect explanation for depression. Focus on the Family lists “true guilt,” “a wrong perspective,” and “attacks by Satan” as some of the potential causes of mental illness, and its founder James Dobson (a psychologist, by the way) has said that women get depressed because of “low self-esteem” or because of loneliness or sexual problems, instead of more appropriately viewing those issues as symptoms of an actual mental disease that isn’t actually “caused” by behavior.

The last three to four years that I identified as a Christian were spent with more mental anguish than I am really even able to describe. The more I sought God for help, the further away He seemed. The more I reached out to my Christian brothers and sisters, the more I felt like an outcast and sinner. If the Christian life is a victorious one, then I must not be a Christian. I cried out to God from places of deep agony and loneliness. I wept on my face for hours on end. I cried until I could not cry anymore. Eventually I got up and walked away.

Whenever a Christian asks me why I walked away from God, I talk about philosophy or how I don’t feel the Bible is historically accurate, or something else academic and logical, but that isn’t the full truth. I didn’t walk away from God. I called out. I waited. I still wait. God walked away from me.

And so yes, I have a little bit of bitterness against Christianity for not only ignoring my suffering, but for shaming me for it. There is a reason why being in a church can give me panic attacks. From my experience, the church has a great deal of compassion for sinners, but far less patience with the saints that suffer in their midst.

They remind me of the friends of Job. If you remember the story, they all first visited Job in his suffering, confused as to why he just lost all of his belongings and was covered in disease. Job 2:12-13 tells us that they reacted by weeping with him and just sitting with him in silence for seven days. This is what us liberal snowflakes call “holding space.” Not offering judgement or solutions or anything other than empathy and love. It is beautiful and usually can help a person in mental anguish more than they can usually tell you. Job’s friends did wonderfully. Until they opened their mouths.

As we know from the rest of the story, Job’s friends counseled, condemned, and questioned Job. This was all done with good intentions, perhaps even loved. But the friends were all wrong. Their counsel was just another form of suffering. And I will say that the majority of my experience with the church has been of the friend’s talking kind. Very rarely the holding space kind. And I hope you can understand why I am very wary of Christian community. It feels more condemning than safe, no matter how good the intention.

But I cannot fully blame anyone for not knowing the full extent of my suffering. I did not have the right words to use. I was also embarrassed and ashamed and so I hid it for years. People who knew me back then have told me they had no idea I was down at all. They just thought I was super spiritual and loved to pray. This will be the first that a lot of people have ever heard of any of this.
And I am certain that some of those people would have provided me with a lot of love and care had I the ability to express my need for that. You know who you are. And I love you.

So while I can forgive my all too human brothers and sisters, God—who can hear my every thought and knows my every feeling—well, that’s another issue entirely.

Because from my perspective, the only reason that an all loving, all powerful God could allow so many of us to suffer with such seemingly cruel intensity is if there is some overriding good that comes as a direct result of this pain or because some greater evil would occur had we not experienced it.

And that’s easy to speculate about when your world isn’t on fire. It’s easy to imagine that there could be a reason why God could allow suffering and still be perfectly loving until you lose the ability to trust your own thoughts and intuition, or until you find yourself terrified all the time, or until the entire world turns grey and you find no delight or feeling in anything.

And maybe there is a reason that God saw me those four different times: in the kitchen, in the bathtub, in an abandoned mall parking lot, on my living room floor. And maybe God even intervened just enough to stop me in each instance from taking my own life. If so, I am thankful. I am certainly glad to be alive.

But I still suffer. Even now, as I write this, I suffer. I have a wonderful therapist and a lot of resources and good friends to hold space with me. But I still suffer. My mental illness causes me to isolate a lot. It has hurt my ability to have intimate relationships. It has impeded my career. I am getting better. But there has been a lot of damage done over the years. There is a lot to unpack and work through.


And whether or not this was done by design—for some greater purpose that I may never fully understand—I have survived without any noticeable help from God.

And that frankly makes me think I am better off without Him.

Comments

  1. "From my experience, the church has a great deal of compassion for sinners, but far less patience with the saints that suffer in their midst." This quote is powerful. And a good reminder to me as I do my work as a pastor. Thanks for this. I'm holding space with you my friend.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment