I’m in the middle of a series on where to turn when we who suffer from mental illness are supposed to turn when those who are supposed to care for us (personally or professionally) don’t do that. Today I deal with turning to a higher power which (while not part of everyone’s journey) is an important aspect of recovery for a great many of those with mental illness. There’s been a lot writing on this subject, so I’m focusing on my own experience, as that’s about the only unique thing I have to draw on.
Letting Go Of Guilt
Mental illnesses such as depression can cause guilt without any external stimulus. When your brain is misfiring and not producing enough of the neurotransmitters that let you feel happy or content, you can’t very easily feel happy with yourself. I do my best to take my meds as prescribed, but if I forget them for two days in a row, I’m beating myself up by evening.
But mental illness can cause guilt problems in another way: when you’re too sick to work (or if you have co-occurring problems that screw up your life, such as drug addiction), you start building up a backlog of things to feel guilty about. For example, I am almost 35 and have never supported myself financially. When you look around and see your friends buying houses, but you’re barely able to help pay the rent on your tiny apartment, it gets to you.
Faith is, for me, one way to cope with that. I’m a Christian. Forgiveness is a core tenant of Christianity, and it means far more than just the sweeping of past transactions under the rug. Forgiveness as the New Testament explains it means that God will not only continue loving us despite our past (a potentially life-altering concept in a world of performance-based love), but that He promises to help us build a better, more meaningful life. Theologians call this concept “Regeneration.” A psychologist might call it “hope for recovery” or “positive thinking.” I call it “the ability to believe in God when I can’t believe in myself.”
Letting Go Of Other People’s Problems
A lot of what the counselors said when I was the in the psych ward has stuck with me, but I remember one thing in particular. “You guys are givers.” I think it’s true that those with mental illness often (though of course not always) are helpers. When there’s a primary stressor that triggers and episode (and not all episodes have primary stressors), it is often the demands of caring for someone else, either through a genuine caregiver relationship (as for a sick child, parent, or other loved one) or through becoming mentally enmeshed in someone else’s life (what psychologists call co-dependency).
Right now, I’m learning how to avoid the “enmeshing” part. I have a friend (who also happens to be my next-door neighbor) who is in a neglectful and emotionally abusive relationship. The things her partner says and does (like refusing to help care for their two young children even though his wife is at high risk of miscarrying the third if she does not rest) genuinely shock me.
There is, however, only so much I can do. I can drive her to her doctor’s appointments so she doesn’t have to haul two kids through the wet spring snows to the bus stop. I can give her some of our food or drive her to food banks so his own children don’t go hungry when he blows his paycheck on booze. I can give her phone numbers of organizations that can help. I can call the cops when I hear him screaming at her about spending “his money” or interfering with “his day off.” But that’s all. I can’t make her leave him. I can’t force her partner to grow up, man up and step up.
This is where my higher power comes in. My faith tradition teaches that God can change hearts, prompt action, and even perform miracles of provision. Where my hand ends, His begins. By praying for my neighbor, I can more easily let go of her issues. I don’t have to let them bother me until I burn out and stop caring, nor do I have to grant help I can’t mentally or financially afford. For me at least, faith helps in maintaining healthy boundaries (though is it no means required for them).
Finally, I think turning to a higher power can help those with mental illness by enabling them to give back. Almost every faith tradition on planet Earth has some kind of “take care of others” requirement in its behavior guidelines. One doesn’t have to be spiritual to give, but even for the most naturally giving of people, mental illness warps character and makes it easy to sink into one’s own misery. For me, “God wants me to do this” is a powerful counter to “but I don’t feel like it.” The fact that giving helps blunt the guilt and makes me feel like I’ve done something worthwhile is a pleasant side effect.
Also, I’ve learned nobody has to be rich, totally self-reliant, or even “not living well below the poverty line” in order to give back. Every person’s skills can be used in the service of others. I’m good at internet-based research and I have a web connection. Being able to quickly locate the phone numbers of any one of my city’s hundreds of aid organizations can be a lifesaver to someone who needs their help. I think the same is true for anyone, and it’s as simple as asking “what am I good at?” and “how can I use that to help?”
What do you think? Has your faith helped you deal with your illness? How?