Balancing Religion and Mental Illness Recovery
Photo credits to Katie Moretta
I hear it often, in different forms: "When they found out about my mental illness they told me to just increase my faith in God and pray more." Because of this complete misunderstanding of the pain mental illness brings, these people have pushed back, pushed away, cut themselves off from elements of the Church that might seem to be heralding this over-simplified, over-spiritualized version of mental illness recovery. Because recovery doesn't work like that. It just... it just doesn't. Don't get me wrong. God can cure any illness- physical or mental- in a second. But sometimes that is not how things are supposed to go. Sometimes He permits suffering (note that I said "permits" and not "wills"). But why? The best thing I've heard about God's permission of suffering is a quote by C.S. Lewis in his book The Case for Christianity:
"God created things which had free will... And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having."
It's powerful and true. Our free will, which is a magnificent gift because it allows us to pursue authentic love and joy, is also the source of our pain. And back to these beloved children of God who have backed away from the Church, no thanks to a misunderstanding of mental illness and the power of suffering- to you, dear friends: it's time to stop running. Mental illness recovery is a taxing, exhausting, full-time job, but I have found that relying on God has only made my recovery easier. It is a balance.
Over-simplifying mental illness to a mere lack of faith only causes pain and confusion. It turns prayer into a magic spell- and with a flick of the wrist and an especially graceful sign of the cross we will all be made sane! The fact is that mental illness is an illness and God is not a magical gnome that lives under my front step. But that doesn't mean that delving deeper into our faith won't help. And just because having more faith may help doesn't mean that we can disregard the physical things- the therapy, the medication, the doctor's appointments, the supportive people we surround ourselves with. In fact, in believing that God will help us through recovery, it becomes even more important to take advantage of these things, as they are gifts from God in this time of need.
I wasn't able to pray my mental illness away. I prayed fervently for sanity, and I only seemed to get worse. But what did come was an opportunity. God didn't leave me stranded- He gave me people I could confide in, who could help me work up the courage to go to the doctor's, where I could be referred to therapy, where I could be prescribed medication that helps. And through it all, I trust that He is guiding me where I need to go. I trust that following the doctor's instructions is following God's plan for me at this moment, leading me to health, where I can live my best life. I trust that God is showing me the next right thing, and that when I slip He will help me back up.
That makes it sound easy to balance faith and therapy. It's not easy, I know. A characteristic of most mental illnesses is a feeling of hopelessness. Faith and hopelessness are pretty much mutually exclusive, so how can I have hope when I feel so hopeless? When St. Therese went through a huge bought of terrifying spiritual darkness, she "hoped against hope" that God was still close, loving her. Even amidst the emptiness and extreme guilt that she was experiencing, she mustered all her strength in hope that He would allow her to feel, once again, the love and mercy He poured out on her (that He pours out on all of us!).
But there are times when our mental state takes entirely away from our ability to pray. St. Teresa of Avila said that, "Prayer is an act of love; words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love." God hears you. God sees you. And He is waiting, with open arms, for each of us to surrender all the pain and suffering we are experiencing at His feet. (Even the saints are backing us up, here!)
Having faith in God to heal your pain is only half of the process. The other half is in following through with treatment, staying honest with yourself about what you need, learning about yourself, nurturing yourself, reaching out to others, and to keep moving forward, one tiny recovery step at a time. And with each step, to know that Jesus is by your side eternally, supporting you.
Rest your head on his shoulder and take heart. He has already overcome every suffering there is (John 16:33), and He has not forgotten yours.
Here is a prayer that really helps me when it seems like everything is falling to pieces, adapted from the ancient prayer of St. John Chrysostom:
Lord, stretch out Your mighty hand and Your sublime and holy arm, and in Your watchful care look down upon me, Your creature and send down upon me a peaceful angel, a mighty angel, a guardian soul and body, who will rebuke and drive away every evil and unclean demon from me. For You alone are Lord, Most High, almighty and blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
Originally published on The Purple Seastar