I grew up hearing sermons preaching that true Christians, people who had a “good” relationship with Jesus, would never be depressed. I was told that God, and only God, can make you happy. Being “depressed,” therefore, was just a result of not being a good enough Christian.
We didn’t talk about depression as a family, or any other mental illness for that matter, but I did know that some relatives were on medications for them. In general, any kind of symptom of mental illness was perceived as a personal shortcoming that could be cured through having more faith. In later years, my parents became convinced that these things were caused by demonic activity.
I absorbed this information and believed it to be true when I was young, but I was also uncomfortable and confused as over time, I began struggling with these sinful things like over-active anxiety, compulsive thoughts and actions, and persistent, overwhelming sadness. Some of it started fairly early on; I think I was around 9 years old when I discovered the Bible verses that talk about the unpardonable sin. My family was reading through the gospels for evening devotions and I still remember the cold chill I got when I heard Mark 3:28-29: “Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.” I remember some confusion because I had been repeatedly told that “nothing you do is too much for Jesus to forgive” yet here was a clear example of something Jesus would never forgive–but that’s another story. The point is that my mind latched on to the idea of accidentally committing this unforgivable offence, and gripped it hard. Of course, I had never uttered a swear word, not even “gosh” or “jeez”, but that didn’t matter to my overly-energetic anxiety; it just took that fear and ran with it. What if I’d cursed the Holy Spirit in the past and forgotten? What if I accidentally said it in the future? The very idea of slipping up and spending an eternity in hellfire because of it paralyzed me with fear.
I spent many sleepless nights tossing and turning with a tight knot of fear in my stomach. I had fairly frequent panic attacks but was too afraid/embarrassed to tell anyone about it. Around this time, I already had problems with my sensitive stomach and this only made it worse; I was nauseous almost every night and spent a lot of time puking. My anxiety and fear began morphing into compulsive behaviours I thought might protect me. I began chanting things under my breath constantly, prayers or pleas begging for me to not condemned. These chants became an integral part of my life for a few years, along with compulsive hand-washing that left my hands painfully chapped and swollen, and my obsession with perfection in everything from my schoolwork to scrubbing and sterilizing surfaces that frustrated everyone, including myself.
I didn’t want to do these things; I felt I had to. I didn’t like taking three times longer than the average person to clean my hands, brush my teeth, do my daily chores, or really do most basic things, but I couldn’t see a way where I could cut corners without risking disaster. Part of me longed to be free of the need to wash my hands each time I touched a light switch or doorknob, but I was deathly afraid that something terrible would happen if I stopped. The same thing went for the chanting, only the consequences I feared were so much worse–forget about germs, I was risking spending eternity in hell. Sometimes I was so overwhelmed by the weight of it all that I felt a type of hopeless exhaustion; facing an entire lifetime of this felt unbearable, but one slip-up and I could end up being punished forever, so I couldn’t risk relaxing my vigilance.
It wasn’t that my childhood was miserable; I have many happy memories from those years. I loved my family and they loved me too. But there is a continuous thread of anxiety, compulsive behaviours, and intense, prolonged feelings of hopelessness that runs through it all. Sometimes I could function almost “normally”; other times, I felt debilitated by it all.
Fast forward to just short of two years ago. I was 19 and going through major life stressors. It was a really dark time in my life, one that continues to haunt me to this day. I was struggling with self-harm and suicide ideation, and lost almost all interest in things I previously loved. Eventually, I went to the wellness center on my campus and filled out an intake form for mental health services. After several appointments and assessments, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, and possible obsessive compulsive disorder. Then we started the process of trying to find antidepressants to help with the symptoms. I would be prescribed a medication, try it for a couple months or until the side-effects became unbearable, whichever came first, and then schedule another appointment with my doctor where we would do the same old assessment and I would fill out the same old forms:
“How many times in the last two weeks did you have suicidal thoughts?”
“How many times in the last two weeks was your worry out of control?”
“On a scale of 1-10, how serious do you feel your current situation to be?”
It took me over a year to find a medication that seemed to help without also giving intolerable side effects. For the first 9 months, I couldn’t really eat yet still gained weight, battled nausea, and either slept way too much or not nearly enough, depending on the meds. The antidepressant I am currently on is fairly new and also a bit pricey; about $150 per month for my current dosage, but I was lucky to have relatives pay for my prescription until I could get an exception so my student insurance would cover most of it. While I still have bad days, overall the meds help reduce the severity of my symptoms and have most probably saved my life. I might eventually try to go off of them, but for now I wouldn’t trade the best mental stability I’ve had in years to find my “real” self. I remember what life was like without these meds, and I don’t want to go back.
After the teachings I was raised with, it wasn’t super easy to take the steps to seek help with it. Even though I know I was depressed before leaving my faith, I wasn’t honest with myself about it until I had renounced my religion. Sometimes, I felt myself blaming my apostasy for my mental illness, and I know several of my immediate family members do. However, I’m grateful that I did go seek help back then, because life has gotten better. Even though it took awhile to find the right one, my medication does help. Counselling from an actual professional instead of a pastor has made a big difference. And, I am also extremely lucky to have relatives who supported me during some of the darkest parts of my life.
The takeaway here: If religion tells you that your mental illness is your own shortcoming, then f*ck it. Mental illness is NOT your fault. You deserve to be happy. Life can get better. And you’re not alone.
Also, if you find your religion is blaming people for biological tendencies that they have no control over, and causing psychological trauma, then maybe you should reconsider it. Actually, forget the maybe–you need to reconsider. People’s mental stability, and ultimate their lives, are worth so much more than whatever comfort you are deriving from your beliefs.