Psychoanalysis was not always seen as incompatible with Christianity. No less a thinker than C. S. Lewis, the great writer on Christianity, said that Christianity takes up where psychotherapy leaves off. In his book, Mere Christianity, Lewis makes a distinction between Freud’s treatment methods and his theories, saying that the theories were in direct opposition to Christianity but the practice was not. The job of psychotherapy was seen as identifying what was in a person’s way of becoming the person they wanted to be: irrational thoughts, fears, complexes, etc. Lewis writes, “The bad psychological material is not a sin, but a disease. It does not need to be repented of, but to be cured.” And many churches do offer counseling services now with licensed social workers or therapists in recognition that Christians can benefit from psychotherapy from an explicitly Christian standpoint.
I’m not saying that my church was unsupportive. My Sunday School class has been nothing but supportive and understanding of my condition, checking on me when I was in the hospital and praying for me whenever I requested it. My pastors have been faithful to pray with me whenever I’ve requested it during an altar call and individual consultations. Those who did not understand I have forgiven and feel no malice towards. I just pray that the church can continue to make progress in learning about mental illness and how to minister to those who have it.
Another belief found in church circles is a suspicion of psychiatry and psychotherapy themselves. They often cite the stereotype of the doctor steeped in Freudian theories who obsessively questions your thoughts about sex and about your father.
Nothing could be further from the therapy offered by today’s modern practitioners. Modern talk therapy concentrates on giving a person coping skills to handle their symptoms in all facets of their lives. Various therapies exist, but cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy are the most common therapies that social workers and therapists are trained in.
Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on how a person’s thoughts and feelings affect their behaviors. Establishing the feelings and thoughts behind disruptive behaviors is seen as critical to understanding why a person behaves a certain way and aids that person in finding new behaviors that do not depend on faulty thinking and believing.
Interpersonal therapy concentrates on the relationships a person has with others with an eye to improving those relationships through specific strategies and self-awareness. It is particularly helpful with bipolar disorder in that it helps the sufferer understand self-isolation and difficulties getting along with others by educating them on how to better interact with the people in that person’s life. People with bipolar disorder tend to have disordered relationships because their manic and depressed behaviors can wreak havoc on relationships that are formed on a basis of trust because the bipolar person’s emotions are often distorted by the disorder.
Another common belief in the church is that mental illness has its roots in the demonic. People who hear voices are hearing evil spirits that have somehow inserted themselves in their lives. I’ve heard about a “spirit of suicide” and a “spirit of bipolar”. The Bible does speak to people being possessed by unclean spirits being mentally ill; witness the story of the Gadarene demoniac, whom Jesus healed by casing his unclean spirits into a herd of pigs.
However, the only problem with that belief is that voices, suicidal impulses, and bipolar symptoms do respond to medication. The right medicine can make the voices go away. I’ve read this experience in testimony after testimony about the efficacy of drugs in helping paranoid schizophrenics silence their voices with anti-psychotics. Evil spirits don’t respond to drugs. The brain does. That being said, I don’t deny that miraculous healing can happen. I’ve seen it over and over throughout my church experience. And since bipolar disorder is a disorder of the brain, I don’t doubt you can be healed of it miraculously.
However, that is not to say that you should not pursue every medical avenue possible to aid in your healing. That leads to another belief prevalent in Christian circles—that taking psychotropic drugs is a sign of unbelief or lack of reliance on God to bring you through a depression. Early in my recovery, I called a young lady I knew who suffered a serious clinical depression for advice on how to deal with my diagnosis. She described some harrowing experiences, including such a deeply depressed mood that her husband considered committing her to the state mental hospital.
At that point, I believe I was taking an eight-drug cocktail to try to bring me out of my depression. So I asked her about her medication. She said she did not take any. She quoted the scripture that Israel, instead of relying on God to win a military battle for them, made an alliance with Egypt instead for help. God told them that since they put more faith in the “horses and chariots of Egypt” than in him, that they were going to lose the battle. And they did. She likened taking medication to not having faith in God to heal you. She said that she simply “prayed without ceasing” and she believed that her show of faith in doing that led to her coming out of the depression.
Again I was crushed. I felt put down and degraded where I had been looking for encouragement. I could see the analogy she was making, but I felt that it was a misapplication of Scripture to liken mental illness to God’s relationship with Israel. I wondered if she would tell a Type I diabetic to stop taking insulin. Insulin is produced by the pancreas and is necessary for life. The Type I diabetic does not produce any insulin and so has to take it in shots or pumps or risk death. If bipolar disorder is a shortage of chemicals in the brain, and medication can stimulate their production, who in their right mind wouldn’t take the medication? But suspicion of psychotropic medications is deeply ingrained in some Christians’ belief systems.
I may also have been reacting to some of the comments from various people about my condition. From the beginning, I was very open about it to my church family. However, my church has over 2,000 members. One of the foundational doctrines of the Baptist branch of the Christian church is the “priesthood of the believer”, generally meaning that we don’t rely on a priest, preacher, pastor, or other teacher to go to God on our behalf or to interpret the word of God for us. Any believer can “boldly enter the throne room” of God and make requests known and listen for the voice of God through his Word, the Bible.
In practical terms, this doctrine can lead to as many different interpretations of the Word of God as there are believers, which is one reason why there are so many Protestant denominations and so many separate church organizations. Believers are not immune to error; only God is. And just as many different ideas about mental illness exist in the church as exist in society.
One belief I ran into very early on when I was suffering a depression after Hurricane Katrina was expressed by a young woman in a preschool mothers’ group I attended shortly after the hurricane. A woman had come and talked to our group about her experience with depression. We were having small group discussions afterwards, and I had poured out my story about my experiences with depression, particularly postpartum, in the past and after Katrina.
I finished my tale, and the young woman next to me looked at the group leader and said these words: “I just don’t see how you can have Jesus in your heart and be depressed.”
Her words hit me like a wrecking ball. I simply shut up and did not contribute any more to the discussion. Again, depression is not always an issue of the emotions or circumstances. It can be an issue of an imbalance of chemicals in your brain. Having Jesus in your heart makes the difference in eternal life or eternal destruction in the afterlife and can give you hope when hope seems very, very remote. But David was a man after God’s own heart who suffered from depression. Read the Psalms.
In my journal in October 2010, I wrote this line: “I think I’m a spiritual burn victim. I went through the fire and came out damaged and did not heal correctly.”
My journal is unclear as to what circumstance exactly prompted me to write this line down. I don’t think invented the phrase “spiritual burn victim”; a google search brought up five instances of those three words being used together in Christian circles. I do not know where I heard it from. But I do remember certain feelings I had when I wrote it, however.
I had gone through the year without being hospitalized inpatient, so I know I was feeling better than I had been in the past few years as far as my depression went. I had written earlier that I felt like a new medicine had a “miraculous” effect on my mood in that it helped me avoid hospitalization. But my emotions were still very sensitive and raw. I was experiencing nothing but rejection in my creative writing career when I had experienced nothing but success with my freelance writing.
I remember thinking the analogy was apt. Christians going through trials often speak of going “through fire”. I felt like whatever fire I had gone through, I was not able to heal before the next trial came along. And I felt that instead of developing healthy new spiritual skin after each trial, my soul was being covered in ugly scar tissue, making me less sensitive to other people’s pain and only aware of my own.