God of the Tar Pits

*trigger warning: self-harm, suicide*

Part 1 of 2

I always felt sorry for prehistoric animals that died in tar pits and whose fossils scientists have since discovered. The lucky ones would die by being attacked by opportunistic predators; the unlucky ones would have to wait. They would either starve or suffocate in the thick muck, their deaths drawn out and agonizing. In my experience, this is what depression has felt like, and as a Christian with depression, the tar pit is especially draining.  Other Christians wander around you and dish out advice like, “You’re letting the devil have his way,” “You must be doing something wrong and it’s weighing you down,” or “Just pray that God will take you away from this.”

Christianity has been slow when it comes to recognizing mental illness. In the recent past, the most commonly-held belief (especially in Evangelical circles) was that having depression, anxiety, or any of the wide range of mental ailments was a spiritual weakness. Historically, this is a shift from much earlier thoughts about mental illness. Many saints who exhibited classic symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses were actually held up as examples of holiness. St. Margaret of Cortona was a cutter, Therese of Lisieux starved herself and most likely died because of it, and St. Augustine went through intense periods of depression. As time went on and the Catholic Church no longer became the sole representation of Christianity, intentionally inflicting suffering upon the body and mind through starvation, cutting, or other means no longer became popular. This isn’t to say that the Catholic Church still encourages this kind of suffering; it too has gone through many evolutions, but it does tend to admire suffering as a way to get closer to Christ a lot more than other denominations. Those denominations emphasize joy, and not being joyful is often linked to due to a lack of faith or even selfishness. There are still many Christians (who have influence) who hold to this and scold sufferers of anxiety and depression, saying, “It’s a commandment to never worry, and by being anxious or depressed, you are sinning.”

It’s gotten a little better out there; countless churches and spiritual counselors recognize the progress of science and the fact that mental illness is not a character weakness, but the result of numerous factors like genetics, brain chemistry, and situational events. Still, do an Internet search on “Christians and depression” and you see articles with titles like, “How can Christians be depressed?” “Should Christians take medication for depression?” and, “Is it a sin to be depressed?” Even when depression is recognized for what it is, the solutions include things like, “Pray more,” and, “Read the Bible.” When famous pastor and author Rick Warren’s son committed suicide, it sparked a heated debate in the Christian community about how a Christian could succumb to suicide and if Rick Warren’s son was in heaven or not. John Piper, a major figure in Baptist and Evangelical circles, reluctantly admits that medication is useful for mental illness, but should only be used temporarily because working with peoples’ minds is “tricky.” His comments mirror a talk I had with a former partner, who was uneasy when I first went on antidepressants because he didn’t “trust” doctors. He suggested I try to take a more natural route. As someone who experiences systematic and constant suicidal thoughts and behaviors without medication, these conversations are terrifying.

Though I suspect I have had clinical depression since I was ten years old, it never truly affected my life until I was older. In high school, the depression took control. I spent weeks lying on the couch instead of attending school. When I wasn’t watching TV, I was sedating myself with melatonin capsules, a natural supplement that is supposed to be regulate sleep schedules, but affected me like a powerful sleep drug. My high school was a private, Christian school that made much of its sense of community, but when I was at my lowest, it never reached me. No one emailed me or picked up the phone. In a class of 9 people, we were all close, at least in proximity. Perhaps they believed I needed space and privacy, but if they knew anything about mental illness, they would have known complete isolation is not the answer. Isolation reaffirms dangerous thoughts like, “Would anyone notice if I died?” and, “No one cares about me.” I started seeing a counselor at a Christian therapy clinic, but she seemed to believe that me just talking about my problems was enough to solve them. She failed to realize that I wasn’t confused about my feelings; I needed solutions on how to manage them. The counselor rarely spoke and after nearly a year of talking to myself, I just never made another appointment.

For my first year of college, I went to Northwestern College (now the University of Northwestern), a Christian college known for having famed evangelist Billy Graham serve as its president for a number of years. It wasn’t my first choice, but because my senior year in high school had gone so poorly, I hoped to heal in a somewhat familiar environment and then make a decision about staying on or transferring. I also hoped I would find friends who would give me the company I had lacked my last year of high school, but after months of trying to forge connections, I was perpetually lonely and struggling with getting to class every day. My self-harm and suicidal thoughts peaked while I observed others quickly form friend groups and enjoy the daily required chapel. I ate most of my meals alone and accepted the $100 fine for skipping too many chapels. When I started self-harming again and thinking of specific ways to kill myself, I followed the proper procedure and informed my RA, who referred me to the resident hall director, who in turn told me to go to the free therapist on campus. She was much better than my first counselor because she actually offered advice, but it was hard to follow because I didn’t have friends to help me with my increasingly debilitating social anxiety. While in high school I had only suffered from numbing depression, college brought on muscle-shaking anxiety as well.

Because anxiety is so different than depression, it’s odd how often they are paired. While with depression, I stopped caring about anything and everyone, anxiety made me too care way too much. I believed everyone was watching my every move and judging me. I spent hours planning out how I would conduct myself during the day, what I would say, how I would dress, and if something happened that wasn’t in my plan, I freaked out. Even when I was just lying in bed, I worried that I would forget how to breathe. I once heard that anxiety is actually an evolutionary trait leftover from when humans were in constant danger. That innate fear told them to run when something chased them and to be on the alert for predators at all times. However, as life changed, that need for fear dissipated. Anxiety is when the brain confuses harmless situations for dangerous ones, and sends a flood of adrenaline through the sufferer telling them, “You’re going to die! Run or hide!” Instead of running from animals, I ran from making phone calls, saying hello to people I recognized, or sitting next to strangers in chapel.

The anxiety got so bad that during prayer sessions with my dorm floor, when I became especially emotionally-vulnerable, I would have panic attacks that everyone (including me) mistook for demonic possession. The girls would hold me down and pray aloud until I calmed down. These exorcisms were usually followed by lectures on how to avoid succumbing to demonic attacks, which made me feel guilty. Satisfied with their participation in my healing, most of the students would go back to their rooms, leaving me exhausted and scared. No one mentioned the word “depression” or “anxiety” or asked if the medication I was on had side effects. No one seemed to have any sort of knowledge about what a full-blown panic attack looked like, let alone how to treat one. As the school year continued, I started having waking nightmares where I saw demons on the ceiling and sitting on my chest. At the time, I didn’t know that I was experiencing sleep paralysis, a phenomenon where the sufferer becomes unable to move and hallucinates figures (often demonic ones) in the room. This condition has been recognized for centuries and billions of people have experienced it at some point in their lives. Some (like me) experience it regularly and are unable to move for long stretches of time, often hours, while hallucinating or even hearing voices. When I brought it up to my floor, the RA told my roommates and I that our room had a history of spiritual warfare and to try praying Scripture over the beds before we slept. It didn’t help.

My freshman year was long and hard, and as the year ended and I went through with my plans to transfer colleges, I promised myself that I would try to stay close to the few people I had managed to connect to. After they ignored my texts and broke our plans, I gave up. The person I had felt closest to, my RA who shared my love of English, unfriended me on Facebook, severing my only connection to her. I remembered lying on the floor of her dorm room, weeping, and feel a twinge of regret that I became so vulnerable to a person who didn’t deserve my trust. I felt betrayed. These people were fellow Christians; our relationships were supposed to mean something. Had they just pretended to be nice to me because they felt bad about my desire to put my head in an oven? I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have had an easier time making friends if I didn’t have depression. Once again, I felt that mental illness had held me back in a big way. I was letting it win and people could smell it on me. I was like a wounded animal caught in a pit; something to be pitied, but also avoided.

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