Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Minefield of Mental Illness and the Church

The topic of how the church deals with mental health issues has been large in my mind the last couple of weeks. It started with a teaching I heard, continued with the comment thread on an article over at Her.meneutics, and ended with another teaching I heard. The things I have experienced in this arena all came flooding back and anger, fear, frustration, sadness...they all rode on the coattails of the teaching and comments.

So, some history. I grew up in a household - and in a broader sense, a denomination - that at best, distrusted the field of psychology and at wort mocked and ridiculed it. Now in the family dynamics, I understand that narcissists will nearly always have a great aversion to counselors/psychologists/therapists, etc., because they do not wish to be exposed. So my mother's aversion and ridicule of the profession is not surprising. But the church is another matter.

I understand that in the early days, a lot of people in the profession were openly against religion and that understandably created a reaction. However, that has changed even to the point that the American Psychiatric Association has acknowledged in their journals that incorporating a client's spiritual beliefs (and respecting same) is important to the treatment process. And some denominations have begun incorporating counseling into their staff. Cool. Great.

But, in my own experience, the "Christian" counselors put doctrine above psychological training - and in so doing, put doctrine ahead of the client's mental health. I have seen this. But what I saw in the comments and heard in the sermons is something that I find dangerous. Why dangerous? Because it sets people up to be abused - and it sets people up to be abusive - well meaning people end up using these doctrines and doing harm. So, what is it that I'm so worked up about?

Here are some statements:

- Depression is always demonic
- Depression is a sin
- There's no such thing as mental illness, it is all just demons

Okay, the sermon I heard laid out step by step instructions for how to recognize someone who was being overcome by demons and how to deliver them. I want to state, for the record, that I do believe that demons exist and that they harass and possess people. I've seen too much not to. But what was stated in this teaching was, to me, over the top. The description that was given of how to recognize someone who had fallen away from faith and was in the hands of demonic forces and needed intervention was identical to the list of symptoms of someone who is coming out of a cultish religiously abusive situation - reverting to old behaviors, cussing, not reading the Bible anymore... As I listened to this list, I realized that by the definition presented, they would have been trying to cast the demons out of me the whole time I was recovering/healing from the abuses of my past.

I was reminded that I have realized, several times over the last 5 years, that the religious people around me, if they witnessed one of my PTSD moments, would have been trying to cast the demons out of me. I actually was experiencing some PTSD symptoms while listening to this message and in the midst of this knew that if those around me knew what was going on, they would have applied what they were hearing and tried to exorcise me. Talk about some cognitive pain.

See, here's the thing: this teaching leaves no room for the normal mental/emotional effects of abuse or even just a traumatic event like an accident. An example that comes to mind is one of a 12 year old girl who was stood on a chair by the elders in her own home while they tried to cast the spirit of rebellion out of her. Within 18 or so months, she had run away from home, gotten pregnant - why? Because her father was emotionally abusive and her older sister was even more so and her home life was intolerable. But these church elders did not make inquiries - they just labeled her and tried to 'deliver' her and in doing so, made the trauma worse - and drove her away from God almost permanently.

This is the crux of what has me so angry and sad and agitated inside - this teaching can be emotionally deadly to those suffering from mental distress. For me, personally, it made it very difficult to even recognize that I needed professional help, let alone actually seek it. I actually reached the point where I tried to kill myself before I sought help - and then only because the only friend I trusted at the time insisted I get help or leave. And here's the thing - I was in so much emotional pain that in a combination of anger and just plain overwhelmed-ness, I took a bottle of Darvon and went to bed. As I began to fade into the blackness, I was afraid. I told God I was sorry - for everything, including not being strong enough.... And his presence flooded that room with such profound peace. I was settled - I was relaxed - I knew he was right there and as I faded out, I did not expect to wake up. 24 hours later, however, I did wake up and had to begin dealing with the reality that I was still here and my life was still a mess. If, in that state, I had been confronted by people who thought my problem was just that I needed to have the devil cast out of me, I think I might have gone insane. This was 24 years ago. I recently, because of the healing that has been taking place, realized that this incident happened within a couple of weeks of seeing the primary molester - the first time I had seen him in more than 10 years. And I had to interact with him in a family holiday setting for 48 hours - and no one else knew.... and it triggered an emotional meltdown. Well, duh!

That brings me to another point. First, I will say that there are some cases of mental illness that are demonic in nature. But to say all are is, to me, profoundly troubling. If you have read my blog, you already know this, but I will do a quick recap for those who haven't been around much before. As a child I was molested - repeatedly - by several people; first when I was 2 1/2 and then again through the period from 7 to 12 years old - all outside my home. In addition to this, I lived in an emotionally and verbally abusive home that was also physically abusive (whippings with a belt were part of potty training). All this in the midst of being in a deeply religious family with parents as church leaders. Straight up - this messed me up. Bad. Even now, after 4 years of therapy, I have trouble really admitting that things were really that bad.... And in order to just survive, I stuffed it all away in a box locked under the stairs in the cellar of my mind. But the contents of that box would not stay hidden (they never do). And finally, God led to a place - and put a friend in my life that would hold my hand through it - where I actually began looking at it and dealing with it. And that has required the help of someone professionally trained for that purpose, not unlike seeking an orthopedic surgeon for a crushed leg.

And I have encountered, over the last five years, religious advice on this. The first was that I had better go to Christian counselors. I asked God about that and got one of the biggest 'NOs' I have even heard/felt. Okay. Then I have been told by someone who was a family friend at the time all this was going on (in childhood) that I needed to let one of the elders at her church pray for me because he was gifted in praying for deliverance. No thanks. I know what that looks like because I grew up in it. If I had allowed an attempted exorcism or whatever, I think it would have sent me around the bend.

Here's another thing - In the process of surviving all these years, there have been moments that..... Well, one was about 20 years ago, I was in a position where I was living with my grandparents and sharing a bedroom/bed with my mother - a narcissist.... and I was sitting outside in my car one night and I began to recognized different facets of my personality - 4 or 5 of them - and realized I was just on the edge of having them shatter. And God reached out and told me I did not have to step off that cliff if I didn't want to. A similar thing happened 5 years ago, when everything was blowing apart with the church/cult I used to be a leader in. What was happening there was stirring up all the childhood shit again - the stuff that had only just barely been acknowledged and never dealt with. And there was a death in the family and my mom was in ICU in a coma.... and I sat in a dark side room in that church sobbing... and I asked God if I could please just let go for a while and go crazy - retreat inside my head. His response was so loving. He said that I absolutely could if I wanted to and there would be no condemnation attached - I had every right to. But he also wanted me to think about whether, if I did, I would be able to come back. He would not guarantee that I would. But just the acknowledgment that I had reason to be distressed did wonders in giving me strength to hang on.

Hmm.... I wish there wasn't this fear within the church that causes mental illness to be labeled demonic. It really has put me in a position that for my own mental safety, I need to pull back from a group of believers - again. And I fear that if any of them read this, they would be concerned that I was 'back-slidden' and in need of having the Word pounded into that. That is the other thing about this teaching that was so disturbing to me. The solution was to read the Word to the person in order to "pound on the rock until it breaks" (referenced Jeremiah 23:29 to back this). To me, that is giving people with more zeal than wisdom (and good intention) the idea that the solution to mental illness is to pound Bible verses into someone. Yikes! In the hands of someone with an abusive/controlling streak, this is a license to abuse with the Word. Is the answer to mental illness really to thump someone over the head with Bible verses? This truly makes my heart hurt.

And I have to say that after I walked out of the church/cult 5 years ago, part of the healing process (that is still in progress) required laying the Bible down and not reading it ... at all... for nearly 2 years. By the definition I heard today, that would be evidence of demonic influence. But I can say with absolute clarity that the reason I had to lay that book down was because it had been used to beat me down and control and abuse and scare me for so long that I could only hear the voice of the abusers through it. And it took almost 2 years of healing before I could read it without hearing those voices and the teachings that had so twisted me up.

And I don't know what to do about this. I know I need to remove myself from the teaching because it is causing too much pain. But the people. Damn it. I like these people and I am so tired of losing friendships over religion. But I don't know how to talk to them about it. To be honest, I am afraid to. I'm afraid they wouldn't understand. I am afraid they would apply the teachings I heard today. It's one thing to be called a heretic and told you're going to hell by some anonymous blog commenter that you don't know and probably never will. But it's a whole other thing when the attack is coming from a friend who thinks they are helping.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On Being Female....

This is part of the March Synchroblog

Hmm… I have found this post harder to write than I expected. When I first saw the subject for this month’s synchroblog – All About Eve: Women’s History Month, I was excited. After all, it was a topic I had requested. I thought about it and had my subject all picked out – I was going to de-construct the foundational issue in the patriarchal theology concerning hierarchy. At some point in the future, I may still write about that. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my heart is in a different direction right now. I love to dig into theology and all, but there have already been some wonderful things written that deconstruct the ideas surrounding so called ‘biblical patriarchy’. At the bottom of this post, I will put some links for those of you who are interested.

So… what is on my heart? I have struggled with this post more than anything I have ever written. I’m not really sure why. I guess what's bubbling to the surface makes me feel vulnerable. Deep breath…. I am going to try to describe what it is like, for me, to be a woman.

The first thing that comes to mind is that I have never much identified with being a woman. I know that sounds strange. I have always (nearly 50 years) been female. Even typing that feels strange. It has only been recently that I have consciously recognized that I have never gender identified. That is gradually – oh so slowly – beginning to change. So why, during the bulk of my life, when I thought of myself, it was nearly always in terms of gender-neutral? Well… I think there are a lot of reasons.

The most obvious is probably the childhood sexual abuse. When I was a kid – 7, 8, 9 years old, I did not want to be a girl. For awhile, I even wished I was a boy. Boys had all the power. Boys hurt people – girls got hurt. As I built barriers inside to protect myself, especially after the sexual abuse stopped. I had no ability to relate to normal kid things – socially, I didn’t fit and didn’t know how to. And the pressure as you go into Junior High to start dating and liking boys, was confusing and sometimes excruciating. And I knew I wasn’t normal. I knew I would never be normal. And I knew that if anyone knew what had been done to me, I would never be accepted – I would have a ‘reputation’ – I would be pitied at best and rejected as ruined at worst. So, rather than trying to fit into those roles, I simply withdrew into my own world where gender was of no importance.

All of this happened in the late 60s and early 70s. So there was the added pressure of the very public feminist movement – Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. And we went to a fairly conservative small town church. My aunt was a staunch feminist. My mom was critical – no, condescending – toward her. I remember when I was 11 and began to enter puberty, my aunt took me aside and told me I needed to decide, right now, whether I was going to start wearing a bra or not. My mom gave me no such option. My aunt would interrupt in mid sentence to correct from ‘lady’ to ‘woman’. She would go into lecture mode if any man in the public arena called her ‘sweetie’ or ‘sugar’ or some other such word. Hmm…. She would wear bib-overalls with no shirt or bra underneath. She really didn’t inspire me to her cause with these things.

Meanwhile, my mom was above all that ‘feminist nonsense’, as she seemed to view it. I think she felt like it made women look ridiculous, or something. She was definitely not a fan of Friedan or Steinem – and was not shy about expressing her opinion about them. I remember when Billie Jean King challenged Bobby Riggs to a “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match. King beat Riggs handily and I remember my mom saying some derogatory things about the match. But I was secretly rooting for King and felt a small sliver of validation when she won…. I was 10 at the time. Hmm… actually, what I felt was more like relief that she had won. Interesting.

This was all in the backdrop of being heavily involved in various Assemblies of God churches (my dad’s job required us to move a lot). I know A of G is supposed to be egalitarian and allowing women to be ordained and all – and the position paper they put out in August of 2010 is very cool – but the reality in my life in the 60s and 70s was that women needed to stay in their place. Maybe this was as much societal as church. I don’t know, but the reality was that no matter which way I looked, TV, family, church… It was just better – more profitable – to be a boy. And I did not want to be pressed into the female mold that I saw, so I retreated from gender as much as was possible. Hmm… when I was in 8th grade, I was at a marching band competition. I loved band and marching band. I played the trombone and I was first chair. It was lunch time and the guy who sat second chair to me, Pete, and I were sitting under a tree eating our lunch. His mom came up to me and said, “You should play a more feminine instrument and let a boy have first chair in a boy’s instrument.” What? How did gender get in the middle of my favorite class? Pete was so embarrassed by his mom.

The message I heard growing up was clear. It basically sucked to be female. The message came mostly in subtle, not blatant and easily definable ways. It came from church. It came from the media/TV. It came from family. It came from society at large. It came from those that used me even when I was only 2 years old. And this what it said:

·         Girls are to be conquered, boys are conquerors
·         Girls are to be controlled, boys get to do what they want
·         Girls are to be used, boy can say no
·         Girls have no power, boys have all the power
·         Girls are weak, boys are strong
·         Girls, once used, are dirty
·         Girls should follow, boys get to lead
·         Girls are to blame, boys get sympathy
·         Boys are the boss, girls better get in line
·         Boys are designed to lead, girls are designed to follow
·         Boys get more privileges, girls are restricted
·         If a boy hurts you, people take his side
·         IF you hurt a boy, people take his side
·         Boys get away with things, girls get in trouble
·         Boys are celebrated, girls are tolerated

So how does that all shake out now that I am quickly approaching 50? Well, I have rejected church, in general. I have walked away from my parents – haven’t talked to my mom in close to 4 years. I don’t really watch much TV – avoid advertising to the degree that I reasonably can. I read a lot of different blogs and have gained a new respect for my aunt – and for Friedan and Steinem. And I have been in therapy for over 4 years. And I pursue God. And I am gradually beginning to believe that it is okay to be a daughter of God. I have begun to think of myself as a girl, a woman – tentatively, cautiously – like trying on a new coat, unsure if there is something in the pocket that might bite. I have reached the place where I kind of think it might be okay to be female….

Other synchoblog participants:

Ellen Haroutunian - March Synchroblog: All About Eve 


And here are some links to examples of some of the more tame, main-stream doctrines in the ‘biblical patriarchy’ camp so you know this stuff isn't made up: Vision Forum: The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy, Council On Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth by Wayne Grudem.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Pursuing Freedom....

Freedom. It is an inspiring word. Depending on your circumstance, it can even be a painful word. To those who are oppressed, the promise of freedom can stir hope - but if hope is dead or dormant, it can cut like a knife. What is freedom? Well, according to Webster’s….
Freedom: A state of exemption from the power or control of another; liberty; exemption from slavery, servitude or confinement.  Exemption from fate, necessity, or any constraint of predetermination or otherwise; as the freedom of the will.  Ease or facility of doing anything.  Frankness; boldness. 
Hmm…. freedom. It has been the prayer of my heart for over 6 years now. And if I had known then what it would actually look like to get there, I would probably freaked out and run for fear of ‘losing my faith’.

And here I am, 5 years out of a rather explosive (it felt like it at the time) exit from the Institutional Church and a path of seeing a therapist (to my Pentecostal past associates, oh, the horrors), of having not a few emotional meltdowns and wondering at times (as recently as last week…) if I am even a Christian or if any of this stuff is really true…. and irony of ironies, I am supposed to teach on the subject of freedom to a small fellowship I am involved with soon….

I am more settled in my faith – in whom (not what) I hold to – than I have been in a long time, thanks, in part to a bit of a faith challenge last week. I’ll get to that in due course.

So, we have the definition of freedom above, but my question is this: What, exactly, is it that Christ set us free from? The doctrine I grew up in – boiled down to it essence as practiced – was that we were freed from going to hell. And that was about the sum of the teaching on freedom I heard growing up. Later, in the cult (church) I was a leader in, they expanded this to a neat little slogan – “Fall in love with Jesus, then live however you want.” A dart thrown in the right direction, perhaps, but the reality was that it was understood that if you really loved Jesus, you would behave the way the church told you to behave because Jesus set that church over you to tell you what to do. Okay, okay. That didn’t say it quite like that, but they sure practiced it that way. Hmm…. actually, they did, sometimes, say it kind of like that.

So again, what are we free from? I’ve been thinking on this a lot, can you tell? Here is where I am with this. Go back to Eden. What was the first thing Adam and Eve did after they ate the fruit? They recognized they were naked and they were ashamed and afraid. They covered and hid. The first consequence was the entrance of Fear. And that is at the root of a great deal of our bondages ever since, I think.

I know in my life, the major fear I fight is the fear of punishment – the fear of screwing up and getting in trouble. And it has been a process over the last few years to get to the place where I understand that in Christ, there is no fear of condemnation – those things do not come at me from Papa (Romans 8:1, 1 John 4:18, 2 Timothy 1:7). And I thought I had gotten a handle on this. Yeah, right. Then I ran smack dab into that deep well of fear still lurking in me when a friend was teaching at the little fellowship I’ve hooked up with – and his teaching reminded me of the teachings of my childhood.

And I freaked out. After the meeting, my friend and I started talking and I reverted back to that little girl trying to defend herself and being afraid…. and it took me a couple of days to sort it out. That Pentecostalism I grew up in was still lurking in there exerting control over my perceptions of what I had to do to be accepted. Ah…. recognition is the first giant step toward freedom. I gave some really child-like reasons for why the teaching bothered me. Really, they were reasons that sounded like a little girl worked them out. And I guess, in essence, she did. But here’s the beautiful thing – the grown-up girl recognized the source (a day or two later) and was able to ask Papa to help uproot all traces of Pentecostalism (and all other isms) out of my insides. “Yikes!” says the little girl who still isn’t sure that’s okay. But it is okay. I actually told my therapist (who is Catholic) that I think Pentecostal guilt is quite possibly stronger than the proverbial Catholic guilt. She thought for a minute, and then said she could see that as being possible…

So I think one of the main points of the Gospel is that we have been set free from the fear of punishment; set free from the fear of getting it wrong. It seems to me that many of the churches I have observed have this unwritten understanding that, “Yes, the blood of Christ saves us, but then we have to work to keep it.” They seem to think we can earn God’s acceptance, His favor. But the logical conclusion of that thinking is that Jesus died in vain (Galatians 2:21). If there was any way we could ever earn God’s favor, then Jesus would have not needed to come. In fact, to say that we can earn it – must earn it – is saying we don’t really need God. Seriously, to suggest that we get saved by the Grace and blood of Jesus but then have to work to keep it is to say that the sacrifice Jesus made was not strong enough to do a complete job of it and we need to finish the job Jesus started. All I can now say to that is, “Seriously?” But sin management is big business in the Institutional Church. Control is the real issue, I think. And that won’t be given up easily – if ever.

But really, I don’t think that ‘sin’ is even the point anymore. If Christ’s blood has dealt with sin once and for all (Romans 6:10, Hebrews 7:27, Hebrews 9:12, Hebrews 10:10), then sin is no longer the issue. Yay! To be freed from the fear of sinning. So I think I am reaching the place where I can go to a meeting, hear a teaching that I disagree with and just…disagree, without feeling like my position with Papa is in jeopardy or I will be viewed as inadequate. I think I may be on the brink of being settled and comfortable and confident enough in what Papa has been teaching me to stand unmoved by religious attempts at control. Yes – that is freedom, indeed.