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.


Sam said...

Just like a high quality cellphone will spawn dozens, if not hundreds of imitators and counterfeits, this also happens in religion. There is Jesus. There are those who follow Jesus. Then there are all of the religions that are something else. Unfortunately, some of them claim to be Christian.

Jeanette, the religion in which you were involved was obviously a mixed up blend of who knows what. Run and stay away, But Jesus is the real deal. Unfortunately, it's easy for most people to throw out the genuine article with all the crappy fakes and imitations they find.

Thankfully you are finding help with therapy. It takes awhile to overcome the lies we were taught about ourselves. That stuff is not from Jesus.

T-Childs said...

This is so harrowing and awful-what you are saying in effect is that you were (are) suffering and then so-called helpers go and add more shit into the mix, under the guise of being 'good Christians'! Sheesh, no wonder you were going mad! Who wouldn't after all that?

I didn't grow up 'churched' in any way and quite frankly when I read your testimony, and many others, I am bloody glad I didn't! It seems to me that some church groups attract the very people that outside the church we would call oddballs and freaks and the type of people we would very probably avoid like the plague!

The first step to healing I think is acknowledging the problem; you've done that magnificently and admirably. In fact, I believe your story, your testimony, needs a much wider coverage to help countless others who've been abused in one way or the other. We need to understand that Jesus doesn't condemn people like you, He is reaching out; it's some of his 'followers' that I pity.

Thanks for this post; it means a lot to me as I have struggled with severe depression myself all throughout my adult life, but I was never abused so I guess I was lucky.

Jeannette Altes said...

Hey, Tim. Thanks for the support. It makes me sad that this kind of thing drives people away from finding a family / community of believers to be a part of. But just like a biological family, if there is abuse, you need to walk away.

I am so grateful that God helped me sort out that religion and doctrine and the Institutional Church were not him - He is separate, above, beyond all the man-made bs being peddled as his word.

Jeannette Altes said...

Hey, Sam. Thanks. I do know that now (most of the time), which is why I get angry. Sometimes I want to scream, "This is not what he said and not what he did!!!! What the hell are you doing?!"

But... that usually just gets you thrown out, so... :-)

T-Childs said...

Hi Jeannette; You wrote: ""This is not what he said and not what he did!!!! What the hell are you doing?!"" Sometimes, wouldn't it be nice if we could just be honest, even if that gets us a little angry! So much truth is hidden behind us being 'nice' and being scared of seeming weird, and so on. When Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple, I suspect He was letting off steam too!

There's a story in a book I've reviewed called 'Cut to The Chase' by two British Christian authors, who are not your atypical rather nice rather Middle Class Christians we expect of England! They are regular guys as you might say, normal blokes who are Christians. Anyway, they mention a story about a guy, very much a Christian, working with tough guys who were not Christians, who kept taunting him and picking on him, until he attacked one of them with a cricket bat! I don't recommend this type of action at all, but after this, all the other guys started respecting him! Sometimes, we need to be blunt and honest, to open up much needed dialogue, often wth people who are hurting in some way. I don't want to hide behind religious platitudes, I want to live in the full light of what Jesus wants me to be, irrespective of what religious people might think or say. You go girl!

Brenda said...

Hi Jeannette,
I have just read your post and one thing really stood out to me. You always turned to God for help when others tried to 'be God'. I have noticed that there can be sometimes very little of God's love in Christians. It may ve that you do not want to open the Bible because of your bad experiences with Christians and their interpretation of the scriptures, I don't know, but I can tell you that if you seek God for yourself He is the most loving, patient, comforting and understanding being there could possibly be, and He wants only peace for us. Jesus said 'In the world you have tribulation, in me you have peace' Jesus is the word of God so I would think you will be able to judge whether or not someone is speaking God's word to you by this plumbline. God bless you and bring you total peace in Jesus.

Jeannette Altes said...

Hey,Tim - thanks. :-)

Thanks for stopping by. And yes, I have found that to be true.

Anonymous said...

Jeanette, You are someone who I can relate to. Grew up with nfoo and then delt with many narcs in the church. It's unfortunate but the "church" today is full of them(I'd say at least 85-90%).They are always excused for their narcissitic behavior.Never held accountable with their abuses and their crappy behavior towards others. If you have a problem with them, than it is your problem, not theirs.They always have to have a scapegoat. Whether it is in a family or a church. Yep, I was the scapegoat.Still am with foo.

Scripture doesn't say that the majority will make it into the kingdom but a few.

I just wanted to let you know that I can relate.

Anonymous said...

Jeanette, The Post tramatic Stress comes from having major trauma in ones life. I can relate. I personaly don't believe that it is mental illness. Also, who wouldn't be depressed growing up in an inviroment like we did. They brainwash you,abuse you and screw with your mind. And then you go to church and deal with the same bs. That takes a toll on a person. They are the ones who are screwed up, not us.

A lot of what is called mental illness by people today(and counselers) is just part of the human condition. I don't know if you heard this recently but now the want to call grief a mental illness.

I think that true mental illness is: one example, someone hears voices and sees things that are not there.

Jeannette Altes said...

Anonymous June 5, 2012 6:38 PM -

Thanks for stopping by. I do think the 'church system' as we know it attracts narcissists and abusers. And they will throw the blame for issues that come on any target to which they can get it to stick....

Anonymous June 5, 2012 7:32 PM -

Thanks for stopping by.
Hmmm....I guess it depends on your definition. To me, mental illness is any condition that interferes with your ability to function 'normally' or in a healthy way.

I know the term 'mental illness' has a lot of negative connotation - especially in the church culture. I'm not using the church's definition of the term. PTSD is a mental condition that classifies as illness. It can be treated and recovered from, like physical illnesses. That's where I'm coming from, anyway.

J.E.R.B. said...

As I have been detoxifying from religion and spiritual abuse the past four years, Abba has allowed me and I'm going to say, He has even led me to put the Bible down. I have been learning He has been teaching me He loves me and is with me wether I read the Bible or not. Now it's getting clearer and clearer to why I would feel Abba was keeping me from my "prayer closet". He was cleansing all the crap out of my system. I would go for months with out cracking the Bible or writing in my journals, then I would return to these things and swear I had fallen into depression again, because I had allowed myself to go dry by not reading God's word or spending time with Him. At the contrary, I now understand He was and is always by my side the only thing making me feel like hell on earth was the stupid lies ruling and lurking in my mind.
You write so eloquently and it brings me freedom. Thank you. I never, ever thought Abba would use a blog to bring me healing. You are in my heart. Even though our stories are not identical , it seems our character is very similar and I can relate to you in many ways. Thank you.

Jeannette Altes said...

Detoxifying is a good word for it. For me, part of that including putting the Bible down until the toxic way it was used on me was cleansed enough that I could read it and hear Truth instead of twisted manipulation.

Thank you for your kind words. May you continue to find Truth and Freedom.

Anonymous said...

Have you read the writings of Waneta Dawn? She has a book and a website. She was raised in a very strict religion (Mennonite). If you have the time, read her articles on "Submission Tyranny, in Church and Society
The Belief That Begets Domestic Violence." She has a part 1 and part 2 titled "Churches Mocking God?"

Like you, I have come to see the abuse and the severity of my childhood abuse, decades later. She is very kind and eloquent in her writings and you can be rest assured that the wisdom from whence they came was after much abuse and searching of the scriptures. I'm grateful for others who share thier hearts and minds. Thank you.

Jeannette Altes said...

Anonymous -
Thank you for the recommendation...and you are welcome.

Anonymous said...

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...

Convenient, that. Especially for the "cultish religiously-abusive situation" -- any symptom of recovery is due to DEMONS(TM) and becomes SAY-TANN-IC (TM). And the cure is to be "Saved", i.e. pulled back into the cultish abusive group. VERY convenient.

If it fits the usual pattern, the definition of symptoms is probably so vague you could accuse anybody of having them. I saw something similar during the Satanic Panic of the Eighties, where any normal adolescent behavior (i.e. testing the limits and finding a separate identity from that of "Mom & Dad's little kid) was PROOF (TM) of Dungeons & Dragons and The Occult (TM) and SATANISM(TM).

Headless Unicorn Guy

Jeannette Altes said...

Hey, HUG, thanks for dropping by!

Yes, it is very convenient. Unfortunately, even well-meaning naive followers call buy this - it really feeds a fear mentality. It seems to cycle through every couple of decades. Sigh.

James "Jimmy" Brown said...

The problems of pain; it has always had my attention. I'm quite sure it will continue to exist through-out the remaining history of mankind.
You don't seem bitter with God; how so?

Jeannette Altes said...

Hi Jummy,

The problem of pain is a central issue. Believe me, I have yelled at God and told Him off...and come to realize that a lot of what I was taught about him was, well, just not accurate.

Hmm...if he intervened to prevent every evil act, then we would all be robots devoid of free will. There is an exchange from the TV show "Saving Grace" that I like (paraphrasing):

GRACE (To her Guardian Angel): Earl, ask God why that bastard killed all those women.
EARL: Don't ask God, ask the killer.

Yes, God allows this stuff to happen, but not because He endorses it of likes it or is indifferent. The alternative - total restraint (or destruction) of all humanity.....

I don't pretend to understand it all - and I went through a period where I asked God why the hell... but I have found peace with the knowing that He didn't want it and he was actually there with me the whole time....

James "Jimmy" Brown said...

Jeanette,I certainly believe you're right about God, He was with you the whole time and He never desires evil; what did it take for you to reach that understanding? I assume it didn't come easily.

Jeannette Altes said...

Jimmy, (sorry for the typo on your name earlier)

That's a big question with no easy answer. It is still a work in progress.

One of the biggest things, I think, was reaching the place of allowing myself to doubt and question what I had been taught in church. I began tearing things apart a looking at them - still do as needed - and then just time - to process, to challenge - time alone with Him.

And finally, having people around me who were not afraid to let me question, let me feel the pain and just sit with me as I worked through it. That is still in progress, too.

One of the biggest things was letting go of the notion that we can figure God out and understand and define Him. We can't. He is way more than we can wrap our minds around. So....any man's definition is incomplete. And anyone who insists that they have the lock on who and what God is all about is lying or deluded or immature.
Ha, and that's the short version.

Jessy said...

The community has truly failed itself at the mental health treatment level

Jeannette Altes said...

Hi, Jessy. Thanks for stopping bt.

You're right. Although we have, in general, come a ways from the days (just a few short decades ago) of shock therapy and lobotomies. there is still a lot of fear and ignorance (which go hand in hand).