Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth." Genesis 9:13

Saturday, March 28, 2009

To: Christians Re: Therapy

First, this post may hit nerves for some people. Normally I'd not even think of saying this, but I will delete any comments that come up about this which I find inflammatory. This is not about blasting Christianity, even conservative Christianity (and in case this isn't clear that is what I am), it's about revealing a truth. A truth in my opinion. But if you feel this is an example of all that is wrong with Christianity, please don't post here. Alternatively, if you think this is a good example of why I and half the people who treat me are going to go to hell, that's also not constructive.

Last night I read a disturbing sentiment on someone's blog. In effect, she said she doesn't support therapy because there is nothing therapy can provide that can't be provided through a relationship with God. This disturbs me because so many Christians feel this way or similar, and it is essentially a way of saying that all mental illness or emotional issues are a result of a broken relationship with God or a failure of faith. I can't tell you how hard it is to hear this; I lost many friends who made this conclusion our of ignorance or arrogance. I also spent a good part of my college years totally isolated because I was depressed in a place where depression was a failing. During those years counseling and antidepressants were something only my closest friends and my support group knew about. Since I was severely depressed for a large portion of college and in counseling for nearly the whole thing, you can see how I had few friends by the end. Even professors sometimes were jerks about it; I once had to go to the dean of women for assistance because I was barely making it to get out of bed each day, my father was in jail, the psychologist was out of town, and my professor was trying to make me take a test when I hadn't stopped crying in 36 hours because he didn't feel depression was a good excuse and he was sure the psychologist would agree.

The first thing to be said here is that yes, God can and does have the ability to heal anything. Read this blog if you doubt that. Yes, my hard work and new variations of meds and finding the right (and strange) combination of meds matters, along with many other things like vitamins and diet and sunshine, but that I'm in remission (partial or otherwise) is nothing less than a miracle.

However, I firmly believe that God uses tools to heal. For those with mental illness, one of those tools can be therapy. I don't know a single therapists (even the really bad ones I've had and there were several of those) who have claimed to be a cure for anything just by themselves. Instead, therapy provides support while you do what needs done, just like a cast supports a fractured arm.

Bipolar illness damages my relationship with God. I am not good at connecting with anyone and I need help to do so. That's one place therapy comes into play. I also need help with things that should be basic. Reading the Bible and understanding it is one of them. I can't follow a "real" Bible. I use a children's version when I can, but truthfully that's not a lot. I just have a lot of emotions surrounding the inability to handle the real Bible that make it hard to stomach my watered down one. Maybe a better person wouldn't struggle with the anger that I can't be an adult in all things, but I do. It's a side effect of an illness that took away so much of what I wanted in life.

I do think for a Christian that having a therapist who is Christian matters a great deal. I am saying this only from my own experiences, but here's my numbers. In the last 14 years I've seen around 10 therapists. I managed to progress and stick with only 3 of those for any useful time period (a total of around 12 years). Each of these was a pronounced Christian therapist. In contrast the non-Christian ones never worked for me because they had very different versions of what "normal life" was than I did. One of them in particular traumatized me much more than she helped because she tried to force me to operate "her way" in a world that wasn't much like the way I want to live. (I was trying to work on dating with her. Her approach was essentially to just throw myself into party school life and soon I'd find myself dating, having sex, and moving on because "it's not a big deal". My ideas of dating are a bit different and with my history none of that stuff is "not a big deal".)

In contrast, the Christian counselors have never pushed me to be different than my basic beliefs. What I believe hasn't always totally matched them (this year in particular, I branched out a bit and voted for Obama for reasons I don't feel like getting into), but I'm treated with respect.

My relationship with my Christian counselors has let me work out some of the most difficult and painful parts of this illness: I can't often do things that I believe are very important. (ie, reading the Bible, attending church/church activities, speaking up about my faith, etc). Until 9 months ago I thought that my inability to do these things meant that not only was I mentally ill I was totally unable to maintain things that were supposed to be basics. Finally I learned that my inabilities are part of the illness and I started to forgive myself. Eventually I even started to forgive myself for my acting out behaviors, like swearing when I'm manic. I'm not a swearer, but when manic I can't help it. In fact I've learned to listen for swearing because it means mania is coming. Or the intense anger that those close to me have been hurt by, time and time again (but not for a while!). These things have tried to destroy me, but now that I understand that it's not just some untamed part of me doing what I don't believe, but is truly something that is part of the illness and something that is deserving of grace and forgiveness I am able to live with the illness so much better.

Learning about grace has been a huge thing in the last year. It's been so extremely hard for me to just trust that even when my illness makes not act the way I would choose, that God forgives this. For years I lived with the belief that so much of what I did was so wrong and that all God could possibly see of my life was the wrongness. It took many, many hours of crying and hard work to learn that God KNOWS I'm sick and God sees me without my illness and knows what my illness does to me. There is no way that I could have learned that without help, because I also have been (still am) working on having enough trust that I can have a more "normal" relationship with God. I trust God, but I also am still working on trusting at all. What I call trust is pretty limited in comparison to other people. Yet I've come a long, long way. And how have I done this? Mainly because in the many years of therapy I've had, and probably especially in the last year (plus another year or two of this in college) trust has been a huge issue. Even now we're working on trusting random people not to hurt me just because I'm standing near them. Sad, but true.

For me my therapist has been a conduit of sorts. I need someone to help me build a relationship with God. It's not a failure of my faith, it's how I was made and the result of being abused. The whole premise of Christianity is having a relationship with Christ through faith (ie trust) and I don't have much trust in my body. So I need help to gain that and maintain it. And that help doesn't come from "normal" relationships because it has to be someone who I can see as on my side but objective. I know Dr. Mind cares. I also know that if he thinks I'm unsafe he will fight with me until he wins, no matter how safe I say I am. I don't manipulate that situation much, if at all. A friend or family member couldn't maintain that role.

As I said above, my experience has shown that for me I needed a Christian therapist. Even though we don't always talk specifically about faith, that is vital for me. With one Christian therapist I prayed weekly; with the other two I didn't. It's so vital that I drive an hour each way each week to see Dr. Mind. I've gone to that practice for almost 7 years now, covering 2 therapists, and since there are very limited (1-2) places to get Christian therapy around here I'll be going there very long-term. Dr. Brain is Jewish and that works out fine. Dr. Body is a Christian and this helps with some of the trust issues required for me to let him check me out.

Anyway, if a Christian "shouldn't" need a therapist then a Christian shouldn't get mentally illness. A Christian shouldn't have to experience abuse or other things that are most easily discussed-sometimes confessed to God with someone present (which honestly I think is what happens half the time) to make it easier-behind closed doors. Therapy makes it safe to be me, including to be the Christian parts of me. God doesn't give these things out preferentially to non-believers.

I don't know how to end this. I'm not even sure I expressed my point well. I'm open for questions, especially if you don't agree with what I'm saying and would like to hear more of my experiences. I don't (can't) quote Bible verses to support my every point, but that's got less to do with what the Bible says and a lot more to do with my cognitive impairments.

Just remember, be respectful. Please.


Sarah said...

"I firmly believe that God uses tools to heal." DITTO!!

"Anyway, if a Christian "shouldn't" need a therapist then a Christian shouldn't get mental illness." Along that same lines ... if He didn't want us to be seen by counselors and therapists and doctors, He wouldn't have given them to us, really.

I totally agree with this post - and you got your point across well! Good job!

Jean Grey said...

When I first started getting seriously mentally ill in college, it took away my faith. At times I even had horrible religous delusions in which God was punishing me, etc. Now that I am "better," I don't know what I beleive. I want some of that faith that I had back, but I'm not the person that I was. I'm still trying to figure it out.

Just Me said...


E-I think that's another reason that a Christian counselor is so important to me. I need someone who says "no, that's not the right belief, this is the illness, this is what the Bible says". I need a lot of help to be open to a relationship with Christ rather than just believing. That's my trust thing coming into play. I more have been affected by believing I was a terrible person and that's why these things have happened to me and I guess that makes me fortunate.

otgirl said...

I really like this post. Especially the part about grace and forgiveness extending to all aspects of who you are (and by extension, who we all are). My mom is a Christian psychologist and we have had many discussions about the stigma of getting help, taking medication, etc within the Christian community. Personally, I have a cousin and an uncle who waited WAY too long to see a therapist for this very reason. It broke my heart to see them struggling so much instead of using every tool available. I am glad you posted about this because I think you are right and that it can't be said enough.