Are you a Christian? Do you, or does someone you know, suffer with depression? Or anxiety? Or bipolar? You know, the real illnesses. Not the words batted around daily making folks like me feel like we have no clue about what it actually means to deal these illnesses day-by-day.
I’m talking true, diagnosable, honest illness. The kind of sickness that makes us unable to function like we normally do when we’re not sick. The kind of sickness that doesn’t mean we’re “crazy” or “over-reacting” or “too emotional”, as if we could control our mood if we just tried or prayed harder. And here’s the rub about praying harder.
Some folks in the church still think there’s no such thing as “mental” illness. That if you’re a true Christian—a mature Christian—you’ll just exude joy as a feeling and walk around with a smile all the time. Or at least most of the time. Unless you’ve lost a loved one by death. Or if you’re in some kind of physical pain. Even then, the ones in our churches who seem to be elevated with praise by human beings are the stoic ones—those who either lack true human emotion or are excellent at stuffing it down. Then again, maybe I’m just one of those less-than-mediocre Christians who hasn’t risen high enough on the ladder toward sainthood.
All I know is that I suffer from time-to-time when my medication stops working and my neurotransmitter supply drops to the point where my brain screams, “HELP!”
You see, I’m nearly 60. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety all my life. I managed my symptoms fairly well with healthy lifestyle and prayer until my mid-thirties when I had my first “breakdown”. No, I wasn’t hospitalized. Being a clinical psychologist, I realized I had become very sick and knew I needed medication. I went to my general physician. Within two weeks, I had bounced back to my normal energetic, bubbly, smiley self—a far cry from the depths of darkness I had experienced just weeks before.
So, I know. Firsthand. I know exactly how depression and anxiety feels. Secondhand, I’ve seen how bipolar illness devastates the sick and those who love them and try to care for them. My first husband developed bipolar illness the first year of our seven-year marriage. I became sick myself on that never-ending roller coaster ride of extreme ups and downs. Back then, we didn’t know enough about good treatment. Back then, we thought Christian counseling would do the trick. I’ve learned a lot since then.
A few years ago, our daughter (now 26, adopted from Russia when she was 6) had a breakdown—a full psychotic break—that required 12 days in a locked psychiatric unit. Weighing in at 87 pounds when her ideal body weight is 98 at five feet even, mania had worn her thin. Thankfully, medication restored her to sound mind and healthy body. Christian counseling would have been a complete disservice.
Still, I’ve had experience with a number of people/families who rejected all forms of medical treatment and even excellent psychological counseling, thinking that Christians who have “mental” illness are just lacking in faith and should be set back on the right track by the more mature. I’ve seen a father staring at his teenage daughter, lying on the floor in a catatonic state due to severe depression, saying, “Come on! Get up!” and telling me he and his wife didn’t “believe” in medication or therapy.
So what’s the definition of “mature” as far as “Christian” is concerned?
I say the “mature” are those who follow Jesus Christ and seek his will over our own in all situations. I say the “mature” are those who love mercy and seek justice and walk humbly with our Lord. (Micah 6:8)
There’s so much I don’t know about the workings of the human mind and body. Therefore, I pray to be a woman of grace and mercy when dealing with the suffering—to do my best to help with everything I know and to cast my fears and doubts aside, trusting in God to guide and provide with His perfect wisdom, in His perfect way.
As for me and my house? God’s way has been providing effective medication and counseling along with diligent prayer and biblically-guided living.
My first husband’s life ended by suicide. Such a tragedy. He was a Christian.
My life and my daughter’s life are rich and full and healed because we are Christian and because we know the power of using proper medication and counseling when needed. I hope the same for you and your loved ones.
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Heather MacLaren Johnson
Psy.D. and Author
Heather and her husband, Todd, are parents of three adult children adopted from Russia with multiple, invisible, permanent special needs. They live on 44 rural acres in Wisconsin. Heather's greatest desire is to help other chronic emotional sufferers understand that no matter how wounded, we are all passionately loved by God. She blogs at True Life with God and the author of Grace, Truth & Time: Facilitating Small Groups that Thrive.