The Search for Safety

All I ever wanted was to feel safe…to know that there was something or someone out there that would take care of me, love me, hold me, and protect me no matter what I said or did.  I heard growing up that the unconditional love of God was so much deeper and more powerful than the love of a mother or father that it was incomprehensible.  Yet I grew up terrified of God.  I carried with me a deep sense of groundlessness, that I was never safe, never okay, never enough.

I was a prayer warrior.  I can remember as a young child I had a book that highlighted different countries around the world, their poverty rates, and more importantly, the percentage of their population that was Christian.  I would pray fervently that God would save those who did not believe in Him, while all the while obsessing over whether or not he was punishing me for my sins.  I genuinely believed that if a severe thunderstorm came through, it might be my fault because of a lie I had told or an “evil” thought I had had. If there was a God, and I was sure that there was, he was angry.  We always talked about the fact that “God is a personal God” and “He cares about you and knows you better than you know yourself”.  Well I got that he was was my personal God and was watching me… But his caring was conditional, and he was vengeful.

Looking back on it now these beliefs seem silly and nonsensical; but I am older now, and have the gift of reason.  It also makes me angry, because I know I still carry a lot of fears and insecurities born out of this dogma and also know that many still suffer because of these teachings.  While I am not an atheist, in many ways I find it much preferable to believe in no God than one that saves some, damns others, and is always watching and waiting to punish us for our “sins”;  a God that is waiting on a five year old child who should be playing outside with friends to bow to him in prayer to save others in a far away land.

If God is just a more powerful version of a human being then what are we gaining by trying to spread the “good news”?  I mean if the end result is that some of us get “saved” and the rest go to hell for eternity, where exactly does the “good” part come into play?  And if the idea of God as presented through fundamentalism is supposed to bring comfort and security, then perhaps we should go back and ask my five year old self how well that worked for him as he sat terrified in the basement while the thunderstorms rolled through.

Lent-ills

Easter has always been my least favorite Sunday to go to church. I’m sure that as a child my distaste was mostly due to the custom of dressing up more than usual. I resisted any efforts my family made in that department. I once wore my California Raisins t-shirt for a week and was quite miffed at having to change. That was last year. Just kidding. Maybe. But it’s not the dressing up that gets to me anymore. It’s the fact that most of the Easter services I’ve attended in the past few decades have felt like high school pep rallies.

I liked high school pep rallies. What wasn’t to like? We all got pumped up to cheer on the football team for the inevitable win that night. My high school’s football team didn’t lose my junior or senior year. I didn’t play on it, so I can’t take much credit, but I did paint my face a few times, and my senior year I even made a joyful noise with a bass drum as part of our drumline.

The principal of my elementary school (the years I wasn’t homeschooled) told us we should be as excited about Jesus as we were about our favorite sports teams. Granted, the bar was set pretty low. It was the ‘80s in Georgia. We didn’t exactly have to fight the crowd at Braves games. But even that was a tough measure for me to reach, and my apparent apathy was especially poignant during Easter services.

All these people around me seemed genuinely moved by “Up from the Grave He Arose.” And why wouldn’t they be? We were singing about the resurrection of Jesus, the triumph of life over death, and the key to our salvation. My elementary school principal was right. This was a big deal. But I just couldn’t get into it. So, I did what any good, Christian boy would do. I faked it. God forbid the people around me have any sense that I wasn’t rejoicing in the central event in Christian theology!

I was pretty paranoid that someone would find out. My entire identity was predicated on being the best Christian anyone knew, and, other than the fear someone would find me out, I was completely emotionless on Easter Sunday. For years, as I sat in various church pews, hoping resurrection jubilation was contagious, I wondered why. It occurred to me that the simplest explanation was that I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe Jesus actually rose from the dead. I put that thought out of my mind as best I could, going so far as to proselytize to others, hoping concern for their salvation would take my mind off my own. It didn’t help. I was terrified.

I’m beginning my fourth year of my longest continuous therapy, and something powerful is happening. I’m becoming increasingly aware of how angry I have been and the exhausting work my mind has done to keep it under the surface. I have not been explosive. I have not lashed out at people. Instead, I’ve just been tired. I’ve learned to shut down to keep any “negative” feelings away because I’ve been so afraid of what might come out. So, I’ve just been numb. It’s been impossible for me to engage fully in any meaningful work or relationship because it’s felt too dangerous to be fully present. I have been that full of rage.

So, back to Easter Sunday after Easter Sunday, sitting in church, singing words I want to believe to songs I don’t care about, wondering why I can’t feel anything….and I think I finally get it.

My father died when I was 9 years old. As is normal in any loss, at first it didn’t seem permanent. I expected my dad to come back, and my young mind invented all kinds of elaborate fantasies around his return. It’s been nearly 29 years now, and he still hasn’t come back. I still don’t know exactly what I felt when he died or in the years soon after. What I suspect is that I was incredibly angry. I now know that rage is a natural response to both helplessness and loss, and those two words pretty much sum up what I tried so hard not to feel back then.

Our religious culture taught me to eschew “negative” emotions. It further taught me that emotions are wholly unreliable. What we have is The Truth. It’s in black and white and sometimes in red. Those words are what we can know, what we can trust. They are what we BELIEVE. And those words say that on the third day Jesus rose again. Good for fucking Jesus. My father sure didn’t.

After all these years, I’ve come to believe that celebrating the power of God in the resurrection of the dead without being able to verbalize my own grief about my father’s death was torturing my mind. If God was so powerful…? If death was impotent…? I was SO angry. But I wasn’t allowed to be angry, so I just shut down. I just sat there, cold and lonely, while the people around me cheered for a team I wasn’t sure I wanted to be on anymore.

The Shame of Mental Illness 

I have been pondering quite a bit lately when exactly it is that I first started feeling shame about my mental illness and from where this feeling was internalized.  I am still quite hesitant to open up about my issues with depression and anxiety, and often each day when I take my medication there is a part of me, that nagging voice inside, that ridicules the idea that I have to take these drugs to make myself feel ‘”okay” or “normal” (whatever the hell that means).  So where exactly did that start and why does it continue?

For me personally much of my shame around mental illness is born out of my history with fundamentalist Christianity.  I was told from a young age that if you were unhappy it is because there was something wrong with your relationship with God.  God has boundless love and joy for you if you will just accept Jesus into your heart and play by the rules… or so the story goes.  If you are not happy and joy-filled, guess what?  You are doing something wrong… you are in sin.  This is quite a toxic doctrine for many reasons, especially when directed at children who do not have the reasoning capability to see where this line of argument might be extremely flawed.  My first memories are those offear… that God was punishing me for my “sins”… this was at age 5.  What exactly could a 5 year old do that would incur the wrath of God?  Great fucking question.  Any reasonable person would say nothing.  But when my father died when I was 3 and my mother contracted cancer when I was 6, it played right into the narrative that i had constructed that there was something fundamentally wrong with me and that was why all of these bad things were happening to me.  Of course the outgrowth of all of this was that I eventually discarded the idea of God altogether amid the profound pain of my recurring depression and later addictions but that is a topic for another day.  I am just now – through years of pain, hard work, therapies of all kinds, etc. – beginning to unravel this very deep seated belief that there is something inherently wrong with me and that is the reason I am depressed.  To be sure, it is not just fundamentalist Christianity that propagates these sorts of ideas – even more mainstream religions and even new age doctrine often do the same albeit cloaked in different language.  When you believe that some deity is behind your suffering, this is especially difficult to overcome, but all too often even those who espouse a belief in an “all loving” “Creator” or “Source” subscribe to this very idea.

In addition to religions of all kinds our very society and culture has ingrained in us, especially in the West, and most particularly in America, that if you suffer hardship, whether it be economic, mental, emotional, or otherwise, it is of your own doing and you simply need to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” to get out of it.  It is so fascinating to observe people’s responses when you tell them you are severely depressed… so many times even the best intentioned and truly decent individuals will come back with something like “well what are you doing about it?”  Now I don’t mean to insinuate here that those of us with mental illness don’t have to take action to help ouselves get better… medications alone will not solve all of our problems.  But when people speak like this in the context of mental illness it is often with the subtle (or not sosubtle) implication that if we just tried harder or changed our perspective/thoughts that things would get better.  Again, not to say that those things don’t play a part in wellness, but telling them to severely mentally ill people will only further reinforce the idea that it is totally their fault that they feel that way and that they simply need to make a choice to feel better.  How many times have we heard the phrase “happiness is a choice?”  If it was really that simple how many would choose to feel miserable? Who really wants to be depressed?  Would we treat someone who had cancer this way?  Imagine walking up to someone with cancer and telling them if they could just get out of bed and change their thoughts they would get better.  No one would take that seriously… and yet with mental illness it happens all the time.

So this brings me back to the original question of why I feel so much shame around my mental illness.  For me it is a combination of several factors, but one thing I know to be true especially in the light of my most recent depressive episode is that just because we have made great strides in “de-stigmatizing” mental illness we have a really, really long way to go as a culture and society in understanding and treating those with these afflictions.  We have to let go of the idea that God/spirituality and science are mutually exclusive when it comes to mental well being… and have compassion for those who aresome of the most vulnerable and suffering among us.  It does take positive choices and action to be happy, but there are times when we can get so in the depths of our suffering that we cannot even fathom getting out of bed in the morning.  We have to stop shaming those in these situations and reach out with loving kindness, just like we do for those who suffer from other forms of illness.

I would love to hear others experiences with these issues if they feel comfortable sharing!  It is a topic that does not get discussed enough and this has to change!

Am I ok?

“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”—Talmud

In the spring of 1995 I attended Youth Legislature through the Tennessee YMCA. We had moved to Franklin, TN the fall before, and I was a sophomore in a new school. As part of the conference, we attended lectures on “hot topics” in Tennessee politics. With some of my classmates, I attended one on gay and lesbian rights. The presenter, a lawyer who identified as lesbian, talked about some of the current legal issues around sexual orientation. At the end of 45 minutes, she began to take questions. I’ll never forget one of those questions because I asked it: “What do you do with the fact that God hates homosexuality?” The presenter responded, “I don’t think God does, but if you’d like to talk more, I invite you to come speak with me at the end of the hour.”

I took her up on her offer. I don’t know what I was expecting—horns, books about devil worship, 666 tattooed on her wrist, etc.—but what I got was ten minutes of grace from a kind woman who had recently been informed (I’m sure not for the first time) from the ignorant asshole standing in front of her that people with her sexual orientation are shunned by God. She gave me her business card, and told me to call her if I ever wanted to talk more. I did…eight years later.

But that’s another story. This one ends with me going up to watch some proceedings in the senate balcony, sitting by one of the junior students at my school, and telling her about the lecture. She said, “I know! Isn’t that just gross?” I’m not sure how I responded. I was shocked. Were people around me anti-gay because they were prejudiced? I assumed we were all on the same page. We weren’t personally offended. We were just proclaiming God’s Truth to the world. But the “Truth” we identified wasn’t handed down from the heavens, leather-bound and inked in black and red. It was fought over by men whose vision and understanding were limited by their cultures, their prejudices, and their agendas.

Sometimes I still wonder why I felt the need to stand up and ask that question. Outwardly, of course, I was “defending the faith.” But now I think about what my life was like at that point. I was obsessed with thoughts of heaven and hell, who was going and who wasn’t, including me. I thought I was evil, and I’ll write about that in another post. But I think the central question of my life was a very basic one: am I okay? To the extent that I could proselytize and criticize others, I could work to keep my own demons at bay, but at my core, I doubted very seriously that I was lovable or acceptable to God or anyone else.

The church of my childhood employed the Bible to create very distinct lines between us and them. Of course, growing up I’d been part of the former group, but I could feel myself changing and doubting the beliefs of my childhood. I was miserable. And no one knew because I knew that doubt, confusion, anger, depression, etc. are not “of God.” So, I suffered in silence while projecting my anxiety onto everyone else. I wasn’t asking how the speaker dealt with God’s rejection of her; I was asking how I could deal with God’s rejection of me. I don’t know what she knew about me in that moment. But what she offered me was something maybe no one else could have. I needed to know that God was bigger than my prejudice because at that time I was incapable of believing that God could love me.