Faith vs. Mental Illness–Is There Truly A Conflict?
Faith in God and mental illness often seem at odds with one another. I remember once sitting in a group therapy meeting listening to people share how trying to be active in a religion had made their symptoms worse and how abandoning religion or faith altogether had simplified things. As I listened I wondered if this loss of faith was inevitable for everyone in my shoes and something I too would eventually come to–whether I wanted to or not.
Is There Really a Loving God?
This idea that life would be better without my faith didn’t match up with what I have been taught since I was very young. I was taught that there is a God, He loves us, and His entire plan for us revolves around achieving eternal happiness–through exercising faith in Him. It doesn’t make sense then that He would allow some of His children to be afflicted with something that made it so faith in Him only drove happiness further away.
It was a several month’s process with some profound experiences that I may share in a post another day, but I determined that there is a God above and He does love me. My belief in Him is critical to my surviving mental illness. Those experiences brought me closer to God than I had ever been. So, for a time, clinging to my faith in Him was not a difficult thing. The mental illness still brought challenges, but I felt so close to Him and was so keenly aware of His love, we pulled through each of those challenges.
For Those Who Feel Things Deeply
Individuals with mental illnesses like bipolar disorder are often called “overly-sensitive” because we feel things very deeply. I think that is a strength more than it is a weakness and that the capacity to feel such strong emotions can make us better people. But I digress.
This applies to all emotions–positive and negative. We can find great joy and love deeply, but we also experience rage-like anger and hurt so intensely that forgiveness can feel impossible. Good or bad, we become accustomed to experiencing life through these deep emotions.
This includes faith. I go through periods where I feel so close to the Holy Ghost, I feel as though I am constantly being inspired to do one thing or another. These promptings range from something as simple as complimenting the sales clerk on her hair to really hard things like writing a letter to someone I’ve never met or going back to school.
For Those Who Feel Nothing
And then there are times when I struggle to feel anything. It’s not positive or negative; it’s just empty. The two most difficult places to feel this emptiness are with my family and with God.
I pray and read my scriptures and go to church. I try to serve those around me. But I can’t find God anywhere because I can’t feel Him. My faith has always been inextricably interwoven with my feelings. I knew God loved me because I felt His love. I knew He was there because I felt His presence in my life. So these times of no feeling upend my faith.
Interestingly enough, I still believe that God exists and that He is a loving God. But because I cannot feel Him, I feel completely lost. Try as I may, I can’t figure out where I stand with Him. I have an intense fear of abandonment, so my brain tells me that I can’t feel Him because He has left me. My brain tells me that I don’t feel His love because He no longer loves me. And this thought is particularly painful because I am constantly battling thoughts that no one loves me because I am undeserving of love. I cannot express how painful it is to go to church in search of feeling God and to witness others finding and feeling Him there, but to sit there still completely empty.
Doubt Your Doubts
Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, “First doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith. We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” My faith didn’t just happen by chance or by accident. It happened through years of searching scriptures, fasting and praying, acting on spiritual promptings, bearing testimony, being active in church, and a million other little things that built my faith day by day. My faith has brought me the greatest moments of joy I’ve experienced.
Yes, my faith sometimes makes life feel more painful. I believe in a God who loves me. I can’t find Him no matter how hard I try. So, where does that leave me? Why would He leave me alone when I hurt so profoundly that the only solution I can think of to remove my pain is to take my own life?
I stopped asking Him to heal me of my mental illness, but why can’t He at least be here to comfort me in the depths of enduring it? I am certainly not a perfect person, but I do my best to repent daily to be worthy of His comforting Spirit. Why can’t I feel that? He promised that if I try to live righteously, I will have the companionship of the Holy Ghost. Why don’t I? More painful still: Does God not love me because I really am not deserving of His love?
I don’t know.
Enduring the Unknowing
Some days this unknowing makes me bitter. I stop praying. If I can’t find God, then I will stop seeking Him. And for a time, I convince myself I’m happier this way. If I no longer want God’s love, then it will no longer hurt to not feel it.
But I always come back to my faith. Somehow, it is still there. I still believe God exists and that He loves me. I don’t have any of the answers I want and feel like I deserve. But I’m learning to keep going anyway. Because as President Uchtdorf says, doubt holds us prisoner and prevents us from feeling the love of the Lord. I won’t ever find God’s love if I follow where my doubt leads. Experience has taught me that if I keep going, this period of emptiness will end. I will feel God’s love for me again. But only if I keep moving forward in faith.
I also appreciate the words of Elder M. Russel Ballard, “Sometimes we can learn, study, and know, and sometimes we have to believe, trust, and hope. In the end, each one of us must respond to the Savior’s question: “Will ye also go away?” We all have to search for our own answer to that question. For some, the answer is easy; for others, it is difficult.”
Accepting that it is Enough
It is hard and it is painful. Some days, I can’t bring myself to go to church because it hurts too much. Some days I ask my husband to pray about things for me because I don’t ever feel an answer on my own. Some days my prayers are along the lines of, “I’m not sure if You’re listening or answering my prayers. If You are, here are some things I’d really appreciate Your help with. But if not, it’s okay. I get it.” And sometimes I can see that the things I asked for happen. Even though I can’t feel the love that usually accompanies an experience like that, I can trust that it’s God saying, “I know you can’t feel me right now, but here is evidence that I’m still here. I haven’t abandoned you and I still love you. If you can’t feel me, I will give you things that you can see.”
And I’m trying really hard to let that be enough.