There’s a stigma about everything right now, especially in the conservative Christian community. So, let’s talk about mental illness with the limited knowledge I have. I hope to try and break some of the stigma’s behind mental illnesses, or at least work on them, and help people understand better what is going on behind the scenes.
I’ll use myself as an example. I have been diagnosed by a medical professional, an MD, with PTSD, anxiety and bipolar disorder. Now already you are thinking, wow that’s a lot. Maybe you’re skeptical, maybe you’re suddenly wary of me, maybe you think I need to pray more, maybe you don’t believe in mental illnesses, or maybe you totally understand and have no judgment at all. Well, I want to break down some barriers with you, no matter what your opinions on mental health are.
I am a Christian, and I find my identity in Christ and him alone.
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (1 Corinthians 12:27)
I may be someone who has a diagnosis, or several, but that is not who I am. But because it’s something that I do deal with on a daily basis, I want to share a bit about what that looks like. Now before I share what any of these diagnoses look like, please keep in mind that some of the symptoms may be similar across the board, all struggles and all people are different and will respond differently.
First, PTSD is a very interesting thing. I am so thankful that the PTSD I have suffered from in the past has mostly gotten better. But I have been through two very traumatic situations that I have written about in previous blog posts, and then I have been in other situations that triggered memories and a PTSD episode. These episodes, again, look different for everyone. When I was overcome by them, it was just that, I was overcome. I shut down, sometimes I would run away from a situation, sometimes I would burst into tears, sometimes I would curl up in my bed bawling, all with the memories that had been triggered playing in my mind as vividly as the day it happened. Some people think the PTSD only happens to those who have been in the military, or in active combat. Those who serve our country are definitely at risk for PTSD, but so is anyone who has been through a trauma. People who have PTSD don’t like to be in public places when they have episodes and flashbacks. It’s scary, it’s embarrassing, and a lot of us will suffer alone, or with one trusted person. PTSD is not an excuse, it is real. Sometimes people misuse mental health problems to get special treatment, but real and genuine PTSD is not a joke.
Now let’s get into anxiety a little bit. Anxiety sounds minor, and it can be. But it can also be very severe. My anxiety has improved considerably over the past few years, with growth in the Lord, supportive friends, prayer, and medication. Yes, I said medication. But I will get into that a little later, just keep that topic in your mind as we continue here. Anxiety can feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest, something terrible is about to happen, you can’t breathe and your thoughts are racing. That is usually how it looks for me, accompanied by chest pain and heart palpitations. Anxiety is difficult because it can feel like you are going crazy, losing it, like you are in imminent danger when there might truly be nothing wrong at all. For people who don’t deal with anxiety, triggers for those with anxiety can seem minor and silly, but for someone suffering from anxiety or an anxiety attack, it can seem like the end of the world, or as if everything is crashing down. My anxiety is managed by a low caffeine intake, a lot of prayers, and some medication. There is no shame in taking medication. Let me say that again. There is no shame in taking medication. It does not mean I don’t have enough faith, it does not mean that God isn’t big enough to heal me, it does not mean I have given up on God, and I am not medicating something the doesn’t exist. God allowed medical advances, he allows medication, he gives us the gift of doctors and modern medicine. Medication isn’t for everyone, of course. But no one should be shamed or treated differently for being on medication, or for not being on medication for that matter.
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. (1 Corinthians 6:12)
The Lord is our Master so nothing will dominate us. I am not dominated by anxiety, it does not rule or control me. I am also not ruled or controlled by PTSD. My medication does not rule or control me, as God has allowed it, made it possible and made it lawful. Please think about that if you have ever judged someone for being on medication for a mental health problem that you don’t understand.
And now let’s talk about bipolar. This is probably the most intense of my mental health problems, and also the most “real” by some standards. I will clarify by saying that I have bipolar II, meaning that my lows are still just as low—depressive episodes—but my highs—manic episodes—are not as intense. When I am manic, I get extra burst of creativity, more energy, I am more impulsive, I will be more likely to engage in risky behavior without thinking about the consequences, I will sleep less, and I will be more outgoing. This mostly sounds good, right? Well, sometimes it can be in order to get things done quicker, and it definitely feels better than a depressive episode, but mania can be scary, very exhausting and embarrassing. Now let’s talk about the depressive episodes. Those are dark, difficult, painful, confusing. It can look like sleeping way more than usual and having no energy, having a really hard time getting out of bed, not wanting to interact with others, either not eating enough or eating way too much, tears, self-harm, and thoughts of death or suicide. These two extremes can come at any time, or I can just be somewhere in the middle. So again, I am on medication to help regulate the intense mood swings that bipolar brings. And again, I am not ashamed of that. If the medication I am taking can help me feel normal again, and make me want to stay alive, then I am going to take it. I can’t say it enough—taking medication does not mean I have weak faith, and it is not something to be ashamed of.
Just because I have PTSD doesn’t mean I was a veteran in active combat, but it means I have been through trauma. Just because I have anxiety doesn’t mean I’m afraid of everything. Just because I have bipolar doesn’t mean I’m crazy, or a monster. Just because I’m on medication doesn’t mean I’m not a good Christian. But just because I struggle with these things and have these diagnoses does not mean I am defined by them, that I live in their shadow or in bondage to them. Christ is my Master, not my mental health. Please think twice before you judge anyone who is on medication for a mental health problem. And if you are on medication for a mental health problem and feel judged for it or ashamed of it, remember where your true identity lies.