I wrote this post a while ago, but was waiting for the right time to post it on account of my already numerous posts on the subject. Now seemed to be the right time, since I keep encountering people I care about suffering from mental illness, particularly now at this darkest and coldest time of winter. This is for you – you know who you are.
So, having opened up the discussion on two counts of different kinds of mental illness/mood disorder, I want to follow this up with a discussion of the difficulties posed by these things when the person suffering from them brings them into Christian communities. What makes this most difficult is that the things that most deeply affect our spiritual journeys and struggles – those very things that one talks about with Christian friends and considers part of one’s Christian witness – are not the things we have made space for discussing in many Christian circles. Let me begin, for instance, with the typical question of “Where are you at, spiritually.” It is a little similar to the most annoying question you can ask a depressed person, “What is going on? Why are you sad?” Because the problem with the deepest forms of depression is that there is no reason. There is not a narrative one can give wherein it makes sense. It is in the truest sense of the word irrational. There is a story about a depressed person who went on a nice holiday to a beautiful location. She opened the door, heard the birds singing and saw all the beauty, and began to weep. This is depression. In its deepest form, it is by its nature an enigma.
So you see how asking the depressed person about their spirituality can bring about a deep state of anxiety and fear. Not only can they often not answer the question, “Where are you at spiritually,” but simply have no answer to the question, “Where are you?” Where did the person go that seemed to have been here but that seems to have dissolved into nothing? Where did that person’s interests go? Where did the pleasure and even the pain go, that seems to have dissolved into blankness? You can see how bringing up something like this is not exactly what people are looking for in prayer groups, or when they ask after prayer requests. Because it is potentially devastating to some people’s lives and even their faith. Wouldn’t the very existence of such an inexplicable thing be an embarrassment to God, and a faith that cannot handle it? To the former I answer emphatically no; to the latter, I answer that a faith that cannot handle such things is rightly embarrassed because it is not fully Christian – Christ is sovereign, even over things we can’t explain or control.
We get something similar with OCD. There are legitimate fears that one can discuss. But the never ceasing fear that someone will go to hell because you accidentally slighted them in a way they could never have noticed is not one of these; it is an embarrassment even to try to explain because the person with OCD knows how irrational it sounds and is, though they also know how reasonable and compelling it feels. And even when one brings things like this up, the usual Christian response to it is to reason with it. Engage the alleged problem directly. And this becomes a problem. Because OCD by its nature demands such engagement again and again and again. Better to quote scripture at it as Jesus does at the devil and then move on. The primary problem with OCD is that it sets up battles that don’t need to happen and then wastes one’s own and others energy in these battles; as long as you are fighting, it wins, but it will do everything it can to convince you that fighting is the way to win. You will see the problem here. On one hand, OCD is generally off limits as a matter of discussion in Christian groups. But when symptoms are discussed, they are usually discussed as the problems that they masquerade as rather than the meaningless and nagging voice that they are. The irony is that simply neglecting them leaves the sufferer isolated and lonely. Simply engaging them can encourage them. The tricky thing is that really dealing with them is a matter of acknowledging their presence but then answering them with something other than the answer they want. For people such as Luther, Therese of Lisieux, and Bunyan, this something was the infinite and deep grace of God rather than a compulsive parry for the thrust of every obsession. But of course OCD is tricky, and I imagine that even achieving a deep understanding of this grace could fall pray to OCD. Coming out of Christian backgrounds that emphasized this, I recall fearing deeply that I had not really “gotten” grace as I was supposed, and fearing that I was still trying to save myself through works so that I was incessantly trying to have a spiritual experience all the more elusive because intangible and subject to my state of mind, and therefore the perfect prey of OCD – just “letting go and letting God,” is as vulnerable to OCD as anything else.
Of course, the even more difficult thing to deal with is the spiritual complications that things like OCD and depression cause. Some people may sin by coveting their neighbor’s wife, or cow, or Mercedes Benz, but personally I covet my neighbor’s sins. I covet the state of dealing with normal struggles that normal people deal with, that make sense when you tell them to others. Although I rarely knew any of them, I recall being somewhat jealous in high-school of the fluffy kind of people whose deepest concern was a shallow relationship with their eighth or tenth boyfriend or girlfriend. I imagine I would not want to be such a person – in fact I imagine I do not have the capacity to be such a person – but I could always wish; the grass of fluffy banality always seemed greener from the side that felt like hell. And even now I wish I had something more glamorous and dramatic to discuss than what can only be called the elusive acedia so hard to pin down and address and yet the most frequent result of paralysis from OCD and depression.
All this to say I am not sure I know how to tell people they can meet the spiritual needs of people with OCD and depression, but listening to them might be a first good step. Personally, I have no idea about the degrees of pscyhology, physiology, biology, and spirituality involved in things like this – in OCD and depression the whole person suffers and so it is a problem on multiple levels. Clearly there is a biochemical element. Clearly there is a cognitive and psychological element. And though I hesitate to say it on account of the ways that various Christians misconstrue it, there is clearly a spiritual element. To clarify for those who think this way, I am not here saying that such things are demonic in the traditional sense that requires exorcism or Neil Anderson-esque type things etc. – I have seen severe problems when people treat mental illness and mood disorder as such. Particularly, there becomes a problem when these things are construed as purely spiritual problems that can be fixed by deeper piety, holiness etc. What I do mean though is that, for instance, the texts that most resonate with me in terms of thinking about my faith are not those lovey-dovey-happy texts we put up on powerpoint – no, they are those benighted and backward texts that speak of fierce conflict with devils. For whatever OCD and depression are, they certainly feel like those fierce assaults that not everyone else can see or understand. Who knows what they are, but for my money the best way I can describe my experience of faith in the midst of these things is to have people read a text like Guthlac A – preferably in the Old English – and then follow it up for dessert with something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is often very Christian without meaning to be. It is in the absurdities and inanities that the characters in these texts face that I see most often reflected my own condition: not one that fits happily into the model of struggles we ought and ought not to have according to the norms of a nice Evangelicalism, but one that finds a horrifyingly deep darkness and anxiety matched and superseded only by the grace that does not obliterate but has the power to transform and create ex nihilo.