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Life is Pain, Princess

Faith Doesn't Cure Mental Illness

Optimism is great and all, but let’s face it, it’s not going to stop bad things from happening. As a perspective on life, optimism encourages hope, gratitude, and positivity. But as a method for preventing or surviving bad stuff, optimism sucks.

As a writer I definitely want to give my readers hope for the future, but you’re not going to get happy sunshine unicorns from me. That would do you a disservice because it’s not realistic, since denying that we have bad feelings that come from bad experiences doesn’t promote growth and healing, it promotes naivety. And it’s not who I am either. I don’t think I’m rude or even blunt, at least not all the time, but I am honest, and I encourage others to be so as well.

I love Inigo Montoya’s character in The Princess Bride. The handsome face and cute accent are part of it, but his loyalty and honesty are uplifting and bring a piece of reality into the fairy tale. But Inigo also makes me sad, in an uncomfortable way. His character’s back story is a side-plot in the movie, told only through his own words as he describes his quest to find the six-fingered man who killed his father. He is an intense and lovable figure, but he goes through life seeking only revenge for a painful loss in his past. 

I like Inigo Montoya because I once felt like he does. I wasn’t a total pessimist, and I was often a fun and loving person to be around. But beyond fighting my demons, there wasn’t much more to life. I’m not even talking about my life before I met Jesus, or not just about my life before I met Jesus. Up until about three years ago, my main motivation for my decision-making and my actions and my goals was fear, and there are days now where it still is. 

It would be easier for me to blame mental illness. Or childhood trauma. Or traumatic experiences in adulthood. Or bad genetics. Or the struggles of family and work and technology and creativity. I could describe myself here as a tragic artist, and it wouldn’t be totally inaccurate. I did lay in bed and cry over Don McLean’s song “Vincent” before I even reached puberty, and I did go to graduate school for a masters degree in a field that like only like 200 people on earth have even heard of. But I’m not a tragic artist, and I’m not a poor housewife, deprived of her creative outlet and opportunities to follow her dreams by demanding children who disrespect her. I’m not a genius locked away from a world that confuses my intelligence with insanity. I’m not a victim of abuse. 

I’ve been all of these things, and I’ve treasured each of these roles in my heart. Just as Mary treasured the promises delivered by the angel Gabriel, I have cuddled and nurtured the bad things in my life, like ugly dollar store stuffed animals to a child who has never had one. But I didn’t have to. I had lots of great things in my life, and I always have. Yet I clung to my tragedy because my trauma and my pain was what I used to define myself. It was how I found meaning. 

My meaning and purpose in life now is to follow God’s will for me in what I do and who I am. Three years ago, and maybe even ten years ago, I may have said the same thing, but it wasn’t true. It was an ideal, but it didn’t play out in reality, because I couldn’t take my eyes off of my fears long enough for me to experience any of the comfort or redemption that God was offering me. I knew Jesus was standing there, I knew He wanted me to come to Him, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the waves and the dark water. 

Depression and anxiety are nasty little beasts, and this is what they do to me. Even when I have the knowledge that my fears aren’t reality and that the circumstances that created them are long gone, and even when I know that my brain and my feelings can, in fact, lie to me, that knowledge only goes so far. It doesn’t stop the fear from being stronger. The fear that maybe I’m dying or this or that. The fear that I’m gradually going insane, and that it’s happening so slowly that no one but me will believe it’s true until it’s too late. The fear that my life really hasn’t been very worthwhile, and anyone else who could have been put in my place would have done just as well, or better, than I have. The fear that my kids are damaged, that my fears and my genetics have doomed them somehow. The fear that my husband is unhappy, that my worthlessness has spread to him, a sexually transmitted malaise. When I think about it, how could a 2000 year old Jewish man overcome all that? 

Of course, He did, and that’s the whole point. His whole point. That’s the Bible. But here’s my whole point. Just because He’s Jesus, and He’s mine, and I’m redeemed by His blood, doesn’t mean that I’m immune to fear. Nor does it mean that I should be, or that my faith is somehow less-than because I experience fear as a huge factor in my life. Mental illness isn’t faith illness, guys. Faith is about what I believe, what I know to be true without having to see it. Mental illness is about my brain. I know it’s there. I’ve had an MRI. I have a brain, among other internal organs. It looks normal because I don’t have the kind of mental illness that’s detectable through imaging (yet). But I know my brain is the cause of my mental illness, and while I’d love for you to pray for me to be free of it one day, I’m not mentally ill because my faith isn’t strong enough. Let’s just get that whole idea out of the way. 

On the contrary, actually. My faith is strong because it has to be. Because I have demons. Because I am Legion, for they are many. Some call faith a crutch for the weak. Yep. I didn’t choose to be weak. There were periods of life when I didn’t know I could be stronger than I was, but I’ve always been weak in some ways. But the faith-is-a-crutch people have it backwards. I don’t have faith because I’m weak and need a crutch. I have a crutch because I choose to have faith. And without that crutch, without my faith, I’d be flat on my face. A lot of people have had similar problems to the ones I have, and I’m sure some of them have gotten through them without the crutch of faith. But why would I want to? 

Here’s the point that I’m finally getting to: my faith is strong because I need it to be. Like a muscle, I exercise my faith when I’m strong so that it can support me when I’m weak. I cultivate my relationship with my God everyday because knowing God more means that I’m more confident in who He is in my life, and how much He loves me and supports me, and that I can have faith in that when my brain is telling me that I’m worthless. I have faith because God teaches me to practice it, to invest in my relationship with my Love. I need to trust God, because I need a power greater than myself to get through life. I need faith because optimism, without God, is a fairy tale.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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