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The Complexity of My Religion and My Depression

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I have a form of depression called dysthymia. It’s also called persistent depressive disorder. Basically, it means I feel the symptoms of depression but for a long period time and for no reason in particular. For over two decades, I didn’t know there was anything abnormal about my emotional state — I just assumed everyone felt the way I did inside: a deep emptiness and intense pain in the pit of my stomach that was impossible to get rid of.

Adding to the complexity of my dysthymia was my religious upbringing. I was taught to believe psychological and psychiatric therapy was anti-God and had no place in the biblical identity of a believer.

I was a teenager when I first encountered this teaching, presented at the time by a Rasputin-like leader who would draw a scale and put “responsibility” on one side and “guilt” on the other. He said psychology and psychiatry both aimed to relieve a person of their guilt by shifting responsibility to other people. Then when the person had attempted to shift too much guilt to others, they would have a nervous breakdown because guilt is to be embraced, not avoided, in our pursuit of a relationship with God.

I adopted that belief wholeheartedly.

But who wouldn’t? I was 14 years old, and my parents thought this teacher was 100 percent correct. I wanted to make them happy and please God, so there seemed to be no reason I should believe differently. So no mental health care, except the Bible and the teachings of those who studied it from our religious perspective.

Throughout my late teens and early 20s, I moved in social circles that espoused this belief about modern psychological and psychiatric treatment. Yet during that time, I spoke with many mentors I looked up to spiritually about what I was feeling. Their advice was manifold: pray, think about a single scripture verse for long periods each day, ask for the filling of the Holy Spirit, and speak in tongues, among other admonitions.

Of course, they couldn’t accurately diagnose me, no matter how much faith I had in their relationship with God, their spiritual insight, or their genuine love for me. And I believe they really did, and still do, care about me as a person — they just didn’t have the answer I needed. Additionally, it would be unfair to paint them with a brush of homogeneity. While some of these spiritual mentors added additional weight to my dysthymia and increased my pain, others had advice that gave me a clearer picture of God’s love for me, which eventually led to my seeking the treatment I needed.

Eventually, I developed friendships with people who “got me,” mainly those who had been brought up in similar traditions but who had set them aside in favor of perspectives that respected the progress achieved in mental health care over the past several decades. It started with the woman who I eventually married. She helped me see the truth in a lot of the psychology I had been taught to reject.

Next, two friends of ours, who are both members of the medical community, were able to distinguish my symptoms of persistent depression from a lack of faith in God or whatever other spiritual ailment past mentors had identified in my life. Their insight was both freeing and a big relief. I now had an answer to what I was struggling with and a potential treatment.

For me, dysthymia creates an unmeasurable emotional void — not numbness or lack of feeling, but an intense, palpable, emotional pain isolated in the center of my torso. Others have described feeling a weight on their hearts or shoulders, but for me, it’s always been in the pit of my stomach.

Adding to the complexity of the religious views I adopted about modern mental health care was the genuine self-doubt and indecision my dysthymia fueled. For the many years my persistent depression went untreated, I thought I had a belief system based on a real trust in God. But since emotion is so integral to trust, I don’t think I actually believed what I thought I did. Eventually, I came to intellectually acknowledge the truth of what I believed but didn’t actually practice any of it.

How could I? My dysthymia left me emotionally exhausted almost every waking moment and contributed to my need to sleep every spare chance I had. When people would tell me I needed to trust God more, I eventually would just lash out inside and write them off. I came to understand that trusting a higher power wasn’t the root of my issues, it was somewhere else.

I still struggle with my dysthymia on a daily basis. I’m working with a caring mental health physician and his staff to dial in the proper mix of treatment I need to heal. I don’t have to feel guilty about that or question my love for God. While I’m not completely recovered yet, shedding the weight of religious misguidance has been a major step in getting the care I need and deserve as a human being and a child of God.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Originally published: January 19, 2017
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