CW: disordered eating, depression, religious trauma, self harm
I first struggled with depression and body image in high school. For the better part of my junior year, I restricted my eating or avoided eating altogether. I was in a theater production at school, so my evening rehearsal schedule meant I could pretend to eat all three meals at school while managing to only munch on some free oyster crackers from the cafeteria throughout the day. After several months of this, as well as constant urging from my friends, I summoned the courage to talk to someone at my church about what I was going through.
My youth leader and I went to dinner at Chik-fil-A (the classic Christian restaurant, obviously), and I confessed my hatred for my own body and general unhappiness with my life. I remember saying, “I don’t know why I’m so unhappy. I have a boyfriend. I have a lot of good friends. I’m doing well in school.” To which my youth leader responded, “Yes, but you need to be able to be happy even if you don’t have those things. That’s why we find our joy in Jesus.” Here is the first lie: If you really love Jesus, you won’t ever be unhappy.
It wasn’t until over a decade later that I realized how disturbing this was. There I sat, a fragile, 95 pound 16-year-old, and instead of getting the mental health assistance I so badly needed, I was being told that my unhappiness was directly correlated to the depth of my religious belief. If I would only pray more, read the Bible more, and be a better Christian, then I wouldn’t be having these problems. I wasn’t referred to get any outside help and instead was referred to a devotional book for teenage girls.
For whatever its worth, I did start eating again after the conversation with my youth leader. Whether it was the confession of my issue itself or my deep belief in what I’d been told, by the time I graduated from high school, I’d started eating all three meals again. But, really, that’s not the thing that matters the most. What does was my belief in my ability to be cured from mental illness simply by praying and going to church. Sure, prayer, meditation, and community can all help improve mental health and personal awareness. I don’t discount that. But my brain chemistry cannot be cured by sitting in a dark room with my eyes closed. People far more devout than I experience unhappiness and depression all of the time. And the refusal of many church communities to acknowledge the dark emotions we all face leads to a church full of shiny, happy people. When church does not allow us to be unhappy, depressed, anxious, or angry, it denies us the fullness of our human experience.
Earlier in my high school experience, I struggled with other self-harming behaviors. Like any addiction or illness, I would go through periods of recovery followed by periods of relapse. Every time I fell back into old patterns, I would spend the next spiritual retreat with my youth group reflecting on my own short comings. This is the second lie: My inability to overcome mental illness is based in my unwillingness to let God work in my life.
I spent countless high school retreats crying while participating in whatever metaphorical spiritual practice had been employed to help us “let go” of the things holding us back in our relationship with God. Sometimes this was writing down what we needed to let go of and nailing it to a cross. (Don’t get me started on the disturbing theological implications of this one.) Sometimes it was writing down our sins on a piece of paper and throwing it in the fire. Sometimes it was holding a small stone in our hands, meditating on it, and then laying it at the foot of the cross to represent our burdens. While I understand what was being attempted with these practices, for me, they did nothing but damage. Each time, I contemplated the same things. I wasn’t happy: I was depressed, self-harming, anorexic, and lonely. I believed that if I tried hard enough and really meant it, then God would take these problems away. Each time, this turned out not to be true, and each time I thought it was my own fault for not having enough faith for God to take away my burdens.
I do not believe that God magically rewards “good people” with joy, wealth, and easy lives. I do not believe that God spitefully punishes “bad people” with mental illness, sickness, and poverty. My brain chemistry has nothing to do with my actions in the world. I was born with a brain that is suceptible to anxiety and depression, and this does not make me a failure in the eyes of God. While I do what I can to maintain my mental health – exercise, healthy diet, meditation, therapy – I am the best version of myself when I’m on the right medications. This does not mean God made me incorrectly or that I’ve done something to cause God’s anger at me. It just means I have to work harder each day to find the things that ground me.
Earlier this week, my therapist asked me what things were grounding me currently. I struggled to come up with an answer. Finally, I was able to mention my partner, my cats, a vegan pot pie I made for dinner, and my new garlic plant. I certainly did not mention guilt from being unhappy or a lack of faith. Days are hard right now, but that makes me no less faithful. It does make me more grateful for the good things when they grow. I am also grateful for the people and spaces that allow be to feel all of my feelings, even when they don’t make sense, even when they are overwhelming. I am grateful for a God who honors all of my feelings, especially the ones that hurt.