Note: IOCDF is not affiliated with any religious groups and is not a faith-based organization.
By Valerie Andrews
We are not discussing mental health outside of our intimate circles. We have checked out. We have become complacent with treating our physical and mental being. In my case when it comes to my OCD struggles, perhaps the biggest obstacle has been my spiritual being. Growing up in a generation deeply imbedded in religious beliefs, traditions, a cultural bias, I still find myself struggling for the church’s approval or lack of it at 66 years old.
We are coming to our clergymen and women, we just are not staying or receiving help in its totality. We need the faith community to step up its efforts and become more vocalized in their ministries. Sufferers deserve as part of the flock to be free, transparent and feel safe within their congregations.
I had already been silently suffering within the walls of my own mind for several years. I knew something was wrong, my middle son was graduating from high school and I was busy calling my pastor to tell him that I thought I had lupus because I have read this article and of course I had every last symptom. He graciously calmed me down, prayed with me and sent me on my way. I still remember what he told me. “The devil is just trying to mess with you, go enjoy Robert’s graduation.” I am by no way suggesting that he was wrong. I take full responsibility for my own diagnosis. How can I expect my pastor to know what was wrong with me if I didn’t know myself. I was shown both empathy and compassion, I was given support and encouragement. But the point that I’m trying to make is what if he was aware that I might be experiencing a mental health crisis? My son graduated in 2002, 20years ago, so I continued on my merry way for an additional eight years undiagnosed until I woke up one morning and thought that my eyelashes were gone or my nose was swollen. My ears were different. Until I eventually started measuring each side of my face several times a day for several weeks. And if the sizes were not equal you could not have convinced me that I was not dying. Never in my darkest days or nights, did the words mental illness let alone obsessive compulsive disorder crossed my mind.. so I went right back living inside my mind for an additional year. Never bringing up the incident or what was going on. I told no one not my husband, not my friends, not my children, and certainly not my pastor. So I went right back to sitting in the pews every Sunday morning feeling convicted and convinced as a Christian I was too blessed to be stressed.
But my story did not begin in 2011, following my diagnosis. I thought for many years that it did. However I realize that it began as a child. I was around 10 years of age when the first person I knew, or thought that I knew was crazy Miss Mabel. She lived in the last house on the block. Rumor had it that she had killed the family dog and afterwards her husband found her wandering in the streets covered in blood. I was terrified of Miss Mabel and avoided her at all costs. The reason I’m sharing this story with you is because I never witnessed any of that behavior from Ms.Mabel, but I sure bought into it. Nobody ever corrected me or said anything to the contrary. Not my parents or my friends parents, not the local pastor, not anyone that sat in the same pews that she did every first Sunday. So as a child, neither did I. I never once thought about how alone or shameful she must’ve felt every time she came to worship until I became a Miss Mabel myself. I got the lesson . It took me 50 years and an encounter with some sparrows to open my understanding. Stigma is nothing new we know as believers that there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s been around a long time and I’ve been both a victim and victimizer.
During my research for this blog I stumbled across this book, Troubled Minds, written in 2003, by Amy Simpson. It recounts her mothers battle with schizophrenia and Amy’s perspective on how the church responded to her mothers diagnosis. She said, “If you’re pregnant in the church you get a casserole, if you have a cold you get a casserole, you get a casserole for everything except mental illness.” Mental health, OCD, anxieties, are the no casserole diseases. It can feel like the new modern day leprosy for those of us suffering. Not only within the church body but with family, coworkers, but also a pulpits. It has become the norm just to ignore it. The stigma surrounding Mental illness can sometimes feel worse than the disease.
In my case I have been very transparent with my struggles. Sometimes by choice and sometimes without. Like the time I was teaching an adult Sunday school lesson and my OCD decided to challenge me and tell me that I was a hypocrite, and tell me that I was unworthy. I had no authority to either call myself a teacher. Because my church body has been open to learning about my personal anxieties and trials they were able and willing to step right up and cover me without judgment. But too often that is not the norm. How can I expect a Mental Health Community to sit at the table and share a casserole with the faith community if we are continuously over looked? It’s just been crickets from the community of faith, silence from the pulpit to the last pew in the aisles. And it’s not fair to me as a good and faithful member . So I asked you how can we be known by our love if I’m still sitting in the pews waiting on a casserole? We have got to change the narrative.
OCD and other forms of mental illness and anxieties are medical diagnoses, let me say that again it is a diagnosis from a physician or psychiatrist. It is not made up, not in our heads, not any different than your medical diagnosis. The brain is an organ just like the kidneys, liver, and the heart. We all have a perspective about mental illness. Whether good, bad, or indifferent and that’s OK. But what is harmful, even dangerous is when we the mental health and faith communities take on that US versus THEM attitude. We have an issue with the term mental illness so we take a stance, draw the line in the sand and dare anyone to step over it!. We all have to owe that, change can be hard but possible.
We all heard The saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?” Words have consequences, it’s not what you say but how you say it We have got to change the narrative before we can really begin a beneficial conversation between both communities. Words like crazy, lunatic, it’s just the blues, you need to pray harder, can leave members of the faith community feeling unvalidate, unimportant and even unwanted. I know because I belong to both communities. On the other end of the spectrum, I have been called a Jesus freak, judge mental, stupid for believing, and a hypocrite, not nice words from either side. We have got to start watching our negative language.
In closing, those suffering from mental illnesses and anxieties oftentimes are encouraged to pray harder and have more faith. I would never tell you or anyone else to stop playing. Prayer has always been and continues to be my first priority, my first resource, my first love. Plain and simple, praying is talking to Jesus telling him all my sorrows. As a Christian I know the power of prayer. But I will tell you the value of seeking professional help and assure you that I’m not out resourcing God, the clergy or the church. I’m just using the additional resources that God has given me. Not one person questioned me about going to the doctors when I fractured my foot in three places. No one implied that I was taking drugs for my pain and not one single person asked me if my physician was a Christian. Because they saw my broken foot as a valid condition. In conclusion, the faith community is the first place mental health sufferers go to for help that is clear by statistics. Because we love the church and trust that our pastors and clergy can point us in the right direction spiritually when we ourselves are lost and don’t know how to do that. Stigma is the result of the failure to understand behavior, nothing more, nothing less. And I say to you for a group of people who already carry such a heavy burden that is unacceptable, unnecessary, and unapologetic to ask me or expect us to drag that along with our OCD and anxieties. My hope and my prayers is simply now that we all know better.. collectively we all commit to doing better. Stay blessed and hope to see you in heaven one day... Thank you.