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Mental Illness and Faith: from two angles


My entry into the realm of mental illness and faith came young. I had no idea how it would come to almost take over my life. I was fourteen. A minister's kid. Happy and keen to share my Christian faith with those I came across. The world was full of promise and I believed that God would keep me safe from harm. I thought I was bullet-proof. I was one of those people who could get on with anyone, and perhaps that's why I came to ***'s attention.

*** was a man in his thirties who suffered from schizophrenia. I caught his attention and I became his obsession. For the next fourteen years he stalked and harassed me. No matter what I did and where I went, he knew where I was, what I was doing, and whom I was with. He would always track me down. His schizophrenia meant that he was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. I would pray for him to be admitted again because then I would get a break from his attentions. That didn't always work though and at one point while I was still at school, I received a letter from him. Nothing unusual in that but this letter was different. In it he told me that God had commanded that we should be together for life and that I should marry him. He was very clear that this was God's will and that if I didn't obey God on this, then bad things would happen to me.

As I said, I thought I was bullet-proof so bad things were not going to happen to me. Well not anything more than ***'s attention. For fourteen years I lived under the grip of ***'s mental illness. I really only got away from it when I finally left town, got married and changed my name. Then I was free. Or I thought I was free. God had rescued me. I had clung to the Bible when it said that if I had faith and did not doubt, then I would be freed from the torment I had gone through.

But the story doesn't end there. I wish it did for everything got worse when my own mental health became a problem. Only a year later I became depressed and suicidal. I was anxious and stopped eating. Going to church became too hard for me. I couldn't relate to the joy being celebrated. I stopped going altogether when a stranger told me to smile and said, “it's not that hard”. She had no idea! A number of Christian friends, who criticised my actions and decisions as to appropriate treatment, also did not help.

I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Anorexia Nervosa and I felt there was no place for me at church. It seemed to me that obviously my faith had not been enough. I also began to wonder whether those bad things that *** had threatened would happen to me if I didn't obey God's will to marry him, were finally happening.

Many years of pain have followed. Various drug overdoses including two life-threatening suicide attempts, more hospital admissions than I care to remember, self-mutilation, substance abuse, starvation of food and anything good in my life, multiple courses of electro-convulsive treatment (ECT), and large doses of many different medications. Those close to me loved me, cared for me, and prayed for me long after I gave up; but none of it brought the healing I had grown up believing would be mine.

Years of different types of psychotherapy have also followed. Through it I have come to identify various ways in which I was hurt and abused, both as a child and as an adult. The child in me simply expected God to protect me from harm. As a suffering adult I still expected that God would protect me and save me from harm. I thought that even when I could no longer pray, that the prayers of my friends and family would be heard and answered.

It felt like a double whammy to me. I had prayed so long to be saved from the effects of ***'s mental illness and now it was my own mental illness I wasn't being saved from. . I believe that *** struggled to find a place for his mental illness in the Church and that was part of why he latched onto me. I cared about him, and at fourteen, I didn't realise the problems that would go on to create.

I am slowly coming to the realisation that perhaps I will always struggle with mental illness. It's been twelve years now. And it still hurts. Some days it is still intensely difficult to just keep taking the next breath and to stop myself from actively pursuing an end through death. I still don't know whether it is possible to put the broken pieces back together again. I'm working on it.

Although I haven't totally figured it out yet and often I am not convinced of it, maybe God hasn't forsaken me. I don't know and he hasn't explained himself to me yet. Maybe he never will. At the moment I don't see a place for me in Church and I know that is a disappointment to some. I simply don't fit anymore. Actually I admire those with mental illnesses who are still in the pews. That takes guts. Whether it's schizophrenia, depression, eating disorders or any type of mental disorder it is hard to claim the joy so many want you to hold onto when you just don't feel it inside.

Jayne Holland

July 2005

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