A few days ago, I was the guest on an internet radio show called “The Stigma of Mental Illness Radio,” hosted by my friend, Chrissie Hodges. Chrissie and I are kindred spirits – same age, similar upbringing, lifelong OCD, and a desire as adults to discuss our struggles openly so as to help others and erase the stigma of mental illness. The topic for discussion was religion and mental health (or lack thereof). Both Chrissie and I were influenced heavily by conservative Christianity over the course of childhood, which led to what is known in the OCD world as “scrupulosity” – excessive self-examination in hopes of keeping God happy, leading to compulsions that are intended to alleviate the anxious uncertainty about whether we are “in” with God or not.
For me, this version of OCD took center stage in middle school. Like many with OCD, I repeated “magic” numbers in my head to ward off Satan’s evil spirits that I was sure were swarming around my head and body at every moment, ready to find their way in if I let my guard down for a second. “731, not 666,” I would say over and over again, literally thousands of times a day. For some reason, I had determined that 7, 3, and 1 were all Godly numbers, and in case you are unaware, the number 666 is known as “the mark of the beast (or Satan)” in the Bible. In addition, every time I thought I might have sinned inadvertently…telling a story “wrong” and then feeling like I had lied; lusting for some girl (I think my middle school lusts involved hand-holding and perhaps a peck on the cheek!); or accidentally thinking some unholy thought about not liking a teacher…I repeated “the sinner’s prayer.” This is the Protestant’s prayer that supposedly marks the beginning of a person’s salvation. It goes something like this: “Dear God, I’m a sinner. I need a savior. I accept Jesus as my savior, and I ask for your forgiveness for all my sins.” This prayer is so magical, that once one says it, s/he switches from a destiny of eternal torture in hell to a destiny of eternal bliss in heaven. Wow! What a simple way to make God like you! Since I was such a terrible kid, what with these thoughts of hand-holding (and I’m talking the interlocking finger kind, people! Serious, serious depravity), I needed this magic prayer a few hundred times each day just to make sure that when the kidnappers came and captured me, only to kill me eventually, I would go to heaven, not hell. (Yes, I worried about the kidnapping incessantly, too.)
I was a bundle of fun, you see. Still am.
Anyway, I certainly can’t speak to the way that religion impacts every person with a mental illness, but I can add that once my depression sprouted wings, it has also mixed very, very poorly with my former religious views. Sticking with my favorite topic of hell, here’s what my depressed brain does to/for me when the topic comes up: “Just the concept of torture, even for one minutes, is beyond comprehension. Most people have never come anywhere near torture, yet Christianity blithely claims that ‘unsaved’ people will go to hell. Nevermind that, while claiming this, they are sitting comfortable in their living rooms while people die by the scores each day in their very own cities while said Christians binge watch Lost on Netflix. I mean, really, I dare you to rip out just one fingernail, Christian! That’s torture. Now submit to that for an hour, a day, an eternity…and you’ve got hell. Not only that but you don’t get the relief of death that usually comes at the end of a good torture session. You keep staying healthy enough to have more skin ripped off your body, more fingernails torn off, more limbs stretched until they rip loose from their sockets…no sleep, no relief…just torture. Forever. How could this God who supposedly loves us so much allow such a thing? You say it’s because he’s so holy that he has to remove us from his presence, but isn’t the story of Jesus about God actually wanting to be with us rather than wanting to be rid of us?! Then again, why wouldn’t hell exist? Shoot, I feel like I live in hell a lot of the time. Children are sold into sex slavery; poverty is rampant worldwide; human beings seem inherently selfish much of the time, and that asshole just cut me off in traffic (pause in worrying about hell so I can focus on shooting the bird to this evil, hell-bound driver who returns the gesture by making his hand into a gun and pretending to shoot me (this actually happened a week ago, but don’t worry, after I shot him the bird, I prayed for him to accept Jesus as his personal savior)). I mean, actually, doesn’t this world actually prove the validity of the idea of hell – an unfair punishment for people who never asked to be put into this insane world in the first place. I feel like Hamlet – a guy who wants to die but is too damn scared of what happens afterward to do anything about it. So maybe hell does exist, but one thing I am sure of is that anyone who actually believes in this sort of hell but who has failed to tell every single person they’ve ever encountered about it belongs there. ‘Effective witnessing tactics’ be damned! When a blind man is about to step into traffic, one doesn’t think to himself ‘Well, he’ll think I’m a lunatic if I just grab him. I’ll wait and see what happens and try to warn him of the situation slowly and gently.’ No, one grabs the blind man no matter what he may think of the tackler and leaves the befriending and explaining for later, after the man’s life has been saved.” I could go on for quite some time, but I’m wearying myself here, so perhaps you’re sick of my ramblings, too.
(Pause for a few days so Tim can calm down from how worked up all this rehashing of the agony my brain has crippled me with for so long.)
3 days later:
Now, where was I? Ahh, yes, religion and mental illness. What this blog post is supposed to be is a simple encouragement to those of you who are stuck in religious dogma to consider, as my friend Chrissie put it, “breaking up with God.” This is the phrase Chrissie used about her current “status” with God. I feel the same way about my own relationship with God.
Tim: “You know, God, this isn’t working. It’s not you (actually, I think you do deserve some of the ‘credit’); it’s me. I’m sorry.”
Tim: “Ok, well. Good luck to you, running the universe and all. Maybe I’ll see ya around.”
I know, I know. I’m being a heretic, but I’ve become quite comfortable with my heresy, and here’s the weird thing: Letting go of my belief that I can have some personal contact with God…that she’ll someday explain to me the purpose of all I’ve been through…that I’ll reap rewards in heaven for serving God here on earth…all of this letting go has been enormously cathartic for me. There’s no more angry birds shot at the heavens (I mean my middle finger; not the red birds on your iPhone); no more “Why me, God?!”; no more searching the Bible for encouragement or hope. Just me in this moment, standing in awe of the great cosmic mystery and allowing it to be just that – a MYSTERY, forever. I don’t need to know all the answers. I don’t need God to validate my decisions. I don’t need to know what happens to dead people. To reference Albert Camus yet again, when we live our lives in the hope of some other, future existence (whether it be heaven or even retirement or the next job, etc.), we are committing a sort of suicide – failing to experience this moment, this life fully. To live in fear of hell is to kill my attachment to this moment, beautiful or horrible as it may be. To live as if heaven will be where everything is set right is to ignore the fact that things right here, right now are both wrong and right. We should be more concerned with embracing this momentary reality, this eternal NOW. We can deal with what comes next if and when that happens.
Now after expressing some of these thoughts on the radio, a few very wonderful people posted things on Facebook about how much their religion/faith has helped them, as if to argue with Chrissie and me. To them (to you?), I say this: I genuinely think that’s wonderful. Just the other night I was at a fundraiser for the disease that took the life of our 6-year-old friend a few years back. Ironically, her death has driven her formerly-agnostic parents to church while it played no small part in driving me out the church door. Not just because she died but because of the inadequacy of the explanations for how things work and what all of this means and where dead people go that I have found in the church for nearly 40 years. My questions led me to break up with God, and in that breaking up, I’ve found a surrender to life, to my experiences, that has offered me a greater peace than I’ve ever known. The little girl’s parents’ questions and fears led them to a different sort of surrender. Funny how these things go. But I don’t need any more to figure out which one of us is in the right place. They are where they are, trying to figure out their new normal without their child. I am where I am, trying to quit figuring everything out so I can exist in this moment. It’s helping.
Too often, we forget that religions are human inventions created for the purposes of connecting with the Transcendent, offering guidelines for a “good” life, and proving community. God hasn’t seemed terribly concerned with making sure that “all who seek” find the same thing. Spiritual seekers do find a lot of common experiences, but they never find the Whole Truth contained in a religion. Usually, spiritual seekers of the deepest kind find something far beyond religion; usually, they have become fed up with religion and gone looking for something that cannot be contained in a church or a mosque or a temple. Religions can be a fantastic way of beginning to connect with our spiritual selves, but if you stick with a religion for too long, you’ll become one of those people who think that God has remarkably similar likes and dislikes as you and your friends.
So I’ll sum all of this up this way: Wherever you are in your journey toward mental health, be all there. Don’t try to be more religious (or less). Be who you are where you are. Start by accepting this moment just as it is. Start by forgiving yourself for struggling…this is some hard shit! Treat yourself with the compassion you’d offer to someone else who felt like you feel. Love yourself as best as possible today; then tomorrow; repeat each day/moment forever. You don’t need to be any different than you are RIGHT NOW. And as far as religion is concerned, use it if it helps you, but make sure you are using it to connect with NOW, not just to imagine that when you die you’ll get “fixed” forever. If a loving God exists, s/he’ll wait around while you wander toward and/or away from him/her. If s/he doesn’t exists or isn’t loving, then abandoning him/her won’t matter anyway because s/he can’t be trusted.
I know this is a very, very loaded topic and that I have probably offended or shocked some of my (4-5) readers. I have no interest in upsetting anyone or in arguing whether I’m right or wrong about what I’ve written. What I do have an interest in is letting those of you who need to know this that you’re not alone, that it’s okay to jump out of the “God life raft.” The water’s actually quite nice if you’re finding the boat a bit cramped and stifling. All I hope to do is encourage. If you find my thoughts upsetting, please, please, please give them no attention whatsoever. Just go pray for those of us who are floating adrift but oddly, inexplicably at peace in the unpredictable water.
PS. As you know, I write this blog in the hope of encouraging others who feel alone. Please, if you know someone who might need to read this post or to know about this blog, then pass it alone or just reach out to let them know you care about them. Who knows? It might be just what that person needs. That voice in your (and everyone’s) head that says, “I’d just be imposing” or “I don’t want to make things worse” is full of shit…who doesn’t like being cared for and thought about by others?!