Today’s guest post is from Jade Miller. She has written about her experiences with church, faith, and recovery in “Pieces of Me: A Collision of Art, Poetry, Essays, Faith, and Mental Health.” I’m grateful for her story.
Content Warning: Emotional/Spiritual Abuse, Suicidal Ideation, Self-Harm, Eating Disorders
I was 12 the first time I was admitted to a psych ward.
I had succumbed to major depression (which mostly involved my fucked up family dynamics) and tried to kill myself. At 12 I had already realized that my family had serious issues, they didn’t want to change, and that I couldn’t escape them. Six more years seemed too long to wait to get out. I already knew by 12 that I was unwanted, unneeded, defective, flawed, had no purpose, and would never amount to anything anyway — so why stick around?
We were active members of a local Christian church, but if they even knew I was hospitalized, they said very little about it. 12 is that awkward age where you’re obviously too old for children’s church but you’re not quite old enough to fit in with the teens in youth group. I felt, as I typically did in most situations, orphaned. I had no place to belong.
At 12 I began the endless journey of shrinks and medications and therapy and the pointless revolving door of people who think they understand until they realize (or decide, or suppose) they can’t help you, or people who may or may not actually care about helping but they’re on the clock, so talk, already.
I had nothing to say.
Strangely, the church, as an entity, wasn’t one of these people.
I do remember having a (short) talk with the senior pastor once in his office. I made an appointment to ask him if suicide was a sin. He said yes. He said the ten commandments ordered us not to murder, and suicide was murder, turned on ourselves.
“What’s the difference,” he asked, “If I take a sword and stab you with it” — making a stabbing motion at me — “or take that same sword and stab myself with it?”
He then made the motion of stabbing himself.
I was 12. I didn’t know.
I remember being in vicious verbal battles with my family on the way to and from church, fixing my frozen smile in place in between the two trips, waving to everyone, while we ripped out each other’s hearts and guts in the car and left each other’s souls to bleed out in the privacy of our rooms at home.
My parents were complimented regularly about how lovely their children were, how well behaved and respectful and talented, and how well we ALL got along. All I could seem to think about was the screaming.
All I could seem to feel was empty. Hungry. Dead.
“How are you?” everyone at church would ask me. (They didn’t want to know. Trust me on this.)
I recited my lines. “Fine. Everything’s great.”
Then I would go home and lock myself in the bathroom for hours with an exacto knife. I had to wait until midnight so no one would notice the light on.
I think I spent more time in my teen years trying to cover up my scars and dream up an acceptable narrative of my life for the Christians surrounding me than I ever spent learning anything remotely helpful or true about God. I didn’t think of it as symbolic at the time, but perhaps it was: my futile attempt to carve away the things about myself that I hated. Which was everything.
The scars multiplied. I was perpetually dressed in long sleeves and pants.
Things got even more fun when I was diagnosed with an eating disorder at age 16. Truth be told, I’d had an eating disorder since I was about 8, but it wasn’t recognized for what it was at that time, and, I hid it. At age 16 I switched tactics and lost a dramatic amount of weight in a very short time, passed out on a mission trip and narrowly avoided a concussion. One of my friends’ moms who happened to be a nurse, saw me going down and caught me before I could bust my head open. I woke up on the floor with a cold wash cloth on my forehead and a group of eyes that registered not only concern, but embarrassment.
Still, they remained passive.
It wasn’t a case where the pastors were uninformed, or the church staff was innocently removed from the situation by having no idea anything was going on. It was a small church. I was on a first name basis with everyone. They knew. And especially the people present when I fainted – my youth group, my youth pastor – who were closer to me than my own family. We did lock-ins together, went on mission trips, met for youth group on Sundays and Wednesdays, had get-togethers at each other’s houses in between; we were tight knit. They saw me not eating, or slipping to the bathroom right after I managed to choke down a few bites. They saw my clothes loosen and hang from my bones. But talking about it was taboo. Predictably, as I had been taught, I blamed myself.
I felt like a freak. I obviously wasn’t worth saving.
Later, when I went to a Christian college, it was a strikingly similar experience. Except out of all the people at my college who looked the other way, I did meet one person who knew Jesus. Who really KNEW him. That friendship set my life on the course to real recovery, but not all at once. Beliefs that take years to implant can oftentimes take years to uproot. For me, the path to real rest and peace and wholeness was still another ten or more years down the line, but the starting point was Jesus. The real person. Recovery didn’t begin or continue with a behavior, a task, a mindset, or a scripted prayer to recite three times a day and as needed when I feel depressed. It started with an encounter.
Thankfully I can say today that most of the time, I’m doing well – free not just from an eating disorder, but also from self-injury, depression and suicide as well, among other things. But it’s been a LONG. ROAD. And unfortunately the church wasn’t part of most of it.
I’m not saying churches don’t exist who know how to handle mental illness; I’m just saying I’ve never been to or heard of one.
I’ve had more people than I can count ask me whether they can still be a Christian and take medication. They are ashamed at their perceived weakness. They’ve been told by a Christian somewhere along the line that needing medication is unspiritual and denotes a lack of faith on their part. This needs to stop. Healing from mental illness is going to look different for different people. Having the freedom to explore options without being denounced for their choices is a vitally important part of building a safe community where they can feel loved, heard, and accepted.
We need people who will love us, both in practical and spiritual ways, be with us, listen to us, and commit to sticking around for the long haul…even if it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient or tough. We need people to say “What do you need from me right now?” and just be there. We need people to search out the tiny bits of light that remain in our hearts, even when we can’t see it, even when we don’t believe in it, and call them forth. We need to be reminded – or informed – of who we really are, the beautifully designed being that God originally created, the one we so often lose sight of, or maybe can’t, as of yet, fathom. We need people with open minds, who don’t pretend to understand things they’ve never experienced, but who are willing to listen and try to imagine what things are like for us, and act from that newfound understanding.
We need people who really know how to listen to Jesus.
Churches seem to either have inappropriate or ineffective approaches to mental health issues, or they have no approach at all.
One of the approaches commonly encountered is the faith-healers. Please hear me: I’m not against faith healing. I think it’s awesome. BUT. The problem comes when someone doesn’t get their faith-healing and they’re shamed or villainized or even ostracized for what is viewed as their “lack of faith.”
Yes, there are still healings today. But how can we claim to know exactly why, when, or how those will or won’t happen? I believe God wants us to know him. And I believe he wants us whole, and able to live from our whole hearts. Other than that, I have no idea why he does or doesn’t do x, y, or z.
I don’t think it depends on us as much as we like to think it does, and I don’t think it depends on him as much as we fear it does,
I know I’ve received things from God that I didn’t even ask him for; I had ZERO faith that I’d receive it. Yet he gave it to me. And then I’ve seen situations where a dearly loved person was terminally ill, and had thousands of people praying for them, believing till the last minute of their life that they would be healed…yet they died. I can’t explain this, and I won’t put it into a box, because God isn’t in a box.
He’s with us, in our pain, in our confusion, in our questions.
There’s also the “work harder” approach, which basically promises that if you perform all the religious tasks, well, you know, religiously, you’ll feel better and be able to get your life together.
Depressed? Be more grateful! Count your blessings!
Suicidal? Go volunteer in a soup kitchen! Stop thinking about yourself so much!
OCD? Memorize Scriptures! Obsess over holy things!
Eating disorder? Remember that your body is a temple! Treat it like Jesus lives there!
Trauma wounds/flashbacks? You need to die to your past because you are a new creation in Christ!
Etc. Ad nauseum.
This is Christian denial at its best; don’t think about a problem and it will go away. The truly sad part is that some people live their entire lives this way, striving to outrun their problems. I don’t know how they do it. They must be exhausted. I want to gather them up and tell them, there is another way.
Those spiritual practices are not bad things in and of themselves. But they’re all missing one really big piece of the puzzle – the only piece, actually, that really matters – which is: Jesus. A living, real encounter with Jesus.
It’s amazing how many spiritual disciplines can be done without the slightest shred of connection to Jesus. Ask me how I know.
I was raised in the Christian church. If you asked me if I knew Jesus, I would have said yes. But I didn’t. And I didn’t even know that I didn’t. I knew about him. I could quote him. I’d read a lot of his journal, a lot of times. But I never really met him until years later, in college.
I remember the first time I really met Jesus for real. Not just heard about him, sang a song about him, read about him, or said some pious-sounding words at him. I mean the time I really met him for real for real. I was more shocked at what he DIDN’T SAY. He didn’t tell me to take my (numerous) earrings or cartilage piercings out. He didn’t tell me to change my emo-style clothes. He didn’t tell me to stop saying “shit.” He didn’t tell me to stop designing my future tattoos.
It wasn’t “Clean your act up so that I can love you.”
It was open arms.
It was “I’m so glad you’re mine.”
It was “I’ve been waiting your whole life for this day.”
He didn’t avert his eyes from my scarred arms. He touched the scars. He looked me squarely in the eyes with love. A love that did not avoid the hard things, but waded right into it with me, and held me.
And nothing else.
I kept waiting for it to come; the “Okay, party’s over. Now here is my list of requirements.”
And I kept waiting. And waiting.
I’m still waiting, actually.
If you don’t know what to do in the face of someone’s struggle, start there. And stay there.
If you’re the one who’s struggling, start there. And stay there.
For more stories, art, and poetry from Jade, grab a copy of her book: “Pieces of Me: A Collision of Art, Poetry, Essays, Faith, and Mental Health.“
published May 7, 2015
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