I grew up in your classic “non-practicing” Christian home. I was raised going to church with my family on major Christian holidays, and referring to God when we needed to believe that everything happens for a reason. I went to Christian summer camp and listened to Hillsong and occasionally posted John 3:16 as my Facebook status back in 2010. My family didn’t force religion on me, but I was committed to it through and through. When I was old enough to choose for myself (and could find a ride), I found myself at church every weekend. I think it was because I innately wanted to be a “good” person, and from a young age I was given the idea that the way to be a “good” person is to follow God in the Chrsitian way so I felt completely and utterly obliged to follow that path. I always had a very contemplative, curious mind, and religion was something that having completely figured out didn’t come as easily to me as sixth grade geometry, so I was determined to get my questions answered. Solving God became my passion.
I’d take my notebook back to church on weekdays and challenge my pastor on everything he claimed to be true the Sunday before. For example, one Sunday my pastor explained in his sermon that God “loves” gay people and that being homosexual is not considered a sin, but acting on said homosexuality (engaging in sexual activity or marrying someone of the same gender) is a sin, and that living in this sin would disqualify a person from being considered a Christian because they would be continually choosing to defy God and his commandments. This claim frustrated me soooo much, not only because I had gay friends whom I loved deeply, but also because it simply did not make sense to me from a logical standpoint. How could I, as a non-deity human, want for a gay person to have the same access to love that I had, yet God, who is supposed to love humans infinitely more than I do, would not want that same future for them, and would even go so far to say that they are not welcomed in His kingdom if they continue living in a way that feels most true to themselves and their identity?
My pastor would never give me answers that satiated or made any kind of sense to me, on this subject and a whole host of others. He would say things like “if their identity is in Christ, their identity is not in being homosexual,” to which I would respond, “so you having a wife and being able to love her is not a part of your identity?” to which he would respond, to my dismay, “my only identity is in Christ.” Like OK, what does that even mean? You would think I was gay for how passionate I was about this subject, but really I just cared about my queer friends and hated that nothing made sense! I would walk away with my meetings with him with more questions than answers scribbled in my little notebook. I always craved concrete solutions to my ponderings and would ruminate without rest on these theological complexities until I got them (which rarely happened), probably a solid early indicator of obsessive tendencies, but my family and I never thought of it that way.
As one can probably imagine, this obsession with answering the questions humanity hasn’t been able to nail down for thousands of years eventually pushed me to the brink of mental and spiritual exhaustion, and I gave it up about a year into college. I decided that if God is real and He is as good as everyone says He is and He decides who gets into Heaven, He would at least have to see how hard I had tried and, even if begrudgingly, open the gates for me when I got there.
I stopped playing the role of the “goody good Christian girl” and started doing whatever I felt like instead. I lost my virginity and skipped church and smoked weed and got a fake ID, and that’s about all it took to be a bad girl. Still though, a piece of me held onto the curiosity that plagued me as a young teenager. I still occasionally pursued answers from the most theological minds I could find at Stanford, because the desire to understand and solve religion still burned beneath my skin. I didn’t know it at the time, but religion had become my very own personal trigger.
I found out later at the outpatient wellness center that a lot of people with Bipolar Disorder experience religious obsessions at some point. According to the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, hyper-religiosity is a common feature of hypomania and mania. During manic episodes, it is even very common for the person to become convinced that they themselves are God, or that they have special access to divinity that no one else has. This can be debilitatingly confusing for the person suffering the episode. I luckily never experienced this level of detachment from reality, but I did at some points start to believe that my obsessions were happening for a reason, that maybe they were part of “God’s plan.”
One weekday before field hockey practice in college (before I quit, obviously), I had lunch with Mollie, one of my most devout Christian teammates, and she innocently and unknowingly sparked my obsessions by asking me how my “walk with Christ” was going, a pretty typical conversation starter between people who consider themselves Christians, but one direct enough to make almost anyone at least slightly uncomfortable. After confessing, “well, it’s more of a slow crawl”, my train of thought spiraled into something like this:
If Mollie is the idea of a good Christian, and I myself am struggling with doubt, wouldn’t it be a sin to lie and pretend to be able to call myself a Christian, when a Christian is definitionally someone who devotes their life to following Jesus? How can I follow or “walk with” someone I don’t even know for certain is real? Is that what faith is? Am I faithless? But what if my suspicions are right and God isn’t real? What then will I live by? Maybe I should just pretend to be a Christian until I can figure this all out because at least I’ll have a set of guidelines to follow in the world of endless options? But if God is real, then He’ll know I’m a fraud and I’ll go straight to Hell. I don’t want to go to Hell. Bad people go to Hell. Am I a bad person?
My mom and I call these my God thoughts. The ones that disguise themselves as nudges toward a divine plan (Christians might even refer to them as the Holy Spirit’s conviction), but are really self-destructive monsters that aim to distract you from living the holy, glimmering life that is right in front of you. Now that I am medicated, I no longer have these intrusive thoughts. Now that I have the space and time and bandwidth to handle it, I am free to ponder God, the universe, and humankind’s origins without self-induced panic. I am able to pause and redirect, question my questions and doubt my doubts, all without being sent into a frenzy that ends in weeping or sleeping. Proper treatment has mended my relationship with God. This is how I know those thoughts were never the “Holy Spirit”; they were my disease talking. But back to the story.
I was the last to the locker room after practice because it was my job to collect all the balls from around the field, a highly sought-after responsibility on the team as you can imagine. My head was spinning with these God thoughts as I struggled to get a grip, but no one knew. As always, my teammates just assumed I was quiet because I was upset that I didn’t get much playing time at last week’s game. I held it together for long enough to ensure that I was the last person in the shower, and when I was certain everyone had left the building, I let go. I started balling, weeping without resistance under the weight of the questions I would never be able to answer. And my tears fell as fast as the shower stream washing them away. I felt suffocated by a force I couldn’t see or physically feel. My mind was its own enemy. I stepped out of the shower when I thought I had cried myself to exhaustion, and my best friend on the team, Katie, stepped out from behind the wall that separated the showers from the lockers. Before I could even wrap my towel around myself, she held me tightly and let me cry my last tears down her back.
Katie saw me suffering. She knew me well enough to know that I wasn’t even close to being okay. She stayed in the locker room even after everyone else had left, and gave me the time and space I needed to grieve alone, even though we both didn’t know what exactly I was really up against at the time. When I had finally stopped crying, I explained to her that I was awfully distraught over being able to figure out God and religion. I told her about my conversation with Mollie and how it had single-handedly ruined any chance I had at a clear head or successful practice that day. I vividly remember her asking me, “If it’s causing you so much distress, is religion really worth it? Can’t you give it a rest, at least for today?” This was so far from something that was in the realm of possibility for me at the time, being able to let go or move on, but having a friend who didn’t judge what I was suffering from, only dared to ask a simple question in an attempt to genuinely understand, was ground-breaking.
If you’re wondering how to behave toward a friend or family member you suspect could be suffering from a mental illness, follow Katie’s lead. Try to lighten their load without judgement. We can all throw a party in purgatory. I’ll bring the tequila.