First of all, I have to tell you that I have so much admiration for your faith. You use it for such incredible things everyday! I see you volunteering in soup kitchens that your churches run, or dedicating nine straight days of prayer for a cousin with cancer, or making pilgrimages across the world to feel like you are part of something greater than yourself. I went to Catholic school for thirteen years, and those years formed so much of who I am today. I know what great things faith can lead people to do. But sadly, that is not why I am writing this letter to you. I am writing to my you, my religious friends, to tell you that you can be doing so, so much more.
Religion and mental health are two topics that never once intersected in dialogue at my school, church, or home. Unless, of course, you count the times our middle school’s textbooks reminded us that suicide was a mortal sin, or that “despair” was just us willingly turning our backs on God. I must admit, I fell for all of it! I truly thought that one could not have faith if one was not always joyful, always ready to praise God or whichever deities one believed in. I prayed rosaries and novenas for those with all kinds of illnesses, but I never once thought to pray for those with mental illnesses. Why would I have? At my Catholic school, mental illnesses just weren’t talked about. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
In the middle of my junior year of high school, I experienced one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I now know that it was a psychotic breakdown. It happened seemingly out of nowhere, and I was confused, scared, and in pain after unexplainably self-harming. The self harm continued, and the depression that set in was so bad that getting out of bed in the morning and putting my uniform on felt like running a marathon. At one point, a classmate mentioned to the school’s guidance counselor that I had scars on my arms. Though my self harm was presented to this counselor as a fact, not a question, she expressed doubt when she called me into her office. “It can’t be true,” she said. “You are too smart to self harm.”
As if a few extra A’s in my report card could form some kind of magical shield around my brain, protecting it from the neurotransmitters going absolutely haywire around it. This was the only time my school would address my mental illness. And it failed.
A few months after an official diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder, my medications just weren’t working. I had tried a benzodiazepine that my head so fuzzy I couldn’t even write my name on the top of my Theology paper, SSRIs that made me fall asleep during school Mass, a dopamine reuptake inhibitor that made me lose so much weight my uniform was literally falling off me, and lithium that made my hands shake so badly I dropped a Bible in the middle of Theology class. Loudly. And all of you who went to Catholic school know that dropping a Bible makes for one scolding teacher and one very embarrassed student. It seemed as though I’d tried everything. And that’s when the suicidal thoughts hit.
We had been studying in vitro fertilization in my religion class, a doubtlessly sinful procedure in the Catholic faith. Now, my parents had me using IVF and they’re the best damn parents I could ask for. I tried to defend them to my teacher, but she went on with her lesson plan, which included likening children conceived with IVF to “factory products.”
Tell me, my religious friends, what is kind and compassionate about calling a dignified human being a factory product?
That night, I swallowed every pill in my bathroom.
Sometimes in high school, a classmate would have to go to the hospital for a surgery or a nasty virus, and it was these times that people really showed the beauty of their faith. Churches would add my classmate to their prayer lists, we would pray for her before every religion class, and we would send cards and flowers. I, too, had to go to the hospital. Only, for me, there were no cards or flowers. And I would’ve really liked some flowers too, because those I was not feeling the prison cell aesthetic of the psych word rooms! There were no visitors, and I can be pretty sure no churches put me on their prayer lists. It was lonely. It was heartbreaking.
My friends, whatever religion you follow, I am sure that you believe your God does not want all of us to suffer. He wants us to ease each other’s suffering in any way we can. Let me tell you that no one, including those with mental illness, CHOOSES to suffer. Sin is a choice. Mental illness is not. I did not choose to have arms laced with scars. I did not choose to be in so much psychological pain I literally cannot speak. I did not choose to spend a night hooked up to monitors getting my stomach pumped. And I did not choose to get sick.
But I did choose to stay. Everyday, and sometimes even every minute, I make a choice to stay a little longer and ignore the absolute hurricane in my head that pulls me back to those pills. I’m staying because I believe there is a plan for me and there is something bigger than me going on, and I just have to figure it out. Faith is believing you are here for a reason. Faith is strong.
People fight their mental illnesses because they believe they are here for a reason. And God knows, they are so strong.
Here is what you can do to use your faith to help. If you know someone is struggling with a mental health issue, validate it! Tell them you see that they are in pain, and let them know that you are near. I guarantee that this validation in and of itself will make someone fighting mental illness so grateful. If your friend is religious like you are, offer to pray with them, but let them take the lead in discussions about how their mental illness has affected their faith. You will be surprised at what you can learn! Send all the prayers and good vibes or whatever it is you do their way, as they can really use all the good energy they can get.
Finally, if your friend is in the hospital, do send flowers.
Never underestimate the significance of some flowers.
Your Still-Fighting Friend