“Do not be afraid”: faith and anxiety

I haven’t written much about the relationship between my faith and my mental health. It’s not that I think there are two unrelated facts about me, that I’m a Catholic and that I have bipolar disorder. There cannot be anything that is in principle incapable of being thought about with reference to God. Yet I am nervous of broaching the topic.

So much stuff on religion and mental health is frankly terrible. When we’re not being called upon simply to have more faith, those of us with mental illnesses have to endure them being glibly regarded as occasions for mystical encounter (the lazy identification of St John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul with depression is a particularly damaging example of this), or talked about piously in terms of spiritual struggle. Worse still, there is a cottage industry producing gruesome books of prayers for people with depression, anxiety, and no doubt other illnesses, the contents of which vary from the corny to the moralising. None of this is for me.

 

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In fact, I don’t think that my faith has a lot to say about my illness in its specifics. For sure, bipolar is an instance of God’s creation not being everything it is ultimately called to be, in the language of Romans 8, of it crying out like a woman in labour. But that is true of all illness, physical as well as mental, and much else besides. There is a temptation to think that mental illness is more deserving of theological attention because it is somehow more ‘inner’, to do with the mind, perhaps with the soul. My Dominican instinct sees this line of thought as far too dualistic to deserve credence. I am an animal; I am not a mind trapped in a body (nor, it has to be said, is ‘mental’ illness a purely ‘inner’ affair, as anybody who has seen me pacing about sleepless in the small hours will attest).

So that’s my default, not theologising about my illness. Then I had a terrible month.

Whilst hypomanic, I had an episode of acute anxiety, something I’d not had in this form before. I was on edge: my stomach was in knots, my heart pounding, my fingers and toes tingling. My mind, already racing, was like a dog chasing a ball, trying to find anything to be frightened of. It succeeded, constantly: intimate things, things to do with my friends and my relationship, things to do with the world around me were causes of fear. I was afraid of losing people, my relationship, friendships; everyone and everything mutated into a threat; and everybody – so I thought – hated me, so wouldn’t care (and if they didn’t hate me already, well I was bound to do the wrong thing soon enough). I reacted by being intensely volatile, storming away here, screaming there. I retreated into self-harm. It was terrifying for my girlfriend, who was closest to me during this time. It was no doubt unpleasant for a much wider circle of people. I myself, although used to living with mental illness, had no idea what was happening to me, which fed back into the fear.

Eventually, through ending up in A&E, I got appropriate treatment and things, whilst far from perfect, are much better now. It is the treatment that has caused me to think about anxiety in the light of my faith. Apart from drugs, an important part of the response to an episode like this is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – essentially challenging fearful and other negative thoughts as they arise. It is here I’ve found that a Christian input is helpful. After all, the point of CBT is to challenge damaging thoughts with other thoughts you take to be true. And when it comes to issues of fear and trust, the things I hold to be both true and most useful are in Christian revelation.

“Do not be afraid” – the theme echoes through the gospels. These are the angel’s words to Mary, those of Christ to the disciples fearful of the stormy sea, and of Jesus risen from the dead. At this point we need to be careful: people with mental illnesses are all too used to being told to snap out of it, and “do not be afraid” if heard as an imperative will just be a case in point. I can easily imagine being told not to be afraid whilst anxious, failing, criticising myself for the failure, and then being frightened that I will never be able to be unfraid. The seemingly impossible command would just feed into the cycle.

“Do not be afraid” is not a command in the relevant sense, however. It would be silly to tell somebody not to be afraid. The words can only make non-pathological sense if they are accompanied by the gift of the means not to be afraid. “Don’t be scared”, a parent says to a child whilst clasping their hand. We take on board the surgeon’s “don’t be worried” because of her expertise and actions, not simply because she is saying those words. Similarly Jesus doesn’t just tell people not to be afraid. Through reaching out to them with that self-giving generosity which establishes the Kingdom of God, he places people in a situation where they need no longer be frightened. “Do not be afraid” is an invitation to participate in something that is being provided.

Fear is corrosive. It eats away at our capacity to be everything we could be, and damages our relations to others; we cling to them desperately, as though they were in danger of slipping away. This is not, of course, to say that those of us with anxiety are to blame for our condition: but it is to explain something of why the condition is so damaging. To say that fear is conquered in the Kingdom is just to say that we are offered, as a gift, a way of life whose foundation is an unconditional love for each one of us. That love has been tested to the point of death, and remains unconquered. Our worth is not so fragile as to be under threat. And the things we value – our relationships, our projects – in as much as they are good (and they generally are) will persist into the fullness of the Kingdom, albeit perhaps in ways we can’t anticipate.

I find attending to that view of the world helpful because it is a gentle reminder that there is no ultimate reason for the kind of fear I was feeling. I can answer individual fears “do not be afraid”, not as though I were trying to reprogram some malfunctioning thinking machine but rather as part of the ongoing journey of reorientating myself towards the Love from which I came and which, in spite of it all, calls me back.

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