[After having having listened to and read some unhelpful and unintentionally harmful lectures and writings of well-meaning brethren concerning mental illness, I’ve decided to blog about mental illness from my firsthand experience, examined in light of the teaching of Scripture. This will be an indefinite series I hope will help any Christians who suffer from mental illness in general and, more particularly, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which I have.
Caveat: There will be some disturbing content in this post, albeit only briefly mentioned.
To God alone be the Glory.
Sin, Self-Medication, and Intrusive Thoughts
As someone who has spent the last twenty or so years of my life dealing with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I have put a lot of effort into understanding it. During my days as a an unbeliever, I found the subject philosophically fascinating. It wasn’t a hindrance to me living the kind of life I wanted to live, or so I thought, but a means of achieving what I wanted from life – namely, pleasure. It wasn’t until I was saved by the grace of God that I truly saw and understood how my condition had ruled over much of my life.
My abuse of drugs and alcohol, as well as my premarital promiscuity, was primarily sinful, of course, but it also altered my brain chemistry. My “anxiety,” for instance, was greatly reduced by the consumption of depressants like alcohol, painkillers, muscle relaxers, marijuana, and other “downers” (i.e. barbiturates). “Uppers,” on the other hand, like Adderall, cocaine, and nicotine helped increase the lowered dopamine levels in my brain, as did sexual activity and, in some cases, overeating. So I self-medicated by smoking cigarettes, consuming copious amounts of alcohol, nicotine, licit and illicit drugs, as well as by engaging in sexual immorality.
Without using those substances and engaging in those activities, I could barely function as a normal person. Physically, my body felt as though it was preparing me to fight or run away from a vicious animal, an attacker, or some natural disaster. And despite the fact that I knew there was no corresponding extrinsic threat to my well-being, I found myself beginning to reason as if there was an actual extrinsic threat to my well-being that I could ward off somehow by my non-chemically inspired behavior – whether that behavior was purely internal/mental or an admixture of internal/mental and external/physical.
I checked and rechecked my locks numerous times before I left my apartment to go to school or work, sometimes never getting to class or work because I had lost so much time trying to meet some absurd criterion I had thought would make my apartment safe from the ever looming though non-existent destruction that followed me throughout my entire day from morning to evening. I checked and rechecked and rechecked whether or not certain appliances were plugged in, often going back to my apartment to “make sure” I had unplugged a toaster or a laptop or a lamp that randomly struck me as a potential source of destruction and/or death. I checked and rechecked and rechecked my stove’s pilot light to make sure that it was off and not a danger to the smokers in my apartment or in my building or in the entire state of New York. I skipped steps evenly or oddly going up and down stairs, feeling incredibly distressed if I somehow failed to consistently skip the steps either evenly or oddly. I wrote excessively, many times unintelligibly rambling about anything in order to try to tame the tempest of nerve and brain activity I was experiencing. I chewed the skin on my lips excessively, trying to even the texture of my lips, so badly at times that I perpetually had scabs on my lips.
Why did I do these things? Because the feelings of terror and panic were so strong that the only relief I could gain from them came from substance abuse and sinful behaviors or ritualistic behaviors that somehow granted me moments, and I mean very small moments, of relief.
What was of fundamental importance during those times was diminishing the physical feelings I was experiencing. My reasoning attempted to make sense of what my body was experiencing, fabricating some aloof or unperceived real threat to account for the physiological experiences I was having that are supposed to only occur in situations where a real threat is faced by a person. When facing a pack of wolves, or a physical altercation, or burning bridges for some immoral and socially ruinous behavior, it is normal to one’s stomach churning, to sweat profusely, to have one’s eyes almost uncontrollably dart left and right and up and down as you search for some way to save your life. When trying to shower, get dressed for work, or just leave the house, however, those feelings are completely out of place. But this is part and parcel of having OCD.
Yet what was even more difficult for me to deal with was the internal side of OCD that is also associated with the physical feelings I’ve mentioned. The more intense OCD episodes I had, for which I sought hospitalization several years ago, involved what are called “intrusive thoughts.” These are “thoughts” that intrude upon the most mundane of mental processes. They are are repeated, terrifyingly disabling images of violence (e.g. slitting the throats of one’s loved ones, running over a child, throwing a person down a flight of stairs), immorality (primarily sexual in nature), death (one’s own or that of others), and just about every other disturbing thing one can imagine. And in my situation (prior to my conversion), it was only by drinking heavily nearly every night that I was able to slow down my neurological activity and, in some ways, get control over my mental life. The experience itself is like the reverse of Alex’s “cinematic aversion therapy” session toward the latter end of Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange.
Disambiguating “Anxiety” and “Thoughts”
As I’ve mentioned above, it wasn’t until I was converted that I understood what I was experiencing. Having been converted, I now understood that man is a spiritual-material being. And I understood that while I am not reducible to my body and bodily experiences, I am also not reducible to my spirit and spiritual experiences. The body and the spirit of man have been united by God, married as it were, and they will stay together for better or for worse until death literally does them part (see James 2:26). Just as a husband and wife exist parallel to one another in the same extrinsic world but encounter different experiences related to their gender and personality differences, so too the body and the soul exist parallel to one another in the same extrinsic world but encounter different experiences related to their unique constitutions. Bodily hurt, for example, is similar to but neither identical to nor reducible to the kind of hurt one experiences spiritually. Likewise, just the differences between postlapsarian (i.e. fallen) husbands and wives can cause miscommunication and conflict to arise between them, so too the differences between the postlapsarian body and soul can cause miscommunication and conflict to arise between them.
Sadly, while the world reduces mental illness to the malfunctioning brain, it is often the case that Christians reduce mental illnesses to either (a.)some sin committed by the mentally ill person, and its consequences, or (b.)demonic activity. Neither of these views works with a Christian doctrine of man and, therefore, addresses mental illness in a way that is complete.
This accounts, on the one hand, for the world’s identification of physiological and neurochemical-electrical malfunctioning as anxiety; and, on the other hand, it accounts for why many Christians’ identify what psychologists call an “anxiety” disorder as being a purely spiritual phenomenon. Similarly, the world, on the one hand, identifies all that occurs in the mind as thought, even if what is occurring is a series of repeated images. And this, on the other hand, seems to account for why many believers often think that “thoughts” related to one’s “anxiety” disorder can be dealt with by simply reorienting one’s heart, by repentance, by replacing one set of “thoughts” with another.
The world incorrectly sees man solely as a body that produces consciousness and its contents. Consequently, the world thinks that “anxiety” disorders are to be dealt with by altering the physical – be it by means of direct chemical alteration (via the use of psychotropics) or indirectly (via the use of cognitive therapy which rewires neural pathways so as to produce a healthy consciousness). Christians, however, understand that the soul of man is not the product of the body but a distinct substance which must be dealt with according to its own needs, as revealed in Scripture. So what is necessary for us to properly deal with mental illness is a serious commitment to the biblical teaching regarding man’s body and soul in their union before the fall, and to the biblical teaching regarding the body and soul of man in their sometimes-volatile/sometimes-harmonious union after the fall.
This would neither absolve sinners of their sinful thoughts, nor would it condemn those whose sin cursed bodies are more openly in conflict with their renewed but still stung by sin minds.
Until next time,
Soli Deo Gloria