By Sara Mannen
Ten years ago, I sat curled up in fetal position with tears streaming down my face as I begged God, “Help me. Take this away.” The thing I desperately cried out concerning was the tight grip my monster, anxiety, had on my body and mind. Anxiety is my monster because I become a mere shadow of myself when it is in control. I had an unexplainable tightness in my chest, my heart was racing and felt as if it was skipping beat; my breathing was fast; my stomach was in knots; I felt light-headed. I was experiencing constant surges of adrenaline which made me jumpy. A trip to the ER, a battery of tests, and several visits to the doctor confirmed my suspicions that I was struggling with anxiety.
Anxiety has a peculiar way of defeating a person. It was a crushing diagnosis for me. Somehow, in my twisted mind, it meant I was incapable of handling life and did not have my life “together.” Adding to my fears, was my secret belief that as a pastor’s wife, anxiety was detrimental to my role in the church and would hinder our ministry. That, as a pastor's wife, I was failing.
Today, my anxiety--or as it is affectionately nicknamed, "my monster"--is under control. I believe firmly that my anxiety will never go away, my version of a thorn in the flesh. It will always be there lurking under the surface, and if I do not pay attention to my body and its signals, anxiety will rear its ugly head, again. As a nurse at the ER told me after another episode of anxiety, it has a way of popping up when you least expect it. When you think you are doing well.
My doctor, counselor, and I decided to treat my anxiety with medicine and several different behavioral and breathing techniques. I no longer take medicine, however, without the initial help from the medicine I do not know if my anxiety would be under control. As my doctor explained, my body had flipped the fight-or-flight switch to "on", and no amount of right thinking was going to turn off the switch. In my opinion, my fight-or-flight switch was duct taped to the "on" position. Doctors, counselors, and medication were an essential part of my overcoming anxiety. There were also spiritual disciplines such as prayer and meditation on Scripture which gave me freedom from the tyranny of anxiety.
I have come to terms with and accepted my anxiety, my monster. The question is: will the Church of Christ accept me and my monster? If recent studies are accurate, at least fifty percent of the church would not approve of my path to healing and wholeness. Close to half of evangelicals believe that serious mental illness can be healed by prayer and Bible study alone.
This study confirms my sneaking suspicion that admitting to taking medicine for mental illness at church is tantamount to confessing a lack of faith. When Christian leaders and pastors teach that mental illness can be healed through prayer and Bible study alone, while explicitly discouraging counselors and medicine, which I have recently heard from leaders at various churches, the implicit message to those who have mental illness is that their sin is keeping them from getting better. The message is that if you are not getting better, then there must be something wrong with your faith.
I can testify that I was clinging to God with my whole being while I struggled with anxiety, yet my heart palpitations and physical symptoms did not stop. Anxiety has a way of making you feel as if something is intrinsically wrong with you. The last message someone with anxiety needs to hear is that his or her lack of healing is because of sin or an absence of faith. Teachings of this nature confirm all of the secret fears I held concerning my anxiety. This message is the mental equivalent of kicking a man when he is down.
Churches are strangely silent on mental illness. According to surveys, sixty-six percent of Protestant pastors rarely, seldom, or never address mental illness. However, one in five adults experiences some type of mental illness in a typical year. How often do we hear about other illnesses at church? In my experience, the church in one way or another constantly addresses other diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and physical conditions providing support through prayers and meals. Mental illness is given a hush-hush treatment. By rarely addressing mental illness and making it a taboo, those who suffer are further stigmatized and isolated from others. This type of behavior on the part of the church does not create an environment where people can openly and honestly discuss their struggle with mental illness. By not addressing mental illness or making blanket statements regarding the “Christian” path to healing, the church does not become the healing community of Christ to those suffering from mental illness.
I, for one, do not want to further the stigma associated with mental illness in the church. I will not be made to feel guilty or less spiritual than others because medicine was part of my path to healing. I will not hide my struggle with anxiety, but will openly discuss it with others in the church. Until we are willing to accept, without judgment, those who struggle with mental illness and stop furthering misinformation about mental illness, we only further perpetuate their hurt. We do not fulfill our call to love our neighbor, monster and all.
Sara Mannen spends her time caring for her two precocious daughters and husband while attending seminary and working. Professionally, she has worked in banking for 17 years. Sara’s passion is for discipling and teaching the youth in her church where her love for teaching the Bible and theology are utilized. She graduated from Multnomah University where she majored in Bible and Theology and Youth Ministry.