Mental Health, prayer, Bible, professional counseling, harmful advice
A friend found this quote and was very disturbed by it. When I saw it, I was equally disturbed…no, make that horrified, because it brought me back to a very difficult time in my life when it was said to me by well-meaning Christians:
The reason I was horrified is that I was told this when I was in the midst of a mental health crisis. Let me tell you my personal story.
In 1990, I had a 4-month old infant and a 3-1/2-yr old daughter. I was away from my husband and living with my parents because he was in the military and was sent to Persian Gulf working in Operation Desert Shield (right before Operation Desert Storm). You see, within a 6-wk period of time, the following events occurred:
- We were stationed in the Philippines and there was a major earthquake nearby (reports vary on the magnitude, 7.7 to 7.9).
- My daughter, Hannah, fell off a 25-ft cliff, landing on concrete at the beach at Wallace Air Station, a remote base we were visiting, attempting to recuperate after the trauma of experiencing a major earthquake (we experienced a 6.0 aftershock while we were there). Daughter was miraculously fine.
You can see the cliff in this picture. The other side of the cliff is where my daughter and I were when she fell. On the other side of the cliff/point is a retaining wall with steep stairs. She fell after getting to the top of the first flight and slipping, about 25 feet, straight drop onto concrete. You can see the date stamp on the photo. The earthquake was on July 16, 1990.
Here are a couple of pictures I took on our way to Wallace Air Station to stay at the Voice of America R&R facility. We passed through Dagupan, close to the epicenter which saw extensive destruction. Some buildings sank into the ground by one meter.
Notice how the bottom floor has sunk. People were still living in the upper levels of these lopsided buildings, nearly 2 months later.
I believe this was in the city of Dagupan.
Aside from the earthquake event, there were also these stressors:
- On base, local Filipinos tried to break into my home when I was alone with our children. I saw their eyes peering into my bedroom as I was nursing my baby in the middle of the night (thankfully, they were apprehended).
- There were bomb threats on base. We were often forced to take detours. Sometimes I just wanted to get a gallon of milk or cash a check and these detours were annoying. And yes, sometimes they found bombs.
- We lived in a constant level of threat conditions due to New People’s Army Communist Rebels (we did get hazard duty pay, however). Based on the threat condition, either we were confined to base, had curfews, and/or had strict traveling restrictions.
Yea, it was a little stressful.
The ground continued to move for months after the earthquake. Aftershocks were sometimes 6.0 or above…..yes, aftershocks. When your world is shaking around you, you have a sense of being out of control. That describes my response and the response of many who were living under these conditions at that time. So, I left the Philippines with my two children for a temporary break, to get on solid ground that wasn’t moving.
What is wrong with me?
I went “home” to my parents’ and told my close Christian friends about my emotional state. People told me to pray . . . to read my Bible more . . that perfect love casts out fear. There was a lot of spiritual advice given by those who meant to help, but actually made things worse. When I prayed and read my Bible more, nothing changed. I continued to feel the ground moving and have flashbacks even though I was now on sturdy ground with my parents in Oregon.
I sought help from Biblical counselors who talked to me about my sin. I searched my heart for any unconfessed sin and repented. The earthquakes continued. What was WRONG with me?
I did everything they told me, but the symptoms would not go away. Why was God not hearing my prayers? Did He not care for me? If He loved me, why wasn’t He protecting me from the nonstop tormenting that was in my mind?
I stayed very busy. I jammed praise music loudly all day. I focused on my children and prayer and recited verses to myself to keep my focus heavenward.
As I drove to every church meeting I could attend, I had to cross bridges. Many of the approaches to the bridges were wiped out during the earthquake in the Philippines, so now it was now very difficult to cross any bridge. I kept seeing the Philippine bridges in my mind. I pushed the accelerator to get across the bridge faster as my heart raced.
I also had to go through a tunnel to get to my familiar church. It was very difficult to go through the tunnel without panicking and thinking that the mountain might cave on me – just like I had seen the mountain and buildings destroyed in my favorite R&R in the Philippines, Baguio/Camp John Hay. (Click on this link to see the destruction. After the earthquake, I was glued to the local Philippine TV as they covered stories, deaths, rescues. Why was I alive when so many died? Survivors guilt!)
If I went to any store or building (now in the States), I scouted out all of the emergency exits first thing. I was going to be the one prepared and would get out alive by having this information.
Where was God in all of this?
My life was in survival mode and I expended much energy surviving imaginary earthquakes. As hard as I tried, I was unable to stop the direction of my thinking patterns. I truly believe that the only thing that kept me alive was recounting Hannah’s story of falling off the 25-ft cliff. I was there when she fell and knew that she was either going to be completely paralyzed or with major injuries, or she would be dead. There was no other option in my mind, knowing that she had landed on concrete and it was a straight drop. When all other advice failed, Hannah’s story was the hope I clung to – – that if God could save her, He could save me.
One night at dinner with my parents, I felt an earthquake and asked my Mom if she felt it. She didn’t. I told her to look at the chandelier moving. She said it wasn’t moving. That’s when she said that I needed to get help – professional help.
You see, I was going on a downward spiral. I was very sleep deprived having a child who was missing her daddy and wetting her bed each night. She cried herself to sleep and wet the bed every night. I had to take care of her, plus be awakened the four times my infant was nursing each night. My parents both worked, so no one could help me get extra sleep that I desperately needed. I was physically, emotionally, spiritually exhausted.
I found a Christian psychologist to go to and went reluctantly because I thought that I should have been able to get my problems solved by prayer and Bible reading. Wasn’t my God big enough?
When I first went, I started sharing my earthquake experience. But David started asking me questions about my childhood. I got angry at him for asking those questions. What did my childhood have to do with the earthquake? Eventually, he realized that this redhead had a story to tell about the earthquake and since I was paying for his services, he ought to listen to me.
He listened. And listened. And when I could speak no more about the earthquake, he asked again, “so what about the earthquake was like your childhood.” Very reluctantly, I spent time discussing my childhood.
I was in a situation in which I could not control.
Eventually, it hit me . . . and hit me hard. When I was in the earthquake, I was in a situation in which I could not control. When I was a child, from the time I was 3 until I was 19, I also lived in a home where I had no control.
In my childhood, I was living with a rage-aholic – a man who raged in anger with little-to-no provocation. Just a simple look on my face, or a chore not done could send him off into a rage. Through the years, I’ve met other professional counselors and all of them have told me that his behavior was just like that of an alcoholic, but minus the alcohol.
What the earthquake did was mimic that out-of-control feeling I had. When the ground was shaking back and forth, it mimicked my dad grabbing me by my shoulders and banging me against the wall, sometimes with my head hitting the cupboard handles and ending up with knots on my head. That shaking . . oh, that shaking . . .it was horrifying. Being smacked and kicked, tossed and shaken about as a child is something I could not stop – just like I could not stop the ground from moving in the Philippines after the earthquake.
You see, this psychologist showed me how to connect with the feelings of abandonment, the anger and pain of knowing a parent had violated my body and my personhood that I had long buried. I had forgiven my dad, I had moved on, but there was obviously, I had unfinished business.
This man heard my cries, the cries that so many adults had dismissed and ignored when I shared my story with them as a child. When my dad beat me, I refused to let him see me cry. Only when he was done would I go into the corner of my room, curl myself into a ball and cry . . . by myself. No one heard my cries. But David did . . now, some 10-20 years later.
He validated the abuse and called it by name, telling me I was not crazy. He walked in the trenches with me as I relived that horrible abuse. I fought going back to those memories, but facing it was what I needed to do to recover. It was very difficult work and left me physically and emotionally exhausted.
The counseling that I received occurred nearly 25 years ago. I was in counseling for probably 2 years or so. During that time, I thought that scoping out exit signs, speeding across bridges, feeling the ground moving would be my new normal for the rest of my life. When the earthquake anniversary date came around for 2 years, I had setbacks. On the 3rd anniversary, I missed it entirely. I didn’t even think about the earthquake. I finally knew I was no longer held captive by the war within my brain. I was free and still am free, even when I hear of major earthquakes now. This is amazing, considering what I had gone through.
Pat answers don’t always work
But the quote about prayer being the answer to mental illness is not always true. Of course prayer helps, but it is not always the quick cure, and to portray it as such could be deadly for those who are in a crisis. This quote could be a death sentence for some who fear that even God has abandoned them since they can’t see/feel His healing. The logical progression is: life is not worth living if even God has abandoned me and hasn’t helped me.
We must be careful with our words about mental illness and giving pat answers. Lives are at stake. I thank God for mental health professionals who have the skills and tools to bring truth and hope into a hurting individual’s life. I am probably alive because of David, my therapist. Thank you, God, for using David in my life when I was at the end of my rope and about to let go.