Mental Health: Which Kingdom Will I Seek?
Commentary by Andy Pope
In a couple of my recent columns, I’ve mentioned a few mental health diagnoses I’ve picked up over the years. I’ve discussed ADHD and bipolar disorder and I might as well add I was diagnosed in 2004 with PTSD. Eventually, after years of living in a violent culture, that diagnosis morphed into CPTSD.
I don’t doubt these conditions of the mind are real. After all, I experience them, and I tend to think one’s experiences are real. As I wrote about the sensation of “cold” in my last column, “cold” is real because it is a real experience. Similarly, major depressive disorder is real because many people experience it. I personally don’t. But many do.
Some people deny the reality of major depression. They will dismiss it as “laziness” or “negativity.” But this is only because they don’t share that particular experience, so they don’t identify. Just because we don’t identify with another person’s experience, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
All the experiences we have come to classify as mental health disorders are real. However, despite their being real, I sometimes question the emphasis that ought to be placed on them.
To the point, we all know I’m a Christian. I’m fairly outspoken and unashamed of my Christian identity. As a Christian, my priority ought to be to “seek first the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 6:33). But I don’t always do that. (Realistically, I don’t know that anyone does.)
When it comes to mental health in particular, there appears to be a danger of turning first to what might be dubbed a “kingdom of mental health.” This kingdom consists of a confluence of doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, pharmacists, case workers, clinicians, treatment programs and medications. Unlike the kingdom of God, there is no clear ruler in charge.
Conformity to this culture relies on a set of precepts reflecting no clear sense of right or wrong. Morality, if it even exists, is relativistic rather than absolute. We often hear words like “appropriate” and “inappropriate.” But there is no solid set of standards to decide which is which.
At worst, people are told their behavior is “inappropriate” when a clinician on a power trip wants only to belittle them. At this level, one might be castigated for not having a therapist or not taking medication — as though to have a therapist and to take medications were requirements for good citizenship in a kingdom ruled by no one.
In the kingdom of God, on the other hand, there is one God who is the chief provider of one’s ongoing care. There is one book, the Holy Bible, which ought to be the believer’s primary resource for faith and practice. There is one King Jesus who will display clearly for all the world what is sin and what is righteousness. (John 16:8) And that King has forgiven the sins of humanity, for He died for all of them.
So what does “seeking first the kingdom of God” look like in the context of mental health? I will offer examples from my own experience.
Seeking First the Kingdom
Not too long ago, I found myself lost on the University of Idaho campus. Knowing my PTSD is often triggered when I don’t know where I’m going, I began to feel strange. I thought I might have been on the brink of a PTSD flashback.
I then decided to monitor my thoughts carefully until I found my way home, where I could distract myself with some interesting YouTubes. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But let’s suppose I had never heard of any of these diagnoses. Let’s suppose I lived in ancient times, when surely these conditions were already around — since they are, after all, real human experiences.
Suppose I had begun to feel the kind of torment one feels when PTSD is triggered. Not knowing it was PTSD, not armed with any tools or knowledge of that condition, what might I have done?
I might have prayed. I might have said: “Lord, I don’t know what’s happening to me right now, but something feels askew. I feel tormented, Lord. Please show me the way, and if there is any sin in my heart keeping me from a right relationship with You, please reveal it.”
I’ve often said these kinds of prayers when tormented, for I became a Christian long before I ever knew anything about any of these diagnoses. Had I prayed accordingly, while lost on the U.I. campus, the night might have taken a different turn.
The Lord might have replied: “I will lead you home, Andy. Just follow me.” I might not have heard those exact words audibly, but I would have sensed He was guiding me. This is all part of the ongoing relationship with God that being a Christian is all about.
But I didn’t turn first to God that night. I turned instead to the tools and techniques that are proven to help with PTSD. Those tools do work, and I sufficiently distracted myself — till four in the morning, in fact. Had I turned first to God, might He not have blessed me with a good night’s sleep?
He just might have. After all, He’s done it before.
The Golden Rule
There was a time when I had a habit of sending multiple lengthy texts to all my friends, at any time of the day or night. A friend would awaken to find five such texts, some of which might have been cause for concern. Perhaps I was having an “episode” at the time. (Or maybe I was only bored or lonely, and hoping for someone to text me back.)
Whatever the reason, it was a bad habit for quite some time. By and large, my friends put up with it. They knew me to be bipolar, so they took it to be evidence of mania. In other words, they attributed the behavior to a condition over which they felt I had no control.
Then one day, a number of my associates got together and decided to stop replying to these texts, but rather to save them, and send the most revealing to the local authorities. They were able to make a case that the unanswered texts constituted “stalking,” and then issued a restraining order against me — apparently to protect themselves from my texts.
Long story short, I then received a few knocks on my door I could have lived without. And you should have seen the looks on the faces of men in blue, when I attributed my behavior to all three of my diagnoses. All I got were blank stares, as though they thought I was “crazy.”
So when did all this insane over-texting come to an end?
The “insane” behavior came to an end when I began to consider, not the state of my own health, but the effect that the behavior was having on others. (Philippians 2:4)
After all, how would I like it if each of my friends sent me five lengthy texts every morning? I would at least be overwhelmed, if not annoyed.
In such situations, I have found it best to remember the maxim: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Often nowadays, when I pause to consider the Golden Rule, I think twice before indulging rude behavior and assuming it will be dismissed as a function of poor mental health.
Love Is a Two-Way Street
All that said, I have mixed feelings about my associates who sent personal texts of mine to uninvolved authority figures, rather than bothering to politely answer the texts directly. On the one hand, I believe God used them to alert me to some peccadilloes in my behavior.
On the other hand, I don’t think it was a very kind thing to do. We can’t pretend that only people with mental health diagnoses cease to love their neighbors when their conditions have been exacerbated. The neighbors themselves often cease to love, as well. After all, it isn’t easy to deal with someone’s chronic mental illness, especially when we see no progress toward health.
When I was homeless in the Bay Area, there were times when my need to “get inside” was so huge, I did everything I could to overemphasize the severity of my mental health issues, in hopes of getting an overnight stay in a psych ward. Usually this happened when I was in a depressive phase. If I were in a manic phase, I rather enjoyed being outside, singing songs, writing music, playing my guitar and so forth.
But when things turned gloomy or scary, I often longed to be in the very same psychiatric facility. And getting there was not always easy.
First I had to go through Emergency, where by this time all the graveyard shift workers knew me as a homeless loser named “Andy” who was always trying to scam up a free overnight ride.
Getting past the hospital workers and to the point where I was actually admitted to the psych ward was a challenge. If you’ve ever felt like you were being treated with hostility because you were “crazy,” try feeling that same treatment for being a “lazy bum “and a “worthless homeless degenerate” at the same time.
But once I succeeded in surmounting the formalities, I encountered at the psych ward what can only be described as love. I sensed that these people actually cared. Unlike the stressed out Emergency crew, I got the feeling they truly wanted me to get well.
For me, that sense of being loved is integral to the healing process when it comes to mental health.
When Jesus healed people, He also loved them. Healing has to do with the receiving of new life. This life, in Christian terms, comes through love. It does not come through that which hurts one’s neighbor. It comes when one’s actions give life to those around them, and do not take any aspect of that precious life away.
Moral Neutrality and Responsibility
There is a distinct appeal to the moral neutrality that pervades the kingdom of mental health. Our therapists and psychiatrists realize no one chooses to have a PTSD flashback or a manic episode. So, to an extent, there is more compassion for “crazy people” in this realm than exists in the society as a whole.
But there is a danger in taking such thinking to an extreme. Our actions, whether we consciously will them or not, have consequences. A drunken driver in an alcoholic blackout might kill someone while behind the wheel. That driver did not make a conscious choice to murder someone. Yet they are still held accountable for the death they caused.
Similarly, a person having a manic episode is still responsible for the excessive spending and sexual activity that might have taken place when they weren’t thinking clearly. That person will be held accountable, and people will ask: “Were they taking their meds?”
Like the drunken driver, one escapes compassion on the grounds that there is something one did wrong in the first place. That driver took a drink before driving. The person having a manic episode may have stopped taking their medication.
If we live in a society where it is so cruelly common to “blame the victim,” how can we escape the natural tendency to blame the perpetrator? We can’t! Believe me, if I stood in a court of law, and I tried to pin my behavior on a condition over which I had not control, it would not go very far.
“Your Honor, the mania made me do it!”
Try it next time you get yourself into trouble, and see how it far it flies.
Treating a Condition Can Empower Moral Choice
It is thought that King David might have been bipolar. His Psalms certainly suggest a mercurial nature. That he blissfully persisted in an affair with Bathsheba and did away with her husband through a detached act of homicide might be symptomatic of a manic episode. He was besides himself with irrational romantic feelings. But was he not still held accountable for the death of Uriah?
On the other hand, I know a 50-something professor who once developed a crush on a 22-year-old graduate student. He reported uncontrollable feelings that were affecting his marriage. When he finally decided to go to a doctor, he was diagnosed bipolar and prescribed Lamictal. The infatuation disappeared completely after three weeks of treatment.
In this case, a morally neutral option — i.e, a medication — actually solved the problem. King David did not have that option. Had the professor lived in Old Testament times, he might not remain happily married today.
Furthermore, though psychiatric diagnoses and medications are morally neutral, a morally positive outcome occurred as a result of the professor’s treatment. Due to his bipolar condition, he was tempted to commit adultery. Once properly treated, that temptation ceased to be.
So, we cannot pretend there is a culture of humanity in which morality is not a factor. We are all accountable for the deeds done while in the body. (2 Corinthians 5:10) But what we can do is to seek first the kingdom of God, in all its profoundly perfect aspects. The spirit of truth will empower us discern for ourselves what choices we are to make, for our own benefit, and for the good of all.
In a PTSD flashback, one feels tormented. One feels afraid. But the Bible deals with this as well. “There is no fear in love,” writes St. John, “for fear has torment. But perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
This has been my experience. The ultimate solution does not lie in medicine, therapy or treatment. Nor does it lie in religion or spiritual practice. God is Love (1 John 4:8). The ultimate solution, as always, lies in love.
Andy Pope is a freelance writer currently residing in Moscow, Idaho, where he is a member of Moscow First Presbyterian Church. His work on social justice has appeared in Classism Exposed in Boston, Berkeleyside in Berkeley, California, and also in the Bay Area newspaper Street Spirit, where his regular column, Homeless No More, encourages those making the transition from homelessness to housing. An accomplished pianist and lifelong musical theatre person, Andy is also the author of “Eden in Babylon,” a musical about youth homelessness in urban America.