Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I am an atheist, and have been since my teens. Although at times I struggled with my unbelief, mostly I just lived my life and didn’t worry about it too much. I have always tried to be a moral person, and have thought long and hard about values and ethics. Recently I have been overwhelmed with difficult problems in my life. My son has bipolar disorder, and my husband has MS. I am struggling with maintaining my own mental health with the enormity of the effect of these issues in my life.
My extended family members are very religious. They advise my to seek comfort in God, and I see how it helps them. I see it everywhere, in movies and news stories, of people finding solace, strength and comfort in their relationship with God. Right now, I am so overwhelmed I wish I did have belief. I belong to a humanist organization, but the focus of the group is having intellectual discussions about science and philosophy. There seems to be no counterpart in the atheist community to a loving, sheltering organization like a church during difficult times in life.
I am seeing a mental health professional, and it is extremely valuable to me. But it also feels somewhat like a commercial transaction – I have to limit my visits because of financial concerns, and my therapist is trying to make a living. I’m just about ready to give up and join a church.
Both bipolar disorder and multiple sclerosis pose serious difficulties in their own ways for the persons with the afflictions as well as for the persons who help to take care of them. Your strong desire to help and care for your son and husband are very admirable and commendable. Challenges and responsibilities weigh on your shoulders, and worry and concern for them weigh on your heart. It is entirely legitimate and understandable for you to want some source of solace, strength, and comfort.
I have nothing invested in encouraging or discouraging you about joining a church. I’m only interested in whatever action will help you. However, going by what you’ve written here, I think that there are some built-in conflicts in your idea of joining a church that you should consider very carefully.
By joining a church, would you be hoping to find solace, strength and comfort in a relationship with God, or would you be hoping to find solace, strength and comfort in your relationship with people?
If you go there for the supportive human companionship, I think you’ll be uncomfortable if you don’t actually believe in God. That is, after all, the central reason why they’re gathering together, to mutually reaffirm and reinforce that belief, and you will be expected to participate in that. It sounds like your process of becoming an atheist was a very thoughtful and conscientious one. You struggled with it. Often after such a struggle is over, a person’s convictions are strong. Are you hoping that immersing yourself amidst believers will overcome your rational decision, and you’ll come to believe as they do?
You said that you have always tried to be a moral person, and you have thought long and hard about values and ethics, and I’m sure that that is true. Churches have a tendency to not only tell people to believe in God, but also tell people what their morals and values should be within narrow parameters. I’m wondering if any of your thoughtfully self-determined values and ethics would have to be compromised or even abandoned in order for you to fit in and participate with the church.
If you can resolve the belief question and the morals/values/ethics question, then joining a church might bring you two of the desired effects, solace and comfort, but will your physical and emotional strength to help your son and husband actually be increased?
There’s a popular notion that people “gain strength from each other,” but physical or emotional strength do not magically transfer from one person to another. Unless people are actually doing things to help you with your tasks to take care of your loved ones or other tasks that are difficult for you, then you are actually using only your own strength. If other people encourage you, cheer you on, tell you that they care about you, that kind of verbal support might result in your deciding to not give up, and to tap into one more reservoir of strength that you always had, but you didn’t realize you had. That’s not gaining strength from others; that’s reassessing your own strength.
Definitely continue seeing your mental health professional as much as you can afford, and accept that yes, it is a “commercial transaction,” and it is supposed to be. You pay him or her to help you to sort through your thoughts and feelings, and find where learned attitudes or beliefs get in your own way. While he or she probably cares about you personally, in counseling that has to be balanced with some objective detachment. If your counselor is too emotionally attached and identified with you, he or she will have the same blind spots that you have. A counselor is like a mirror to help you see things about yourself that are too close for you to see. For that to work, there has to be some distance between you and the mirror.
At the same time, it sounds like you feel alone in your struggle, and perhaps not appreciated or cared for. That is a legitimate human need as well. So you also need some good old-fashioned loving company. If your humanist group is too intellectual about science and philosophy, say so, and ask if anyone is interested in some supportive socializing as well. Atheist communities will become more loving and sheltering when their members make the need known and work together to respond to the need. Nurture some friendships there by inviting members to the meeting-after-the-meeting, where you can more informally share the human side of humanism, as in how things are going in your lives. Show that you care about them, and they’ll respond by caring about you.
There are caregiver support groups for both MS and bipolar disorder caregivers. People who take care of their loved ones often neglect their own needs, and end up operating at less than their best performance, or even breaking down. Caregiver support groups can provide the practical wisdom of direct experience and also the empathy, caring, and understanding that will keep you out of despair, and drawing upon your reservoirs of strength. You’ll find some people there who are religious and some who are non-religious, but they will have the been-there-and-done-that expertise in both the pragmatic and emotional challenges that you are facing.
Here are some links to caregiver support websites and groups for both bipolar disorder and MS. Look through them to find what will best suit your needs.
For face-to-face support and companionship, consider Meetup groups in your area:
Consider carefully if you’re taking on more responsibility than is appropriate. Don’t burn yourself out. Involve your son and your husband in helping themselves and helping you to help them. I’m certain that they want to participate in interactive and mutual support, rather than merely being passive recipients of care from you. Give them tasks and responsibilities that directly help themselves, and tasks and responsibilities that directly help you. Give them permission to tell you when they think you’re neglecting your own needs, and respond to their suggestions for you to take some time to take care of yourself.
Nicole, whether you join a church or use secular resources such as the ones above, I hope that you find or create whatever you need to keep yourself strong and healthy for your own sake as well as for your family.