Mental Health – From Shame to Seeking Help: Part 3 The Shame of Failing to be Happy

by Lana Hobbs cross posted from Homeschoolers Anonymous

HA note: This series is reprinted with permission from Lana Hobbs’ blog, Lana Hobbs the Brave. Lana describes herself as “an aspiring writer and a former religious fundamentalist” who currently identifies as “post-Christian.” She was homeschooled in junior high and highschool. Part Three of this series was originally published on June 10, 2013.

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In this series: Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart Seven.

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Part Three: The Shame Of Failing To Be Happy

When I began to write about my college sickness and depression, I found it emotionally difficult to recount some specific stories. My writing teachers always say ‘show don’t tell’ – meaning in part that specific stories are better than generalities. I hope you will forgive my generalities in this part, because the stories are difficult. Also my parents… are good parents in many ways, but they did not understand my depression and frequently added to the stress and shame of depression while trying to help me be a more godly person. They didn’t intend to hurt me — except when they thought I needed it for my own good — but despite their intentions to be godly parents they did hurt me deeply, and I cannot avoid that fact in this section especially. I wonder sometimes how my life would be different if we had believed depression existed. I write this series and hope that people will understand the damage that can be done by denying mental illnesses.

I became sick with a bad cold during Christmas break 2006, my first year of college.

It never went away, and became all-over body aches and exhaustion before January ended.

I was a high-stress perfectionist student on top of that.

I was weepy, home relationships were strained (which became cyclically both a cause and effect of emotional pain), and I threw myself deeper into praying and schoolwork, and fighting to feel happy despite the stress. My unhappiness at home had my parents claiming I didn’t really love them. I once tried to explain that I was trying very hard to be happy, but that further offended them. I suppose they thought if I really loved them I wouldn’t have to fight. I didn’t know why it was such a struggle, but it was. I know now it was partly depression and partly that I didn’t feel safe in an environment where I was judged for the emotions I did my best to control but never could.

I was full of sadness and had trouble coping with everything. I was always tired and had trouble concentrating on my work frequently. I felt sick constantly. Luke, now my husband, was my best friend at the time. He was both a source of comfort and trouble — trouble because, in purity/courtship culture, mixed-gender friendships are frowned on as emotionally impure, unless you plan to get married.

I didn’t want to throw away my best friendship I had ever had, so I didn’t end it (best decision ever), but I prayed and prayed God would protect us from emotional impurity. At the same time, I didn’t confide in Luke and get as much comfort from my only friend who seemed to understand, because of that fear of ‘giving away a piece of my heart’. (I think now that most of this ‘emotional purity’ stuff was useless worry and stress. Would a male best friend really wreck my relationship with any other man if I didn’t marry the best friend? I think that’s unlikely. But at the time I was terrified he would marry someone else, and frustrated because I felt that flirting or taking initiative in the relationship was sinful.) My parents were very invested in my emotional purity, heaping on me an extra layer of shame and fear of messing up; they were counting on me to stay true to the purity teachings, and I was terrified to fail them.

I was dealing with fear about ‘emotional impurity,’ plus I was trying to get straight As in college, cope with family stress and help a very emotional pregnant mother, do chores, help with my siblings, all while dealing with depression and periodic hypomanic/depressive mixed episodes with no understanding and very little support.

In retrospect, I think I did a pretty awesome job to still be alive.

But at the time, I didn’t understand why I handled everything so poorly. Why I couldn’t just feel happy. Why I cried so much. Why I couldn’t help but hit myself hard where bruises wouldn’t show, why I wanted to kill myself, why the future looked so bleak when I had a big strong almighty God I was supposed to be trusting.

What was I doing wrong?

I prayed for joy. I prayed that God would reveal to me any sins I had sinned unknowingly so I could repent — I wondered if I was being punished for something I didn’t know was wrong. Everything I knew about God indicated he worked like that.

I sometimes had panic attacks at night — only I didn’t know they were panic attacks. I thought I was being attacked by demons, either as a test for God to strengthen me, or because I’d had an evil attitude and invited them into the house (giving the devil a foothold).

I didn’t understand why God didn’t care more about me — in a way that felt caring. They say God disciplines and tests (refines) the children he loves, but I wanted a God who would hold me and cut me some slack. I thought perhaps if I could just fight harder to be happy, just trust more, just worry less, then I would be happy. I had dreams of being a missionary and didn’t know how I would manage living a deprived life when I was handling college so poorly.

The most understanding advice I got was that everyone got discouraged sometimes and God is good, hold on. The least encouraging advice was that I didn’t really love God or trust him at all.

But I knew I was trying so hard. Since it obviously wasn’t working, no one would believe I was, but I was doing the best I could. If God was merciful and graceful and loving, I would have thought it would have been enough. My parents — and people in general — often judged how hard I was trying by results, but they made serious assumptions about my starting point. And I was starting pretty far behind when it came to happiness.

The misery continued. The depression, which I never imagined was real, made me sicker. I didn’t get better over summer break, like my mother expected.

I did in fact go to some doctors after eight months of being sick. One doctor thought I was stressed, that there was nothing really wrong with me, and she offered anti-depressants for the stress. Of course I refused, medication being evil and me being sick, not depressed — or so I thought. I took antibiotics, which only made me feel nauseous. I went on a strict, almost carb-free diet because my mom suspected candida was behind everything. I had no more yeast infections for years, but it didn’t cure me of my many symptoms, it only made me weaker from lack of nutrition. Friends began worrying about my weight, although only Luke’s mom said anything at the time.

At the beginning of the second fall semester, Luke and I began courting (for us it was like engagement, but the ring came later, at Christmas). It was a very happy time, but also stressful. Courtship brings your parents and families into your relationship more than usual, and while my parents felt like they should be more involved, we felt like there were a lot of extra fingers in our pie. But what can you do, that’s what courtship should be, right? I didn’t even consider objecting when my mother continued to read all my emailed correspondence with Luke. The new relationship and my parents’ continued concerns for us to be ‘godly’ added new stress to all family dynamics. I feel sorry for the pressure my parents felt, although they invited it on themselves. As the young female, I had the least agency in this confusing circle of relationships and felt like I was stuck in the middle. Plus, relationships are just hard sometimes. Depression compounded all of this, and I was frequently sad when I was expected to be happy.

Furthermore, my parents, my mother especially, were very strongly in favor of a no-touch courtship to protect us from impurity. They felt very strongly they should protect us from ourselves and indicated they wouldn’t be able to trust us alone if they knew we were touching. God designed touch to be a fire that quickly led to consummation, said my mother. (My mother-in-law, to my surprise, recently pointed out that this would not have been anything near the end of the world.) Frightened of what romantic touch might do to our judgement, and of requiring constant watching, we agreed to a no-touch courtship and engagement.

I missed those loving man hugs, even though I had never experienced them. Just a hug, an arm around the shoulder to be comforted during my many tears during that difficult courtship and depression.

Writing this reminds me of the terrible feeling of loneliness and confusion. I keep getting up to find Luke for a hug, because my mind feels like I am trapped there again, but I know I’m not.

We finally got married May 23, 2008, after nine months of courtship and two years of college.

It was a very good time for us, even though I still was ‘sick’ and struggling with intermittent depression. Although I’ve only had a few really deep depressions since then, I have had very few periods of health and full mental clarity that were longer than a couple weeks since I first got sick my first year of college at age 18. I’m 25.

I wish I hadn’t been taught what I was taught about depression. I wish I had believed depression was real, chemical, and not my fault. This section of my life that could have been happier (but still would have been difficult) was clouded by depression, dark fogginess, and pain caused by stress and depression.

We couldn’t figure out the sickness, but the sadness I knew about — I just wasn’t a very good person, and I was lucky God loved me as much as he did, even if he didn’t love me the way I wanted.*  I wanted to feel loved, but I took it on faith that God did love me, and squashed my doubts with the Bible.

The idea that I had a highly treatable mental illness never crossed my mind.

One day, though, I would read something from someone actually admitting, not condemning or denying, mental illness, and that would begin a very slow change.

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*As noted in other sections, I no longer identify as Christian. I also do not believe the Bible teaches what I believed about depression and God making it go away. People differ on what the Bible actually teaches about God, but let’s not debate that here. The point is, with the things I’d been taught about God and depression, and with God not helping me with my unrecognized depression despite all my praying and trusting and trying to do my part, you can imagine that Christianity doesn’t appeal to me anymore.

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To be continued.

Comments open below

Homeschoolers Anonymous is a cooperative project by former homeschoolers. We are an inclusive community interested in sharing our experiences growing up in the conservative, Christian homeschooling subculture. From the Quiverfull movement to the betrothal/courtship mentality to Generation Joshua and the dominionist attitudes of HSLDA, we are survivors. And we are standing together to make our voices heard. We want the world to hear our stories and we want to give hope to those who are still immersed in that world. There is a way to break free and be yourself.

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 

About Suzanne Calulu
  • Rachel Heston-Davis

    I’m so, so sorry for you that your depression was not recognized and treated. If you go through it for years, it can sometimes take years to get out of. Definitely don’t give up!

    You know, even when families technically “believe” in depression, there’s still a lot of social pressure to focus more on pulling yourself up by the boot straps. I had a homeschooled friend who suffered on and off with what he later realized was depression. Even though his family technically believed in the phenomenon of clinical depression, it took them for. ev. er. to admit that their son actually WAS depressed, rather than just being lazy or self-indulgent or moody.

    I can’t imagine how much harder it would be to get help in an environment where depression wasn’t a recognized phenomenon to begin with.

  • https://www.facebook.com/jean.hoehn/info?collection_token=1524166867%3A2327158227%3A35 Phatchick

    Oh god, BTDT. I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety issues for most of my adult life. And it didn’t help that my fundy upbringing had me frightened of the very people who could’ve helped me. I remember hearing a gastly story as a kid (from the pastor in the pulpit no less) about a woman who’d gotten saved and her family decided to have her committed and given electro-shock so she’d forget about being a christian. Just what every teenager struggling with mental problems needs to hear, right? {smo] I was in my 30s before I finally went to see a doctor to get help. Even now, I feel bad about the years I lost and the mention of “christian counseling” still makes me twitchy.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Apologies for the sort of off-topicness, but this seems like the best place to put this question.

    My therapist has recommended that I start seeing a psychologist that specializes in religious abuse. He thinks this woman could help me more than he can.

    I don’t doubt his sincerity. Rian’s been great. And I don’t doubt that I need it. But I’m still uncertain. I have no idea what to expect, and I’m more than a bit scared of what could end up coming out of such therapy.

    Does anyone have similar experience?

  • AlisonCummins

    Why don’t you see her and find out? Explain that you don’t know what to expect and that you’re scared, and see how she responds.

    What, specifically, are you scared of?

  • Baby_Raptor

    Well, part one big restriction is the cost. I *do* have health insurance, but it’s not the best out there. It would cover me switching to this other psychiatrist, if my current one supplied a letter saying he feels it necessary, but I doubt they would cover that, then me deciding a month or so down the line that I’m not staying with her.

    I have an ‘assessment’ type appointment Monday that I’m paying for out of pocket, for her to get an idea what kind of history I have and for some establishing of comfort. So that’s a thing.

    What am I scared of? Well, it’s not easy to admit, but when you get to the bottom line…Changing. I spent 19 years in that mess, and the way it destructed (with my family disowning me) had a huge effect for awhile after.

    In other words, my history is a lot of what made me who I am.

    Working through it and getting past the damage sounds all well and good, but I’m worried about changing *too* much. My friends love me for who I am, and my fiance fell in love with this “version” of me. I don’t want to come out of this process so “fixed” that I’m a completely different person and someone they don’t value as much as they valued “broken” me. Does that make any sense?

  • Rachel Heston-Davis

    “Fixed” you, to use your term, will be a better friend and spouse in the long run than “broken” you. If they don’t recognize that, then they have unhealthy relationship tendencies that they need to face up to. But at the end of th day, you have to be responsible for getting healthy.

  • AlisonCummins

    Yep, makes total sense.
    (Are you seeing a psychologist or a psychiatrist? A psychiatrist is an MD and can prescribe medication. A clinical psychologist has an MA or even a PhD including supervised work with patients, and does psychotherapy. It’s not uncommon for psychiatrists and psychologists to work together as a team. You’ve used both terms so it’s not clear.)
    In my own case, when I was seeking mental health treatments my ex expressed concern that I would become healthy and not need her any more and leave. (This did in fact happen.) When my husband got better mental health treatments I worried that he wouldn’t need me any more, but that didn’t happen.
    A friend of mine wrote about her friends who helped her out when she was desperately poor, but who abandoned her when she got regular professional work and didn’t need them any more.
    Your relationships will change. That’s not a reason not to do better by yourself, just as preserving those particular friendships was not a reason for my friend to stay poor. My relationship with my husband changed for the better, and if you have a good relationship yours will too.
    But yeah, change is scary. Good for you on finding your way!

  • AlisonCummins

    Also, your history will never go away. You will still be you!

  • texcee

    When I was a young teenager, my mother was having some sort of medical problems following a total hysterectomy a few years before. At the time no one was treating hormonal imbalance as a physical problem. She went from doctor to doctor trying to find out what was wrong with her and finally was referred to a psyciatrist. She saw him just once and apparently he told her that she “wasn’t crazy”, which she loudly announced to vindicate her shame at being apparently considered so. Unless you merited a padded cell and a straight jacket, even a hint that you might have any mental problems was to be avoided at all costs. She eventually found a doctor who “treated” her for years by giving her weekly hormone shots. (Did they help? The jury’s still out on that one. I think now that her doctor may have been a quack.) As I became an adult and dealt with my own mental health issues, I realized that my mother was and remained mentally ill for her entire life. She was neurotic, depressed, narcissistic, agoraphobic, and had severe anxiety disorder. I wonder how different my life would have been if SHE had been treated by a proper doctor and not scared that the people at church would think she was “crazy”.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I apologize. I was unaware that they’re different. He’s a psychiatrist.

    Thanks for the answer and the encouragement. It definitely helps to hear that people have had good experiences with it before.

  • AlisonCummins

    Nothing to apologize for! Lots of people aren’t clear on the difference. That’s why I explained.

  • AlisonCummins

    So you are seeing a psychiatrist (a doctor) who has referred you to a psychologist. Is that right? It sounds to me as though you wouldn’t have to give up seeing your doctor to get therapy. If you were seeing a doctor for back pain who referred you to a physiotherapist you could still go on seeing your doctor. They offer different things.


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