By Linda O’Neil
Mental health advocate and member of the Ottawa Baha’i Community
As someone diagnosed in 1980 with a mood disorder – and not very happy about it – developing a stronger spiritual orientation and relationship to God has been an important way of dealing with the effects of a mood disorder and stigma in my life. At the same time, I have to admit that my beliefs and my sense of faith, as well as my sense of self, have at times taken a beating from the challenge of living with a mental health problem. I call this condition “spiritual depression”.
What has helped me spiritually though the ups and downs of a mood disorder? Reducing the sense of isolation through involvement with a mental health support group, many of whose members have a profound understanding of human suffering and are deeply spiritual, has been essential. As well, being a Baha’i with an examined, chosen and evolving set of beliefs, a diverse spiritual community, and like-minded friends with whom to share my beliefs and values has been a wonderful gift. Using spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation, drawing inspiration from scriptures and other spiritual writings, sharing insights with others, attending spiritual gatherings and celebrations, and exploring spiritual concepts or challenges with others, have all been a source of spiritual growth and strengthening.
But as precious as this spiritual dimension of life is, it has been virtually out of reach whenever I’ve been clinically depressed and overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. This is a time when few people are able to pray or meditate, feel close to, or trust in God. It seems as though our spiritual senses have been deadened along with the physical ones, a time when sacred writings fail to inspire, or when the thought of going to services or gatherings and being more than a piece of deadwood seems impossible.
Serious depressions that have arisen between long periods of relative stability in my own life have at times given rise to fundamental and difficult spiritual questions and even doubts. If God really loved me, would He permit me to suffer in this way? Is there meaning and purpose in what I’m going through? Am I intended to experience this and grow by this experience, or is it simply bad luck, or the “changes and chances of this world?” How can I grow when I feel diminished? Should I set these questions aside till I feel better, and aim at simply getting through these rough times with as much dignity as I can muster, accepting the love and support of others as graciously as I can? Though no one can answer these questions for another person, I’ve found it helpful to talk them over with trusted friends. While I feel I have some answers, I find I keep revisiting them from time to time, in conversations with others, with my own heart, and with the Creator.
Just as surviving a serious depression requires patience and a belief that our emotions and lives will eventually get back to normal, surviving spiritual depression requires patience with our own souls, and faith that our spiritual susceptibilities will eventually be restored. It’s a time to ask for understanding, acceptance and support when we feel most vulnerable around other people and often least able to accept help. What are some of the things I’ve asked of friends? To pray for me, or even to come over to read to me when I felt unable to do this myself. To be patient with me and to try to understand how the wretchedness I feel overwhelms every aspect of my life, seemingly turning strengths into weaknesses, at least temporarily.
In my experience, a period of spiritual depression is not a time to conclude that one has lost one’s faith, or that God has vanished from one’s life. It may, however, be a time to acknowledge that under extraordinary circumstances it is natural, even predictable, to have spiritual doubts or painful questions for the Creator. Such doubts may be a sign that some spiritual development or evolution is needed on our part – a good project for when we feel better. But in my experience, spiritual doubts and worries often simply go away when I feel better, just as the anguish and despair at the centre of severe depression eventually fades away. I have found that I must simply make room for these experiences in my spiritual life, accept them, and accept myself when I’m going through them. I’ve come to see them as spiritual symptoms that affect me but are not my reality, just as the painful manifestations of clinical depression obscure my identity but do not destroy it, and eventually fade away, leaving me depleted but intact. And nothing can compare with the spiritual joy, as a friend described it, of “finding my faith secure in my heart again” and “being able to embrace it as an old friend.”
Presented at a panel discussion at the International Mental Health and Spirituality Conference, Ottawa, 2004.