Religion was a huge part of my childhood. I was baptized at eight, we were weekly church attenders for most of my life, and from the ages of sixteen until I was nineteen, I’d say I practically ate, breathed, and slept religion after “getting saved” and wanting to work in ministry. I took my faith very seriously after I’d spent the year I was seventeen in Texas, essentially dedicating my life, and will, and parents money to an organization that was later shut down as a cult. I fell in with the worship crowd, the people who tried to replicate “God’s beauty” in emotionally charged, electric guitar powered, nothing but the kick drum while the congregations screams the chorus, type of way. I loved attention, ago being onstage every weak and hearing peoples compliments became my source of fulfillment. I could sing, I played guitar, and I felt more emotion than the average person so “ushering in God’s spirit” was just me, thinking hard about something religious and bringing myself to tears, which somehow “magically” these young kids in front of me also could feel. (we call this mass hysteria, I believe.) And I was praised for it. I’d sing “Joy to Jesus, I’ve Been Set Free” types of songs multiple times a week but go home and cry to secular songs about longing to run away and feeling like I’d been caged. I’d write poetry of escape. I’d paint pictures of freedom.
The negative side of me was that I channeled the confusion of battling my own thoughts and emotions into being obsessive and competitive. I needed to be the best, the most well read, the most accurate version of my religious identity. I was deep and had the hobby of dissecting everything. I needed to, I needed to understand this complex brain that was driving me through this life and I thought the Bible might have the answers. I thought maybe there was a greek translation in some concordance that would spell out, you aren’t a sinner you are just feel things differently. I’d dream of leaving my church and starting my own because I was sure they were doing it all wrong (Uh-oh, bad bad sign!) I was probably happy, joyful maybe? I garnered the nickname Rhea Sunshine when I was trying really hard in the high times but I was equally miserable, confused and feeling out of place. I knew something was off inside of me but I didn’t know what it was.
I began to notice the bipolar pattern of my life. Two weeks of high, happy, Jesus is my savior goodness, one week of apathy and a month or so of gloomy skies and a depression that hung on for far too long. The sadness brings self deprecation and that breeds a whole host of hateful bacteria in ones psyche. Then an alter call would happen, the right slow song would ominously draw me into myself and I’d see all that darkness inside of me, the pastor would say a trigger word and BAM! I’d cry myself into another cycle of madness. Jesus had saved me from myself once again. I’d do all proper movements of a Christian, read my Bible, sing my songs, help my people, but I continued to slip back into my darkness. I asked for help, but I was asking all the wrong questions. Why was I always so worried? (Because you have an anxiety disorder, its not just worry) Why was “God’s Plan” constantly changing for me? (Because it wasn’t “God’s voice” speaking to you… it was the mania) Why weren’t the people outside the church as miserable as me inside the church? (Because they don’t have people telling them the way their brain functions is wrong and sinful) Truthfully, I wish anyone in my life had tried to understand me at this time instead of bashing me with Bible verses and commanding me to be happy.
“Anxiety in the heart causes depression” my step mother says to me in my high times, as I discover I’m starting to have anxiety attacks on an almost daily basis. If i’m not careful that overwhelming surge of energy will send me right over the cliff into my dark place. This is predictable. I was getting to the point where I could almost map out my moods on a calendar and religion had no answers for me. Religion couldn’t tell me why the depression clouds creeped over me and why it rained knives and negativity for weeks at a time when I had done everything possible to make myself feel better. I denied the storms existence while soaking wet because religion told me too. Repeat these verses, volunteer, pray and fast, trust in the Lord to set you free and you’ll never go back to that empty painful existence. Religion couldn’t tell me why the high times were supercharged with passionate energy, like I was psychic or a prophet. It couldn’t tell me why I never struggled to hear “God’s” voice, which is funny to me because as I research people who are bipolar this is a common thing they feel, hearing some sort of instruction from a spiritual force. Instead, religion praised one dangerous side of me while ignoring the other, but the moods of my madness swing hard like a pendulum. You cannot reach high times without checking into the dark places.
And in my lowest times.. she’d whisper to me, “The Joy Of The Lord is your strength,”
But what if sadness is not weakness? Religious people in my day had this unhealthy obsession with being happy all the time. The pastor’s wives were always smiley and domestic and knew the right way to tie bows. This was the example set for women. She was simple and her simplicity was what made her happy. Her blank brain, only full of God’s love and the Sunday School volunteer calendar, is what kept her from unwillingly entering the dark place I’d visit so frequently. But I am not simple, I am very very complex. Maybe the pastors wife actually did feel these long seasons of unhappiness, because most of life is not rainbows, is not trumpets, is not sunshine. Most of life is hard. And its unfair to make someone be on when their brain is off. It’s unfair to tell anyone that their faith might be weak if they are sad. And its unfair to represent yourself as happy when you are anything but. Alternately, its incredibly courageous to stand before people and say “I’m not happy, I don’t need to feel happy, but I’m still worthy to be known” Negativity is contagious for weak people. And people who quote sayings instead of actually feeling and overcoming are not strong people.
Am I suggesting that Christianity teaches people to sweep their issues under a rug with a prayer of repentance, covering the lump in the rug with ancient verses with new spins, without actually healing or growing or learning from anything they have experienced or done to people, yes. Entirely yes. There is a reason I wasn’t supposed to talk about what I went through. Don’t glorify the sin they would say, instead of allowing me to process by talking about the darkness (like you do in therapy), and growing from those moments. And if church isn’t supposed to be therapy, they should stop marketing themselves to sad and broken people. Because if I could talk about what I was feeling, I would be able to understand and once I could understand, I could heal and change. Clearly God is no part of that. When I did go to therapy, my therapist showed me how much power I actually held in my own life. Seeing that I could change the outcome of a situation with my own balanced reaction. Learning how to stop negative thoughts and reroute them to something positive and healthy. Overcoming fear by doing and not by hiding in a prayer closet. There was true joy in realizing I didn’t need a ‘god’ to come and pluck me from this stormy seas and save me. I only had to build a strong enough boat to sail it. That’s a happy feeling, finally being in control of your own life.
I was sure I knew joy back then, but feeling joy is so much different to me now that I’m not religious. It’s rare and precious. It’s a day of perfect weather, It’s friendship and genuine compliments, it’s listening ears and “I feel so much better now, thank you” When I stopped being able to cover the sadness with a saying, I needed to be able to truly pull myself out of these deep places on my own. I had to find real happiness. I found it in good food and better conversation, I found it in nature and growth, I found it in a memory of a moment my heart changed. When I felt the heaviness lift. I find it every day in the sunrise knowing I’m forced to progress every day even if its just by one step. There is only continuing forward.
And that happens in the dark places as well as the high times. Religion doesn’t like that though. I wonder why? I remember telling people I was feeling down and they would say “rebuke it! Don’t let the Devil steal your joy!” And I’d wonder how cunning this deity was to keep stealing something I kept locked away so tightly. But was it just a little rainy and gloomy that day or did the devil actually steal the sun away from me. I think I was supposed to believe the latter, but what I think feels better is just to acknowledge the rain storm. See myself through, gently. Stare into the deep dark and let my eyes adjust so I can see it for what it is. a garden of black flowers. a graveyard of fertile soil. flash floods of inspiration. As someone who comes to this place often, I’m telling you, be less afraid of the sadness. Explore it. There’s amazingly beautiful stuff here, but despite its beauty this is not some place to live. There is no progress here and when its time to go, you need to go.
Joy only exists in the present. You can’t feel the happiness that awaits you in the future until you get there. That is something that gets me through. Knowing there will be another happy time I can savor it. Knowing there’s more coming because life is an infinity symbol. Everything comes back around, hard times become good times become harder times become better times.
And the cycle continues forever.
There’s strength in endurance.
Believe in tomorrow. Have faith in yourself.