Mental Illness Can’t Be Prayed Away

Photo by Christopher Ott on Unsplash

By Kimberly Poovey

A version of this article first appeared on The Glorious Table

I did not want to write this.

I’m afraid that by writing all this down for all the world to see, you’ll judge me. That you’ll think less of me. That you’ll think I’m “crazy” or weak. But I also feel like I need to write all this down, to share about when I walked through a dark place because I couldn’t come out of that dark place until I learned I was not alone. That was the game-changer for me, and maybe it will be the game-changer for someone reading this.

I need to write (maybe to you) about my struggles with anxiety, OCD, and depression.

I’ve always had a natural bent toward anxiety. My personality is an extremely empathetic one (INFP, Enneagram 9). I have a hard time separating myself from other people’s problems, feelings, and pain. I tend to be a worst-case-scenario thinker. I’m creative and artistic. I’m a cerebral person, spending a lot of time in my own head. This combination of factors and personality traits is, apparently, a perfect-storm for anxiety-related mental illness.

It wasn’t until high school that these issues really started rearing their ugly heads. Somewhere around the age of fifteen or sixteen, I started having panic attacks. If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you know how terrifying they can be. For me, they were usually initiated by a spiraling pattern of negative, horrifying thoughts I couldn’t control.

Often, these thoughts involved worst-case scenarios regarding every daily situation I encountered. If I was driving down the road and a tanker truck was about to pass me, my mind instantly visualized it smashing into my car and exploding into a ball of flames. If my baby brother was crawling near me on the kitchen floor while I was unloading the dishwasher, my mind would conjure up an image of me dropping a steak knife directly onto the soft-spot on his head.

On and on, over and over, day after day, I was plagued by terrifying thoughts that, like a cancerous tumor, wrapped their tendrils securely around my brain. Inoperable. Impossible to eradicate. I couldn’t breathe. There was a weight on my chest. Soon I was having multiple panic attacks every single day. I thought I was losing my mind. I couldn’t sleep. I was paralyzed by fear, and I felt completely alone.

I thought no one else had ever felt the way I was feeling. Every moment of every day I was consumed with panic and fear. I didn’t tell anyone about this because I thought they’d have me committed. I was terrified of snapping, of finally going off the deep end. More than anything, I feared hurting someone else. So I decided that if it ever got to the point when I thought I would, I would just drown myself in the bathtub. I never wanted to die; I just wanted to protect those around me from what I truly believed was my insanity.

These were my darkest days. I was up in the middle of the night over and over again, weeping, pleading with God to save me from my torment. To give me peace. To take away my fears. But I received no response, just silence. Just cold moonlight spilling all over the floor, which was where I often tried to sleep.

Then two big things happened that changed everything.

One, I broke down and told someone about what was going on. Inexplicably, it was an unlikely friend and her mom at a sleepover. I was sixteen years old. They were the first people to tell me that I was not alone.

Two, during one of my many sleepless nights, I saw an infomercial about a program specifically designed for people suffering from OCD and anxiety. (These were the early aughts.) That infomercial described people just like me—normal, sane people who felt the same things I was feeling and had come out on the other side. That night I wept uncontrollably, crying out to God. I felt so thankful, so lighter than air. For the first time, a ray of light started cutting through the darkness. I felt hope.

After telling my parents about everything that was going on inside my head, they sent me to therapy, which was exactly the right next step. In counseling, I learned that I wasn’t crazy. I learned that countless other people dealt with the same issues. I learned that I had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and that it didn’t have to ruin my life. I learned practical techniques for dealing with my panic attacks and for not freaking out about thoughts I couldn’t control.

It’s been more than twenty years since that first diagnosis. I still struggle with anxiety, depression, and OCD, and I probably always will to some degree. Through therapy, medication, and intentional self-care, I have found healing in ways I never could have imagined. Now, I feel truly free.

Prayer and “having enough faith” are not the cure for mental illness. “Pills and skills” (my therapist’s words) are what saved my life.

If your story is anything like mine, I want you to know that you are not alone.

You are going to be OK.

You deserve a healthy brain.

Reach out and get help.

Fear not.

*Love this essay? Buy me a coffee. It’s like a tip jar for our writers.*

Kimberly Poovey is the founder of The Exvangelical Parent. She is a liberal misfit Enneagram 9 INFP who likes long walks on the beach, honey-habanero lattes, and Zoloft. After spending over a decade in the ministry world, she now writes and creates full-time. She lives with her partner of 15 years and their 5-year-old son in the mountains of North Carolina.

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