[Content Note: The following post talks about depression, mental illness, and suicide.]
It's impossible to talk about why I'm an atheist today without talking about some of the truly bizarre beliefs that I held in the past--beliefs that I was taught in the past, along with dozens and sometimes hundreds of other parishioners in the church audiences I sat in.
One of those sets of beliefs is the idea of demonic oppression and possession.
Demonic possession, as most of you know, is the idea that a infernal entity can possess a mortal being's physical body. They control the body, bending the individual to their will regardless of what the individual desires or believes. It's the ultimate violation, in some ways, the subversion of one's own free will to an entity you can't fight.
In the doctrinal background that I come from, it's accepted that there is a literal devil, with literal demons. We are in the midst of a literal spiritual war. The idea of taking up spiritual armor found in Ephesians 6:10-18 isn't a metaphor; I have known deacons and church going men who swore that they daily walked through those verses and prayed as a means of putting on the armor that would defend them against spiritual attacks by demonic forces.
But there's also the verse that says that he who is in you is greater than he that is in the world. If you have Christ abiding within you, another fundamental doctrine, and he is greater than demonic forces that control the physical world...how can you fear demonic forces? How can they harm you?
The solution to this conundrum is the idea of demonic oppression--the idea that demons don't possess you, but that they bother you from the outside.
They have a myriad of ways of doing this. Sometimes, it's physical ailments. Sometimes, it's losing a job (demons are masterful economists, you know). Other times it's having a falling out with someone who is important to you, or finding that your children have been seduced by the world and strayed from their biblical upbringing.
Perhaps the worst, though, is the idea that demonic oppression is the cause of mental illness.
You see, there are some portions of very fundamentalist Christians who believe that depression and other mental health issues can't exist in Christians. The "joy of the Lord," after all, is meant to be a Christian's strength. If you aren't experiencing joy, you aren't walking closely enough with Christ.
You here this sometimes approached from another angle when people discuss the Duggar family and how cheerful their children are. It typically begins with some criticizing the Duggars, and then someone defending them by pointing out how joyful the children are, and then someone else pointing out that they have no choice but to be joyful--any other option is sinful.
That same idea is, by demonic oppression, applied to mental health issues.
But that's not even the worst, in truth. It's bad enough, in many ways, but in my opinion, the worst comes when you consider how you become demonically oppressed.
It's a bit paradoxical. Usually, demons target a Christian who is of particular usefulness to God. The demons somehow recognize this potential and determine that they need to thwart that person. So they throw up obstacles to draw the person away from God. They make them doubt and question, perhaps, or tempt them away with things they desire even.
And that departure from God? That's what causes the mental health issue in this doctrinal thinking. In the end, it's the fault of the person with mental health issues because they are not walking closely enough with God.
My family has a strong history of mental health issues. Depressive disorders, bipolar, post traumatic stress disorder--we often joke that even my parents' dog hasn't quite escaped therapy. He was even prescribed a doggy antidepressant for a while. So you can imagine what years of hearing this idea that Christians are joyful and happy did for me when, as a ten year old, I wrote my first suicide note.
I felt like a failure. Not only as a daughter, or a sister, or a human, but as a Christian. I felt like I had personally failed God, because I was meant to exude the joy that he brought into me, and I couldn't. I was sad. I was sad all the time.
It continued through my tween and teen years. The first time I heard demonic oppression used in reference to me was after I returned from a mission trip to Costa Rica and had given my testimony. I have always been a tremendous public speaker--were I born a man, I have a feeling I'd have been marked for the pulpit like so many of my other family members with the same gift, but alas, as a woman, I was stuck to giving testimony when called upon, which was still better than former churches we'd belonged to where women were only allowed up front to sing or be baptized, nothing else.
After returning from Costa Rica, I experienced a crisis of faith. I didn't share this with anyone, aside from asking questions. I've shared before how experiencing actual poverty really shook me to my core, and this made me question God. As I questioned, I experienced one of those mini crises that teenagers are already prone to. My identity as a Christian, my belief in God, was so thorough that I was shocked that I could even question it. Questioning God was literally questioning who I was at a very fundamental level, and I acted out.
And those who had heard me give my testimony, who heard about these troubles, tsk-tsked and said, "It's demonic oppression. She's been targeted. She's going to do great things for God if she can only overcome it."
It's laughable, isn't it? Here I was, having just turned seventeen, in the midst of this crisis of WHO AM I of magnificent proportions, and it was all just an obstacle trying to prevent me from being used by God. Like...I don't know...a spatula that made it through the dishwasher with a spot of food still hanging on. Clean that bit of food off, and it's good enough to use, folks!
But it wasn't demonic oppression. That only detracted from the real cause of my distress, one that was only diagnosed when I was hospitalized following a suicide attempt two weeks before my high school graduation, at seventeen.
I sometimes wonder...if it hadn't been for the idea of demonic oppression, would someone have noticed sooner? Would someone have seen that something was right?
Better yet, if I hadn't been so convinced by years of preaching that I was the problem, that if only I committed a little harder to walking closer to God everything would be fine...would I have known something was wrong? Would I have asked for help? Maybe not...but maybe so.
The treatment that I received following my suicide attempt--much it from wonderful Christian counselors--slowly brought me to a point where I accepted that demonic oppression wasn't the root of my mental health. I couldn't solve it by praying, or fasting, or reading my Bible, or going to every church event I could, like I had tried in the past. None of that would work. With the help of my team, I realized that I needed to build coping skills. I accepted that I might be on medications either for the rest of my life, or at the least, off and on as I needed them to get through rougher patches.
But more importantly, I began to question why the church would have written off something so undeniably real for me as a spiritual issue. I saw the damage the belief had done in the lives of the people around me, people who also had needed help and may have thought it was their own fault for letting demons in to begin with.
It was, undeniably, a brick in the wall.