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My Experience with Religious Fundamentalism and Bipolar Disorder

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Guest post by Steve

For 18 years, I considered myself a Christian. My family raised me in the Disciples of Christ denomination, generally known as a progressive and inclusive branch of Christianity. Love, service, and respect for others were baked into the framework of my parents’ religious philosophy. So too were dysfunctional aspects of Christianity, such as taboos around sex, drugs, other religious frameworks, et cetera. For sixteen years I lived relatively peacefully under such a framework and the moderately strict rules it imposed.

That would all change shortly after my sixteenth birthday. For some reason, I felt the urge to dive deeper into the tenets of my faith. Enter the Internet, which, as of 2009, was a long way from the juggernaut it is today. Feeling as though my parents’ and grandparents’ explanations of biblical concepts were lacking, I turned to Internet websites and forums, as well as a teen study bible my grandparents had found on their doorstep one day and given to me as a gift.

That would turn out to be one of the most painful and consequential mistakes I would ever make. After reading through the study bible and its perverted explanations of biblical phenomena and excuses for genocide and murder committed in God’s name — which I didn’t notice at the time but can see oh, so clearly, now — I went down rabbit holes on the Internet, looking up the answers to important questions such as, “Is it a sin to listen to secular music?” among others.

My readings left me isolated from my family, feeling as though I had discovered the truth and could not admit it to them. This caused a great deal of tension in my relationship with them, as I began to believe that if I wanted to be a true Christian, I should cut myself off from my family and their liberal interpretation of the Bible and seek the companionship of others who believed as I did.

However, my beliefs did not usually translate to actions. There was a powerful dissonance between the person I was up until I stumbled upon all of this poisonous fundamentalist posturing and the person I was afterward. I did not think to question my beliefs, thinking that doing so would be a blasphemy towards God. Instead, I lingered in them and the conflict between my two selves — one a burgeoning fundamentalist and one a rational secularist — came to a head. It was truly as if the devil and god were raging inside me, and their warfare tore me apart.

I can vividly remember the crushing pressure in my chest from those early battles, a pain so fierce and unrelenting that I would fall asleep in the middle of class as my body started shutting down to escape it. I was stuck in a limbo, but I could feel the flames of hell eating away at my soul. I vividly believed that if I did not give up everything I once loved, the secular pursuits that did not glorify God, I was hell-bound.

My rational side fought like hell to keep my rising fundamentalist zeal at bay. For the most part, I excelled in school, bringing home As and Bs with every report card. Yet I felt isolated from my peers. I attempted to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but I am so grateful to say that they did not manage to get their claws into me and I bowed out after several meetings.

I cannot pinpoint when exactly my mood started to shift, but after several long and arduous months, I began to feel good again. I started to put myself out there and make friends. By doing my best to intentionally avoid the bible and all forms of fundamentalist rhetoric, I began to feel somewhat normal and happy. However, maladaptations would present themselves. I would become obsessed with certain girls as a coping mechanism, a way to cling onto the unstable safety of my current state. The flames of hell were further below, but I could still feel their heat. Magma still churned in my chest.

I had to cling to something for dear life, and as a male adolescent with a decent sex drive, I chose women. Now mind you, I was 270 pounds at the time, so I didn’t have a good shot at all at getting most of them. My social skills were also substandard. I was definitely what you would call a nerd, maybe a geek, and it showed. Still, for a few months, I felt good enough to resume a normal pattern of activity and engage in the secular pursuits I once felt so guilty about.

In the same vein, I cannot pinpoint exactly what pulled me down again. While this depressive episode was shorter and somewhat milder than the last, I desperately wanted to escape. That escape would come in the form of a forum one of my classmates showed me in the library one day where an “alien” delivered sacred knowledge to the world. After reading this, my mind latched onto it and used it as a weapon to beat back the flames that were once again searing my soul.

This time the depression may have been milder, but the high was even higher. I excelled in my last semester of high school. I visited seven colleges and got accepted to the college I wanted the most. I got all 5s on the three AP exams I took that year. My mind was as sharp as a tack, as clear as a bell. Everything clicked. Things just came to me. I was at my peak level of performance. It was an absolutely thrilling time to be alive and active in the world. I was filled with a spirit of hope and love. I graduated ready to take the world by storm, even if I had no clue exactly what it was I was going to do with my life.

Sadly, this wouldn’t last either. One Bible verse about not cursing later (I don’t remember which one it was and I don’t care to relive that again), I crashed hard. Instead of entering college feeling healthy and alive, I entered college a husk of the self I was just a few short months before, drained and lifeless and struggling to keep up with the myriad tasks and activities that come with the first few weeks of freshman year. I felt so alone and isolated, though I did try to reach out.

Several times, I was awfully close to embracing fundamentalism again, as the college I went to was in a fairly religious city in the southern United States and it was easy to find people who believed passionately in Christianity and to talk with them. I felt I would need to make a decision about what I was going to do soon, and I was leaning heavily towards embracing fundamentalism.

My lowest point in college came when I dropped a class without notifying my professor I was going to do so. I almost lost both my scholarships and had to pay back some $350 dollars to one of them. Thankfully, I was able to keep both of my scholarships all the way through college from that point on.

The end to all of this madness would come swiftly and miraculously. One day, after a three-hour class in which we had been watching a documentary, I decided to browse online to see what other documentaries were out there. That decision would change the course of the rest of my life. I was out of the house. I had my own laptop. I didn’t have parental figures hovering over my shoulder. I was angry as hell about being so depressed again, and felt I had nothing to lose. So I decided to watch the Youtube docuseries by a man named Evid3nc3, Why I became an Atheist.

Video Link

Approximately three hours later, my mind was shattered. Everything I had ever known was wrong. There were good, rational, justified reasons for not believing in God. There were good, kind people who did not believe. Hell, there were thousands of preachers who no longer believed! With this knowledge in mind, the knowledge that I did not need a god to be good or to live a good life, I gave Christianity and the toxicity of fundamentalism and evangelicalism the boot and I have never had good cause to look back since.

I am done with religion, even though religion’s effect on my psyche will always remain to some extent. I am free of the chains of dogma and ideology. I am free of the flames of hellfire, the judgement of a wrathful god, and the intercession of His son, who suffered a needless and preventable death on the cross for something nobody asked him to die for in the first place. Good fucking riddance.

The next time I was home from college, I came out as an atheist to my parents and destroyed the study bible that had sent me down this road to madness. Nobody will ever be infected with its poisonous interpretations again.

But my story is not done. For you see, nearly a decade later I have a new chunk of knowledge, a new insight that has rocked my world just as much as when I found out Christianity was not true.

A few days ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This is a mental illness in which your mood swings between a manic state (a euphoric, happy, joyful, blissful time) and a depressed state. I believe that my bipolar disorder was the cause of so much dysfunction in my life during my late high school and early college years. Looking back, my mood swings make so much sense when viewed through that context as I altered between hypomania (milder than manic) and depression.

One facet of bipolar disorder is that those who have this mental illness often suffer from delusions, which can come in both manic and depressed states. While I have never suffered from delusions in my manic states, I have in my depressive states.

And that has led me to ask myself: would I have been able to catch this disease earlier if not for the Christian framework that I believed for those last couple years of high school? I firmly believed I was in danger of going to Hell. I felt it so vividly. There was no way you could convince me that that belief was not a delusion. It was supported by the Christian cultural framework my life was based around at the time.

Did my Christian worldview mask my delusional depressive symptoms? That is definitely a question that deserves a lot more thought. Who else with undiagnosed mental illness is laboring under a Christian framework that amplifies and exacerbates it? Is it the preacher at the pulpit? The choir director? The youth pastor? The worship leader?

How many religious folks are undiagnosed simply because their worldview masks and adapts to their symptoms, leading them to believe that they aren’t ill in the first place while still struggling mightily through life and sometimes hurting those closest to them with their often inexplicable and unjustifiable actions? What if the true burden of mental illness is not fully known because of how well religion can adapt to it? These are all questions I hope to answer one day, or at least make progress towards answering.

Life after Christianity has not been easy. I’ve been to the psych ward, twice. I missed my college graduation after a major depressive episode that led to multiple suicide attempts before my roommate finally called the police and EMTs. I had a second stay in the ward this past September, due to another suicide attempt. No, life is not a cakewalk.

But that doesn’t mean I need to lean on God or religion to help me cope. I have friends. I have family. I have my own kind of faith in the world. I have myself and all the beauty and confidence I possess. And now I have closure about why I am the way I am and why I’ve gone through what I’ve gone through. I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t need fundamentalism, evangelicalism, or any of the baggage they bring, any less than I do now. All I need is to love — to love myself and to love others zealously. The rest will take care of itself.

If you think you may have a mental illness, I encourage you to seek out a mental health professional and discuss your symptoms as soon as you possibly can. Living with mental illness, especially one as severe as bipolar disorder, is no joke and we must take the needs of those suffering from any mental health condition seriously. For so long, I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and now I do. You don’t have to suffer in silence. It may be a long road to finally get the treatment you need to live a relatively normal life again, but there is hope. And my hope for you is that you keep fighting and realize that you only have one life, one you and you alone can choose how to live.

10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    BJW

    Thank you for your story. Telling it will help many people with mental illness, and especially bipolar disorder.

  2. Avatar
    Southern Lady

    Thanks for sharing your story so openly. I think you’re exactly right about the problem of mixing mental illness and religion. IFB-type religion can give your mind so much mess to work with.

    I had a less drastic situation when dealing with a difficult marriage and trying to apply all the religious stuff re marriage. It made it way more complicated. I just stayed confused and frustrated all the time. Instead of just checking with my common sense, I’d take my actual, real-life problems and try to figure out what a Christian wife should do. It about drove me crazy! Anyway, I think it was the same dynamic you’re speaking of.

    When you think about it, it’s almost scary all the stuff that can be said to be a spiritual problem, when actually it’s more about when you ate, what you ate, how much sleep you’ve had, what stresses you have, your mental health, your personality, etc.

  3. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Steve, thank you so much for sharing your story. It is difficult to write about delusional mental states, though most of us have them from time to time. Some are small delusions, slight editing of our realities. But having struggled with depression most of my life, I am all too familiar with the horrible delusions depression brings. (I am not bipolar, so there were no euphoric episodes to reward me for my depression struggles.)

    I second your closing paragraph enthusiastically. Our brains are not computers. They are complicated, fragile organs, relying on chemistry that is almost magic to work properly. It isn’t a mark of weakness for a person to acknowledge that their own brain might need some professional care, any more than it is weakness to pay attention to those persistent oil stains collecting beneath where you park your car.

    Friends, I firmly believe that this life is the only one we have. I can’t go back to heal and nourish my brain earlier in my life, but I can do my best going forward. I encourage you all to do the same. For some of you, that might mean incorporating activities into your life that push you beyond the mental demands of your job. For others, it might mean a therapist. For a few, it might mean psychotropic meds, but those only really work well in combination with therapy. Care for your brain, it isn’t replaceable.

  4. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Steve, thank you for sharing your story. It must have been so difficult for you to deal with all that. My grandma was a seriously fundamentalist evangelical Christian who suffered from severe depression. Her deity demanded perfection in word, thought, and deed. It was a lot, and she cut so much out of her life that was “worldly”. Shd eventually got medication which helped ease some of the overwhelming rules of religion.

    I am glad you are getting therapy. It can be a tough journey with ups and downs. I have many family members who struggle.

  5. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Very kind of you, Steve, to share here… There is no question in my mind that religion is a human tool and is very much implicated when it is thrown into the stew of mental imbalance. i applaud your bravery in accepting your personal situation with bipolar disorder and encourage you to continue see that diagnosis as an avenue you walk/run/crawl to wellness and balance. The DSM offers labels to help us understand what it is to be human but as has been stated above, we are complex lives and no label embraces all that we are… It is entirely possible that you might have found real help for your condition earlier in your life, had conditions allowed for respectful Science instead of woo belief.
    In my walk, I have found that just about everything has discernible, somatic effects in my life, the foods I choose to eat and even the amount of foods, the books I am reading, the films I choose, the garden I spend hours in, my job, and my bees. All these things and more make me freer in the world or more restricted. I have carried excessive depression in my life for pretty much the whole of it, most of the time without meds as they produced too many side-effects to endure. My depression is part of me and I know that it is very healthy and naturally indicated in certain situations and that I tend to go over the edge in my lows sometimes.
    It encourages me to hear your story and to know that you are caring for yourself and do not need to treat yourself poorly by accepting the lies of Christianity. I heartily second the advice above to use a therapist when situations seem to get extreme. I have found much lifelong support in therapy at various periods of my life.
    Thank-you again for being here.

  6. Avatar
    Darcy

    I’m horrified at what the poster and the commenters have had to go through. Those experiences make my own issues, like depression when I am out of a job, SAD. etc. seem pale by comparison. I do want to point out that ministers in some churches (Unitarian Universalist) are aware that people with mental health issues need help, and counselors in college look for signs of bipolar, etc. Now I wonder if fundie churches have a hand in causing and perpetuating certain kinds of mental illness by the nature of fundamentalism.

    • Avatar
      Brian Vanderlip

      “Now I wonder if fundie churches have a hand in causing and perpetuating certain kinds of mental illness by the nature of fundamentalism.”

      Darcy, I believe that given a few more years, there will be ample evidence to show this is not only true but true by design. Fundamentalism is a sick business, a tax-free ticket to harm.

  7. Avatar
    Evid3nc3

    It’s very touching to see the effect my series had on you Steve. Moments like the one you experienced watching it are exactly why I created it. I wanted people to know the truth. That they are not alone, that they don’t need to believe these things to be a good person, and that those things simply don’t have good evidence to support them. I’m always encouraged to see that the videos had the effect I intended.

    In case you’re wondering how I found your post, I have a mention.com alert set up for mentions of my name 🙂

    I’m encouraged to see you sorting through your life more clearly and wish you the best on the journey ahead.

    • Avatar
      Steve

      I’m so very glad to have you notice this post! You changed my life for the better in so many ways. I will always be grateful I found your videos. And I’m even more grateful you chose to reach out. My life is crazy right now, well, because I AM crazy. But the support of people like you, Bruce, and all of these commenters makes going on worthwhile. I hope the best for you as well, man.

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