On God and Psychiatry

Saturn

During my first quarter at college, I enrolled in an observational astronomy class at Stanford. Every Thursday night, a few of us rode our bikes in the dark up to the Student Observatory, where we looked at various celestial objects through the telescope. I remember looking at Saturn and its rings and thinking that it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. The photos above were taken at this observatory, and while far better images exist, I love their grainy, far-away quality. They give you the sense that you are peering into the dark, endless expanse of the universe.

The more I know about our universe, galaxy, and planet, the more I realize how our tiny brains can never comprehend the vastness of it all. Orca whales swim in unison to create waves large enough to knock seals off floating sea ice. Honeybees perch outside the hive and fan their wings to suck out the hot air for the good of hive. The human eye is an intricate ecosystem working with our brains to give us the gift of vision.

I believe in something bigger than our tiny human lives on earth, something from which all goodness and creation flows. I call this thing God. Others can disagree about the accuracy of my conclusion, and that’s okay, because I’m at peace with my own beliefs.

I’ve experienced God in nature, but also in music, church, friendship, and in the kindness and love of others. My first real experience with God came during a typical “altar-call” at a Christian camp during my teenage years. While I no longer attend an “Evangelical”-style church, my experience with God was real and nobody can ever convince me otherwise. I believe that God exists, that He hears us, that our lives have meaning, and that above all else, God is good.

After the much-anticipated birth of my first child, I became severely depressed. For an entire year, I tried everything to make myself better. I literally ran five miles almost every day (exercise is supposed to make you happy!), I went to church, I tried to make new mommy friends, I went back to work (twice), I quit work (twice), I journaled, I ate a healthy diet, and I did everything I could to “cure” myself. I thought I just needed to be stronger, try harder and be more faithful.

After a year of doing everything “right”, though, I still felt full of despair. Finally I acquiesced to trying medication. Within a few weeks of starting medication, I felt better. I still felt completely like myself, but it was as if somebody turned down the volume in my head. I could cope. I no longer felt paralyzed with terrible feelings.

Much is made of the “conflict” between faith and science. I believe this conflict is largely overblown, much like the “working moms vs. stay-at-home moms” conflict, but there does exist real hostility towards modern psychiatry in certain faith communities. The feeling of “you must just be doing it wrong” prevails. I can partially understand this feeling, because the lines between faith, the soul, the body and the mind are fuzzy. It’s easy to think that what worked for one person should work for everyone else.

And without a doubt, sometimes there is a place for spiritual discovery. Sometimes, we need prayer. Sometimes, we must summon the better versions of ourselves. Sometimes though, we need medical help.

The hard part is knowing when we need God and when we need a doctor. I’ve accepted that I need both. Spiritual struggle has a purpose, but suffering does not. I believe in a God who wants me to be the healthiest, fullest version of myself. I believe God has a plan for my life, and that in order to fulfill this plan I must be well. Taking medication and working with a psychiatrist help me stay well.

The best psychiatrist in the world cannot tell me who created Saturn, why I am on this planet, or what it all means. This is where faith comes in. My church provides me with community, common purpose and tools for nurturing my spiritual life, all of which enhance my mental health.

The best pastor in the world though, cannot pray away a broken leg or psychosis. This is where medicine comes in. Things get complicated with mental illness, because mental illness takes place in our brains, but mental illness is just like other illness. Tellingly, you don’t hear diabetics agonizing about whether taking insulin conflicts with their faith.

Accepting my mental health diagnosis, working with a psychiatrist and taking medication do not take the place of my spiritual life. They do make me a healthier, happier, fuller version of myself, and thus closer to who God wants me to be. This is my faith.

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