I developed anxiety and depression on my mission, so probably more than most I associate mental illness with religion. For a while I thought maybe I was being overtaken by the Adversary. (See my previous post on Satan for my thoughts on THAT guy.)
I felt like Joseph Smith -in the very time of my life I was closest to God, seeking His help and keeping His commandments best I was overcome by darkness.
“I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.” (Joseph Smith History)
Why? Why when I was trying my hardest did He let this darkness consume me? I was lost, confused, and scared. The first few weeks are some of the hardest because there is no name for your pain. I was blessed to live with sweet Sister Birch to help me work through what I was feeling and realize that I was being so, so hard on myself for something I couldn’t control. She helped me see that I wasn’t dying, I had anxiety and depression.
It took me a while to realize that my greatest distress was this- I couldn’t feel the Spirit.
What? I was taught my whole life that because I was baptized I promised with the Lord to keep his commandments and in return I would have the Holy Ghost as my constant companion. Every week when I took the sacrament I renewed that covenant and was promised to “always have His Spirit to be with [me].”
How? How could He break that promise? Did I worship a God who breaks His promises?
What…why…how…this lead to a flood of other questions regarding the faith I had nurtured my whole life. It seemed I served an insatiable God who demanded more from me than I could give and it didn’t matter how fast I ran the goal of being WORTHY of His Spirit was out of reach.
I. was. exhausted. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. And I fell. It was 110 degrees in Laredo, Texas and I collapsed in the heat and gave up. I wanted to go home. I had a brand new mission President who toured the mission interviewing everyone and I broke down sobbing in his office. My long sought after mission was ruined and I begged him to let me go home. But President Torres is a very wise man and he knew I still had work to do there. So instead of arranging my flight plans he offered me a blessing in Spanish, the most beautiful language I know.
Then a miracle happened.
“But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.” (Joseph Smith History)
I felt the Spirit literally warm my body (I was in an air conditioned room so it actually felt good to be warm) from head to toe. I felt the most consuming peace I’ve ever experienced and the light truly did descend upon me. I testify that this was the power of God, the influence of His Spirit, the Comforter.
That incredible miracle and others like it sustained me until I was eventually called to return home. I didn’t always feel the Spirit, I don’t always feel it now. Sometimes I go days or even weeks without feeling it at all. Sometimes I yell at God and plead with Him to let me feel it again because it’s so dark and cold without it. But moments when I do feel it are oh so sweet and precious.
Here’s a few things I have learned:
1- Mental illness blocks our ability to feel the Spirit’s presence, but He’s always with us if we’re doing our best to be obedient.
2-We don’t earn the Spirit’s presence any more than we earn salvation. It is a gift given to all those who will accept it. It is a gift given to those who are trying and repenting (which literally means turning toward God) every day.
3-God knows everything, and I don’t. “You’re trying to make sense of your world based on a very incomplete picture,” is what Papa says in the movie The Shack (which by the way is my current favorite soul juice).
I don’t know everything, but I know that God loves His kids. How could He not? I know that He is there because of the moments I do feel Him, and that gives me the courage to live even in the times I don’t.
PS This article from the Ensign has been an incredible resource for me with regards to feeling the Spirit.