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BPD and Spirituality: Hazardous But Healing River (pt. 1)

There was one flaw in my plan to wake up screaming–I wasn’t asleep.

This was not a nightmare, at least not in the literal sense. Although surreal, this was real—I was really pinned to my apartment floor, three people from Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, really were yelling at Satan, said people really were attempting to perform an exorcism without my consent. My illness had finally caused a conflict so severe it drove me out of that church and almost out of Christianity. Sad, because spirituality can be a powerful aid to healing from borderline personality disorder (BPD).

Critical Religious Attitudes Toward People with Severe Mental Illness

BPD and Spirituality: Hazardous But Healing RiverStudies show that religious faith can speed recovery from depression, possibly by offering one hope. Sadly, one’s place of worship may not be the sanctuary one hopes it to be. Here are a few of the comments I’ve heard from misinformed people of faith:

“You foolish person! You’ve just called God a liar because you don’t have the joy of the Lord.”

“Depression is straight from the pit of Hell.”

“If you just had enough faith and truly wanted to be healed you would be.”

“You need to go off your medication and trust God for your healing.”

“Do you feel like you’re under demonic oppression? … I know someone who has a chemical imbalance and it’s demonic oppression.”

“A relationship with Jesus Christ is the only way you can truly be set free from depression because he not only can heal the spirit but he heals the soul, which makes up your mind, your will and your emotions.”

You can probably add your own. But that’s not the way it should be.

How Ministers Can Help

How can ministers help people with mental illness? In Howard J Clinebel’s The Mental Health Ministry of the Local Church, featured at http://www.religion-online.org, Clinebel identifies the responsibilities of a minister to an individual with mental illness. He writes “The clergyman has a responsibility to both the ill person and his family.” He identifies the responsibilities to the ill person as:

• Recognize the problem as mental illness without attempting to diagnose it
• Aid the person in finding psychiatric help (or if the person is unwilling or unable to accept help, aid the family in making an involuntary commitment)
• Providing a supportive pastoral relationship during treatment, whether it is hospitalization or outpatient treatment
• Maintaining a close relationship and offer pastoral counseling during the post-treatment days, without fostering dependency

How Laypeople Can Help

Some training should be offered to laypeople desiring to help those with severe mental illness. This training should include:

• How to recognize the symptoms of mental illness
• How to know when a person needs professional help
• Knowledge of where to refer a mentally ill individual

It is important to treat the individual suffering from mental illness with respect, love, compassion, grace, and dignity. Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis writes “This is the real heart of the matter, to be loved and treated with dignity. Mental illness often puts up blocks in relationships and friendships. But this is because we want relationships that are easy, that benefit us, or that feel productive. But I believe that the presence of mental illness, as well as other disabilities, reminds us that life and relationships are not about productivity and cost-effectiveness and convenience. We’re here to love and be loved. I do not have it in my power to fix my mentally ill friends. Some of them will continue to do things that are, from my perspective, counter-productive. So do I give up on them, or do I give up my need to have a ‘productive’ relationship? Can I simply enjoy who they are and being their friend? I have decided to enjoy them, value them as full human beings, and offer ‘nonproductive’ kindness. We are all, in God’s eyes, the recipients of undeserved grace. So none of us has a value-advantage over another. Let us treat each other with grace.”

BPD and Spirituality: Hazardous But Healing River (part 2)

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4 Responses to BPD and Spirituality: Hazardous But Healing River (pt. 1)

  1. Becky, I’m so sad that your experience in church is what it was. I hope you’re able to find a community in the future that accepts you just as you are and still treats you as one of God’s beloved children.
    I had a similar experience in the church I grew up in. For a long time, I hid my mental illness (bipolar II & eating disorder) because I knew how my church “family” would react — by saying many of the things you stated above. Luckily, I found a community of believers that is far more open. When my pastor said from the pulpit that he believed that medication is one way that God can heal anxiety, depression, etc., I knew it was home.

  2. Cate says:

    “It is important to treat the individual suffering from mental illness with respect, love, compassion, grace, and dignity.”

    I get where you’re going with this but see it slightly differently. It’s not just people with mental illnesses that need to be treated with “respect, love, compassion, grace and dignity”. Every person needs to be treated that way regardless of their mental health, physical health, race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, etc. I might be stating the obvious but I’m not convinced that people with mental illnesses need to be treated differently in and by the Church. If we treated everyone this way, then firstly it would be doing as Christ commanded and secondly it would go a good way to demolish the stigma of difference. We need to educate in terms of the stigmatizing messages people give out, but I think there is a need to learn to treat all as we would want to be treated ourselves (including those with mental illness, we are people too after all).

  3. missratac says:

    I’ve just put something on my website about “The Mental-Health-Friendly Church.” Mental health issues are so often misunderstood by people in the church.

  4. Heather says:

    I’ve stumbled upon this site in my attempt to try to learn how to effectively minister to someone who I believe has Borderline Personality Disorder. I am a pastor’s wife in a small church and also the worship leader. I’ve been having some issues with one of the ladies in our church. She has shared with me that she had a traumatic childhood and has been seeing a therapist for over two years now. Although she has not shared with me her diagnosis I’ve done some research and have come to believe that she suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder. For the first two years that she attended our church things were fine between us and we developed a fairly close friendship. Although her tendency to idealize me made me uncomfortable it was not (unfortunately) a rare thing for people to try to stick me up on a pedestal and so I didn’t see it as a red flag that something more serious was going on with her. The issues arose about six months ago when I confronted her on some things she was doing that the Bible teaches a Christian should not do. At the time I confronted her she was on the worship team, which is considered a leadership position at our church. People in a leadership position sign an agreement that they will do their best to live according to the Bible and so I tried to talk with her about the things she was doing to hopefully teach her and help her turn away from those behaviors. I tried my best to do this in a loving and kind way, but I also didn’t suspect at that time that she struggled with a personality disorder. I was blindsided when she quit the worship team, threatened to quit attending church, and began accusing me of treating her bad, constantly telling her what she was doing that was wrong, and saying things I never said like she was garbage and not worth anything. We were able to resolve enough that she still attends our church and she says she wants to remain friends, although our friendship is pretty fragile at this point and I don’t know how to restore it. I have tried to put the past behind us but she frequently brings up the fact that I made her feel worthless and like she isn’t as good as other people in the church. She also frequently tells me that she is torn between wanting to quit attending our church because I made her feel so bad and wanting to stay because she loves attending our church and she loves me and my husband and misses us when she doesn’t go to church. Although I only talked to her three times about what she did and haven’t brought it up at all for almost four months I still get accused of constantly telling her everything she is doing that is wrong.

    I want to help this lady but I don’t know how to do that. I was able to find some advice online about how to live with a family member who has a personality disorder and less about maintaining a friendship with one. There is almost nothing online about being a pastor to someone with a personality disorder. Your advice is one of the few things I’ve found and it is very brief. The first thing you suggest I can do. I definitely can recognize her problem as a mental disorder, although in trying to understand why she was behaving the way she was I think I inadvertently diagnosed her as struggling with BPD. Maybe I should try to just let that go, but how can I help her without understanding why she behaves the way she does? The second I don’t have to do, she is already seeking help, although I have some doubts as to the effectiveness of the therapist she sees because it doesn’t seem to be making anything better. The third and fourth things on your list I wish you could elaborate on. How can my husband and I provide a supportive pastoral relationship during treatment? To be a pastor means you teach the Word of God to the people in your church. It doesn’t work to try and teach this woman, because she either takes one thing I say and twists it into something different and worse, or she denies that she did anything wrong. For example, if she treats another person in an unkind manner and I bring to her attention that she is acting in a way the Bible says we shouldn’t she flips out because now (in her eyes) I have just called her bad and worthless, and at the same time she denies doing anything bad to this person because she did so many good things to them before. It’s like she can’t admit that she did anything wrong ever, so she recites the list of everything she ever did for this person that was good as proof that she couldn’t possibly ever do something wrong or bad. Another thing I’ve hit, if I say she treated someone in a rude and unkind way, in her eyes I’m blaming her for everything that happened between her and this other person and saying that the other person never did anything wrong ever, so now I have to listen to her recite everything the other person did to her that was bad. She just can’t see that she could have done both good and bad things or that she is a good person that did something wrong, in her eyes either she is good or bad. She can’t see that someone else did both bad and good, in her eyes they are either all good or everything they ever did was evil and bad. She can’t see that her and another peron could both be at fault for something that happened between them, in her eyes it’s either all their fault or all hers. At this point I feel like I can’t teach her at all, she rejects everything I say. I can love her and pray for her but can’t teach her. But do I now just stand by and watch her behave in ways that go against the word of God for fear that she will flip out if I dare suggest she is doing something wrong? I feel like I am a bad friend and minister to watch her self destruct and say nothing. In the time I’ve known her I’ve watched her push people away or destroy other friendships she has. She runs a small business and that has suffered because of how she treated people. She has also expressed a desire to get back on the worship team and to be involved in other ministries in the church that are considered leadership positions. How can we allow her to be in leadership at our church if she acts in ways the Bible says a Christian shouldn’t act and we can’t confront her about it because she reacts so badly? Should I tell her that until she makes some progress in her treatment she shouldn’t be in leadership? I hate to do that, because I feel like God can use anyone and I don’t want to refuse to put this lady in leadership just because she has a mental illness. At the same time she continues to behave in ways the Bible says we shouldn’t and we can’t teach her otherwise because of the mental illness so I don’t know what to do. If you could give me advice I would appreciate it because I’m at a loss.

    The fourth thing you suggest, to maintain a close relationship and offer pastoral counseling during the post-treatment days, without fostering dependency, seems impossible. Can you give me advice? How can I maintain a close relationship with this woman when every week I get several texts or a letter from her about how I said she was no good and would never be good, how I treated her like dirt, how she feels like she isn’t safe at our church or isn’t wanted, and so on and so on, when all I tried to do was point out four months ago that she was acting in ways that go against what the Bible teaches? I try to just let it go and tell myself that she doesn’t mean it and she has problems that are bigger than I can even comprehend, but it’s so hard to try and maintain a friendship with someone who half the time acts like they don’t want it. I believe her when she says she is torn, because she acts like two different people. How can I maintain this friendship? She won’t or can’t forgive me for things I never even said. And how can my husband and I counsel her without her feeling like we are attacking her? If we say “You are not acting in a compassionate manner towards this person at this time.” she twists it into “You are not a compassionate person.” No matter how many times we calmly say “No, that’s not what I said.” we are met with “Well that’s how I feel!” and that’s the end of it and she wont let it go that we made her feel that way for months. Are we not supposed to bring up to her anything she is doing that is less than perfect? If you could give me any advice at all I would appreciate it so much!

    I’m sorry this was so long. I don’t know where else to turn. If you know of a blog or books to recommend I would appreciate anything. Anything you can point me to would be helpful and I would be so thankful! I really do love this woman and want so badly to help her but I just don’t know how.

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