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When Healing is Holy and Hurtful: BPD and Church Counselors

May 17, 2011 Becky Oberg

When it comes to religious counseling--in my case Christian--I own a record for "fastest kicked out".

I was a sophomore at Baylor University in Waco, Texas when I was diagnosed with depression. Some close friends from church advised me to seek help at the church's "Center for Biblical Counseling". Under Texas law at the time; anyone could be a therapist--this woman's qualifications were that she'd read a book about theophostic counseling and attended a seminar. After the second session, she told me I was too angry to work with and not to come back until I'd forgiven the people who had abused me.

maria_magdalene_praying

Alphabet soup has its advantages

People at the church jokingly referred to counseling with qualified therapists as "alphabet soup", due to the multiple letters after the names of therapists. Alphabet soup is a lot healthier than what I was given.

Professionally trained therapists know the signs of mental illness and are willing to work alongside a psychiatrist. While my faith has helped me in the past and remains an important part of my life, religious rhetoric has damaged me. At the church, I fasted and prayed, underwent two exorcisms (one voluntary, one involuntary) and renounced Satan repeatedly--although I took issue with the belief that Satan made a claim on me when I was molested.

Getting on the right medication and seeing an excellent psychologist was considerably more helpful. While I am pragmatic and will adjust my opinion according to what I have experienced, the church people were not the same. I still remember being questioned in the lobby of the Student Life Center--by someone who I hadn't told about my decision to seek counseling through Baylor--"Is the therapist a Christian? On fire for the Lord?"

To me, it didn't matter. I wanted to get better and was going with what worked.

Even a doctor can be mistaken

After graduation, I returned to Indianapolis. Still believing I needed a religious dimension to my therapy, I started seeing a counselor at church. He had credentials--a doctorate and a license to practice as a marriage and family therapist--but his views weren't mainstream.

"If you were rich, you'd be eccentric," he told me. "But because you're poor, you're mentally ill." He said a psychiatrist would probably diagnose me with pre-schizophrenia. He didn't believe that mental illness was caused by a chemical imbalance. He was a firm believer in the anti-psychiatry movement, and encouraged me to research it. I did so and went off my medication.

In April 2002, I was sexually assaulted. He told me my homicidal feelings were normal and "The Bible says someone who does that deserves to die." When I talked about buying a gun, he told me he would sign the paperwork to approve me for a conceal-carry permit. Bear in mind that I had full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder, was paranoid and prone to bouts of psychosis and depression. I had no business owning a firearm.

I discussed joining the Army with him, and enlisted with his blessing--another thing I had no business doing. Predictably, I suffered from a nervous breakdown during Basic Combat Training. After I was medically discharged, I returned to Indianapolis a broken, burnt-out woman. This time, however, I was ready to try what I should have done in the first place: I called my insurance company and found a psychiatrist and therapist with excellent credentials and a medical view of mental illness.

Rest in peace, Matt

I was lucky. My friend Matt Smith, who attended the same church, committed suicide by shooting himself in a Dallas motel room. I believed--still believe--that if he received the same "treatment" I did, it was a factor in his decision to kill himself.

I've heard too many stories of suicides of people told by their church that their problem was "sin" or the classic "If you just had enough faith..." . These aren't isolated incidents; they're a disturbing pattern. No one should be forced to gamble for their lives or perceived salvation.

Religion and spirituality can heal. They can also hurt. Keep that in mind when you're looking for a therapist. My rule of thumb: if you leave their office feeling worse and they haven't tried to help you feel better, find a different therapist. There should be no condemnation for something beyond your control.

APA Reference
Oberg, B. (2011, May 17). When Healing is Holy and Hurtful: BPD and Church Counselors, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, May 22 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/borderline/2011/05/when-healing-is-holy-and-hurtful-bpd-and-church-counselors



Author: Becky Oberg

Robert
June, 25 2021 at 9:54 pm

I don’t know where to begin. It’s people such as yourself with the courage to speak up that are so very valuable and validating to those of us who suffer so greatly at times. It’s a true healing balm and healing not judgement not condemnation is what we, people afflicted with BPD need most. So much I could say and add about my own struggles with BPD in my walk of faith. I absolutely identify with your struggle that you’ve mentioned. Suffice to say that reading others speak candidly and compassionately about trying to be a believer struggling with an affliction like BPD somehow gives me courage to go on in the faith. Just knowing that there are fellow believers, no matter what denomination or what your own fellowship is called, who can understand the struggle is priceless. Are not we called to bear one another’s burdens? Often you learn compassion through your own personal battles. Anyway thank you for sharing yours with us, God bless and keep you!

Traci
June, 16 2014 at 7:45 pm

Ya know, its a mixture! Ive learned its sin and genetics. Its medicine and prayer. Its obedience and doctors! But what you went thru: HORRIBLE! Ive been there, o i have...Thx for sharing!

patricia
March, 26 2012 at 4:45 am

Hi Becky,
Don't know if this helps, but :Your experience with biblical counselling doesn't sound like biblical counselling at all. It sounds more like some really flaky and unsound theology. I've been in churches like that where there is such a mixture of truth and error that your head is spinning trying to sort the real from the spurious. Theophostics is actually rejected by most truly biblical counselors for a number of good reasons.
I've experienced having a youth pastor tell me once that I was the most negative person he had ever met. I was about 15 and had experienced violence and abuse from an early age onward. His comments were his shallow reaction to my bitterness, fear and hatred over experiencing that adult authority figures were selfish, and untrustworthy liars and exploiters.
The bible says that people are supposed to be put in leadership positions because they are commited to Jesus, have demonstrated spiritual maturity, and an abilty to teach and counsel with patience and they have a good reputation in terms of their spiritual character in the community; this would include qualities like mercy, not easily angered, able to speak difficult truth in a loving way, wise, etc.
But many churches today ignore the scripture and instead choose people because they are nice and friendly, well liked and willing to take on a role. How insipid to say the least. They often have little training or seasoning and so are inadequate to help. Imagine how I felt as a young person to be labelled as the most negative person he had ever met. I felt assaulted and thrown away by God at the time although it was really just him who felt that way. It was true that I was bitter and resentful and also hurt. And he would have been right, at some point after building a compassionate relationship, to lead me out of that and help me to see how wrong it was.
It was more a reflection of his hot house, country club brand of watered down christianity, although he tried to make out that I was the problem alone. In fact, he wasn't a true reflection of the church he worked for, as that church itself was very solid biblically, very loving and very much home to some godly, mature pastors and elders and a real sense of God's presence. I was too young at the time to make that distinction though and so left.
Some folks think christianity is just about being a nice person hanging out with other friendly nice foks and having pot lucks, quiliting bees and doing nice neighborly things through church for others. The reality of the battle with sin, our own and that of others against us they prefer to avoid beyond quoting a verse or two or uttering a prayer. Coming alongside someone wrestling with the effects of someone else's evil and their own struggle with sin as they respond, they want nothing to do with it. Too real. Too scary. Too ugly. And precisely what it means to be a solider of the cross. As someone said, going to church doesn't make one a real christian anymore than going to McDonald's makes you a hamburger.
They need to scapegoat to cover up their own lack of preparation and real faith. Sin is a reality in our response to the sin of others. As for the demon thing, yes, they can take advantage of wounds in our lives via abuse and exploit them. But for someone to tell you that satan has a claim on your life because you were molested as a child is just insenstive and shows some bad theology. It makes it sound as if someone violating you now h as the right to own you which is a lie; satan or demons do not have ownership via sexual abuse, they are merely exploiting the violation, the aspect of our response that is sinful, ie, hatred, rebellion, acting out against others, and the lies believed because of it. Demons are like spiritual rats or parasites; opportunists, not undefeatable authority figures. In fact Jesus stripped them of power and authority at the cross and took back the keys to hell and death. All such unholy bonds are broken and defeated at the cross for the believer when we turn to him in repentance and we trust in Jesus for all that we need for salvation. So the only real claim the evil one has comes of rejecting Christ and His Kingdom, not being molested.
I would encourage you, if you haven't already done so, to send a letter to the church pastor detailing what you experienced and what was said to you. Hopefully they will have some integrity and at least deal with it. If this center for biblical counselling is NANC certified, NANC will want to hear about the theophostic bit and also the demonic comments made as this goes totally against their basis scripturally; they won't in fact, as far as I know, certify churches who practie and teach such things. As far as biblical counselling goes, for me, when its been truly scriptural, its been like inserting a head cleaner tape into a mind disconnected from reality and hidden in hopeless fog. Just because you encountered someone who sounds off base, don't take it as representing Christ and His attitude towards you. I spent years and money in both secular and christian psychology based counselling and it was, aside from having someone supportive to listen, largely useless at effecting real change or helping me to get a realistic view of my life, who I was in it and what to do about it. Basically I felt better about what a mess my life was, lol. Christ is real, His word is truth and He has not rejected you; the door is still open and He is still knocking. Blessings to you.
Patricia

Gretchen
October, 16 2011 at 1:39 pm

Thank you. I read this just at the right time! I am in angst and about to take myself to the hospital. I just finished talking to my brother who loves me dearly. He is a good good Christian man. His concern was that I go to a different town where I can find doctors who are of my faith. I had to explain to him that although I love my faith, the majority of people at my church DO NOT GET IT. I am told if I just read my scriptures I will feel better. If I live a clean life I will feel better. Ummm... perhaps. I would generally agree. However, living a more pious life does NOT change the chemicals in my brain. I am actually afraid to have a doctor of my faith for fear of not knowing how well they UNDERSTAND mental illness. However, I WOULD LOVE To have a wholesome person of my faith who not only understands mental illness but also understands Jesus Christ and the beautiful atonement which He provided. I'm still not sure what my decision will be regarding my hospitalization. But, I feel better having read this article. Not only is it okay not to trust the unfortunate ignorance of our well intended brothers and sisters, it is also okay to still believe in the precious gospel of Jesus Christ.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Becky Oberg
October, 18 2011 at 8:12 am

I'm happy if I've helped. Take care of yourself.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Adrielle
January, 1 2018 at 10:42 am

Becky,
You are brave and compassionate to share your story. Thank you for your vulnerability! If you are open to it, I would like to know, confidentially, more about the church you were associated with during your time at Baylor. Please email me at caselke@att.net if you are willing to speak with me.

Beth
May, 20 2011 at 6:21 pm

Having suffered from depression for more than 10 years now, I can't tell you the number of Christians who have told me that I must be sinful or I would not have a mental illness, that having a mental illness is in itself a sin, or that I just wasn't praying hard enough for God to make it better. Some of these people are my own relatives... every time I see them I am told that they are "praying for me," not for me to feel better, but to see the light and accept God as my saviour so I won't be in this sinful state anymore. I don't understand why those who preach so strongly the message of love and compassion for all don't see the further burden of pain that they inflict on sufferers of mental illnesses with these types of attitudes and remarks.
Thank you for your article. It's important to shine some light on this topic. Religion can provide much-needed hope for people, but far too often it is used to shame.

Kim
May, 20 2011 at 7:41 am

I am a devout Christian. I totally agree with your post. I suffer from Bipolar Disorder and have heard so many hurtful things from my Christian brethren. I have been told that I need more faith, I need to get closer to Christ and that I may be tormented by Satan. It makes me mad. Only God knows how strong my faith is and how close to Christ I am. And that was NOT my problem. I can see that Satan was tormenting me, but it was not the Bipolar itself, it was him taking advantage of it. If you know Christ, and you rebuke Satan in the name of Christ on several occasions, and he is still there, then I think that the problem is not Satan because he has to go when you rebuke him.
I consider my faith a relationship, not a religion. Christ got onto the pharisees about their "religious" practices. I pray that my Christian family will start learning about mental illness and stop being so ignorant. They are hurting a lot of people, and perhaps killing some of them. I know that is not their intention. Ignorance is our enemy.
Thanks so much!

Joanne Ferdinando
May, 20 2011 at 4:50 am

Excellent advice. Jesus spoke in the Bible many years ago about churches making the Word of God of no effect by teaching traditions. God did not make traditional denominations or "religion." He gave us the Bible which, when properly interpreted, can help anyone with any physical or mental illness. There is no biblical verse, however, condemning the use of medications or secular treatment by a professional. In other words, don't blame God for the errors of churchmen and women. If you really want to know the truth, read the Bible and don't rely on preachers.

else
May, 19 2011 at 1:36 am

powerful, powerful post. I'm amazed that anyone can write so thoughtfully about such a charged topic and after suffering so many different mistreatments and losses. Thank you.

Lindsey
May, 18 2011 at 10:44 am

Thanks for writing this article. I grew up in church and throughout my upbringing, I was always told that depression was just a matter of dealing with sin in your life and accepting God's healing. Then I went to a wonderful, Christian, and credentialed therapist and she helped me by not condemning me for being depressed or telling me to pray harder. She actually helped me work through my issues at the time and told me that if I indeed needed medication, there was nothing wrong with it. Some people do need medication, and there is no shame in it. The church does need to recognize that God can be an important part of the healing process, but there is still a need for medical intervention for mental illness, just as we have no problem getting medical intervention for other illnesses. I am sorry that you have gone through all of this and commend you for the message you are spreading.

Kelly Ray
May, 18 2011 at 4:56 am

I wouldn't classify any of those adults you spoke of as "religious" or "spiritual" - speaking "in the name of the Church or God" does not make one a healer or a compassionate presence by any means.
The church has wounded in many ways. Religion can be oppressive and toxic to the human spirit.
Not the Creator's intentions whatsoever....so I never had a problem leaving.

Alistair McHarg
May, 18 2011 at 4:47 am

Thank you for this very powerful post. In AA we say, "Religion is for people who don't want to go to hell, spirituality is for people who don't want to go back." To heal from mental illness and other forms of trauma you will eventually hit the point where you need to rely on - and trust - something bigger than you. When you do, it is essential that that person and or entity does not have an agenda. Religions are - first and foremost - in the business of promoting and perpetuating themselves, imposing their values on others. True healing is provided by entities that love and respect you as you are, and create an atmosphere that is safe, so that you can heal organically. -- Again, thank you for an excellent post - way above average.

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