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The Demons of Mental Illness: What Possesses Us?

The demons of mental illness are misunderstood by many people. But when members of the faith community misunderstand mental illness demons, all hell breaks out.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.

Sometimes religious people can fall into the latter category, seeing demons behind every coffee cup–especially when it comes to demons of mental illness in general and borderline personality disorder (BPD) in particular.

A Lesson on Demons and Mental Illness

My pastor, Ryan Ahlgrim, was one asked to perform an exorcism. The woman making the request had a daughter who had just moved. The daughter reported feeling an evil presence at times, and a range of bizarre experiences. My pastor spoke to the daughter, and asked several questions. He learned that she would also feel the evil presence in her car.

He asked if she had any particular thoughts before feeling the evil presence, and she replied that she had memories of child abuse shortly before the presence would come. He asked if she saw a connection, and the light came on.

After realizing the connection, the evil presence never bothered her again.

We can learn a lot from this. When we sense evil, what is going on inside ourselves? What are we thinking or feeling? The evil we sense may not be an external demon, but an internal emotion. There just might be a logical explanation for our spiritual experiences.

Abuse, Trauma and Wondering Who the Demons of Mental Illness Really Are

I attended an abusive church for about two years when I was in college. One traumatic incident marked my severance with that church and almost with Christianity–three people, who saw my illness as Satanic oppression, pinned me to the floor of my apartment while yelling “Satan, stop!” in an attempt to rid me of the demons.

It didn’t work.

On another occasion, I was told “You need to go off your meds and trust God for your healing.” Thankfully, I knew that was a bad idea and stayed on them–for me, the meds were God’s healing.

I was also told “If you just had enough faith and truly wanted to be healed, you would be.” I countered that God does not always heal–Exhibit A being the fact that every person dies, regardless of the amount of faith he/she has.

My fellow churchgoers even showed me a book which identified “eating disorders or cutting on yourself” as so evil that they gave Satan a legal claim to torment you, which could only be defeated by renouncing it in Jesus’ name. While the book acknowledged that some people have a chemical imbalance causing their mental illness, that part was conveniently forgotten by both the author and his devotees.

To this day, I get nauseated when I hear talk about demons causing mental illness. In a metaphorical sense that may be true, and symptoms like self-injurious behavior and substance abuse may be considered sin in some religious circles, but rarely if ever is it true in a literal sense.

The Demons of Mental Illness Do Torment Us, But There Is Hope

Contrast my experience with this quote from Pastor Ryan:

It is my understanding that mental illness and spirituality are two different things, just as a broken leg and spirituality are two different things. One can have a deep and enriching relationship with God and still be mentally ill, just as one can have a deep and enriching relationship with God and still have a broken leg.

Our faith in God and relationship to Jesus Christ puts all of life into a different perspective—including our mental illnesses, but it does not change the fact of mental illness any more than it changes the fact of one’s eye color. Does faith bring healing to our bodies and minds? Yes, but ‘healing’ needs to be defined.

Healing, in its most crucial sense, means experiencing grace, knowing that one is loved by God and reconciled to God even as one journeys through the darkest shadows of depression or confusion.

As Psalm 23 observes, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”

4 thoughts on “The Demons of Mental Illness: What Possesses Us?”

  1. Don’t believe everything you think. Being on a stage and in the audience is impossible. This means that a person with a “disorder” will have a hard time making objective observations about their own behavior and root causes.
    There is hardly a clear distinction between deeply negative emotions and negative spirits. Entities of that kind get created just like a new life (baby) can be created with an act of love. Whether one calls that a “possession” or “attraction” or “invocation” does not matter so much – there will be negative entities around, as “devil is roaming the earth looking for ruin of souls”. Those who are weakest among us are the most suspect. The weakest are those who have been abused as children, usually in more ways than one: by put-downs, and being side-tracked in their natural urge to develop a healthy, rational mind and ability to think clearly.
    Here are some weaknesses in your text:
    – “After realizing the connection, evil presence never bothered her again”. Exactly. Because her own negative emotion was an open door invitation for evil spirits to move in and attach themselves. Once that emotion was cleared, there was no more open door for them and they moved on, roaming the earth, looking for the next victim.
    – You “attended an abusive church”. Whatever an “abusive” person or organization attempts, it will fail. No wonder, their “excorcism” failed. In addition, I see that they made at least two mistakes: you don’t excorcise by telling the “satan” to “stop”. You keep evil out by keeping Jesus in. Second: you never asked them to help you get rid of your demons. That’s a guarantee of failure. Even the toughest cases have a moment of clarity when they break down and express their wish to be rid of the influence that is ruining their life.
    – Chemical imbalance does not in exclude possibility of possession. As a matter of fact, it strengthens that possibility, as chemical imbalances weaken our aura, which is the most essential part of our natural protection from possession. That is why many herbs that are used in healing and naturopathic medicine also help keep negative spirits away: sage, garlic, etc.
    – The fact that everyone dies is not a proof of God’s inability to heal for simple reason that there is no “death”. There is only death of our body, which is not as important as you think. Our souls are invincible, we live on and on. That’s the proof of God’s healing ability: God does not need to interfere to save your life – you will live, no matter what. But you will also live according to your deepest desires, the ones you are probably not aware of. Hence the importance of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis: the learn to know yourself. “Know thyself”, in order to see that you have not taken wrong values and beliefs in life as your own. You were told well: if you truly wanted to be healed, you would be (and not strictly through “faith healing” – as they say: God works in mysterious ways). Since you are not healed, you are either following a false “god”, or are not as interested in being healed as you are in being ill. Usually, the reason is in the perceived benefits: most people enjoy the benefits their disease brings them, as much as it seems irrational…
    Good luck on your journey!
    ps. I hope that you can see that one or even more negative experiences with religious institutions has nothing to do with true nature of God and Jesus. They are there to help, but you need to form a correct picture of the world we live in to be able to approach them for help. Simple, honest and humble prayer goes a long way towards that goal.

  2. I have been fascinated by this subject for some time, particularly as I believe that I have been miraculously cured from BPD myself. Granted not everyone is healed without Grace but with regards to personality disorders there are clear biblical guidlines to restore order from the disorder. Gods order is to love him first, then your wife or partner, then your children, then your parents and finally your neighbour. Many people cannot abide by this as they do not place God first and then the house of cards built on sand topples over. My personal journey to a healthy mind and spirit is directly related to my commitment to taking God’s advice in all things. I frequently get it wrong but he knows that my desire to overcome my natural state of disordered thinking is a proof of putting God first.

  3. Becky. I appreciate your time in writing your article. However, I find it difficult to follow as it appears to be inter-mixing terminology, specifically diagnoses. BPD is not a mental illness, yet it is a mental disorder. It is coded on Axis II, the axis of personality disorders, developmental disorders and pervasive disorders. Certainly, one with BPD may experience mental illness, coded on Axis I. Perhaps I am too focused on the terminology and specifics of coding. If so, my apologies. My feeling is that it is so critical to distinguish between Axis I and Axis II as they are very different in their etiologies and treatment methodologies. And, unfortunately, also very fiscally important in relation to whether or not insurance companies will reimburse.

    Help me out as I feel I am not grasping your effort and voice.

    Best regards. Again, thank you for your article.
    Jeanne Morrow

    1. Thank you for your reply. I am not a mental health professional, just a consumer, so I’m not up on the terminology. But you’re right–terminology often determines if treatment will be covered. For example, most of my medicine is covered, but one is not, so I use that one as a PRN (as needed). It’s an unfortunate situation, but not that uncommon. I wish insurance companies would cover more of the Axis II diagnoses–I knew one NP who would never diagnose anyone with Asperger’s syndrome (she would use “pervasive developmental disorder”) because “they’ll never get insurance with that”. We need health care reform in this country, especially when it comes to mental illnesses and mental disorders. I’m lucky that my treatment is covered, but I’m not sure if it’s billed as “BPD” or something else–I have more than one diagnosis.

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