Five Stages of Spiritual Growth in Mental Illness

My anorexia took everyone by surprise. For me, it was a monster that seemingly came out of nowhere, sharpening the focus of life into the narrow pursuit of thinness.

Looking back, almost forty years later, it’s amazing how mental health issues have impacted nearly every aspect of my life. I’d never wish the darkness of mental illness on anyone, but if it wasn’t for anorexia, bulimia, anxiety and depression, I don’t know if I would be a Christian today. I certainly would not understand the depth of God’s love in the same way. And most likely, I wouldn’t connect the dots that a person can have a mental health issue—a weakness, or a perpetual thorn in the flesh—and still be an adult who fulfills work, family and social obligations, and have a growing relationship with Christ. 

These are not just my experiences. I’ve seen other people living with mental health conditions demonstrate significant spiritual growth and become more Christ-like, as the default settings of their mental health become tempered with more reliance on prayer, and less desperation in their ruminations. In other words, in spite of a mental health diagnosis, many people grow spiritually and live out more fully what they say they believe about God.

There seems to be a pattern to this growth, common to many Christ-followers who also live with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc. Here’s how I now characterize these various stages in my relationship with Christ, and the growth that He worked through each stage to the next:

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Stage 1: Blame others and circumstances.

My depression officially kicked off when I was 18, and I faced a major disappointment: for financial reasons, I was not able to go away to college as a freshman. My only option was to continue living at home and attend the local community college. 

Of course, I blamed my parents for my depression. I knew our family didn’t have much money, but as a nearly all-A student, I did not expect my college choices would be reduced to the one I believed to be unacceptable for my education. While it’s true that circumstances can lead to depression, the roots of mine were much deeper. Family struggles, genetics and my own skewed perspective all contributed to onset of depression, followed swiftly by anorexia.

Stage 2: Blame myself.

About ten years after anorexia took hold, I found myself at a crossroads. I had walked away from obedience to Christ for most of my twenties. While I was no longer anorexic or bulimic, I still struggled periodically against depression. I knew that there were practices and habits in my life that were not consistent with growing closer to Christ. I had to make different choices in my relationships. The changes I made to draw closer to Christ—in other words, repentance—lifted the emptiness that had persisted long after anorexia and bulimia subsided. But anxiety and depression did not completely disappear from my life.

Stage 3: Blame the physical cause.

I spent the next fifteen years pursuing Christ with all that I was. I repented so much that I’m sure Jesus was sick of hearing me pray! There were parts of depression I couldn’t get rid of, no matter how rightly aligned my life was with Christ. I was happy with my life, loved my little kids and husband, but I couldn’t sleep. For three and a half years, I rarely had adequate sleep. The last thing I wanted was to be diagnosed as ‘depressed.’ Once upon a time I was depressed, or so I thought. I fought hard against this label. But finally, desperate for regular sleep, I took an anti-depressant. That little pill was a miracle in my life. It seemed that I suffered from depression because I had a physical issue that medication resolved.

Stage 4: Blame the genetic roots.

Eventually, I realized that the near panic I felt in certain social or work situations wasn’t based in sin, it wasn’t based in any inadequacy on my part; it was social anxiety. I’d had these symptoms since I was a teenager. No matter how hard I tried, like the insomnia finally controlled by medication, I couldn’t get rid my significant social anxiety. And I couldn’t change the symptoms I saw in my kids, or the things I recognized in other family members. After a lifetime of seeing behaviors and responses that didn’t make sense, depression, social anxiety, panic disorder, OCD and high functioning autism emerged as threads that were part of family life as much as shared eye color and body posture. I was simply wired this way.

Stage 5: Accept mental illness as something to be used for God’s purposes.

Several years after letting Christ reshape me into a person seeking His will above all else, I realized that I needed to speak with others about what He had done in my life. I knew that God is good, but I also recognized that if God is truly good, then He had allowed mental health issues to be worked for good in my life, and to be a blessing for others. 

Does all of this mean that all of my mental health issues have been delightful, or completely healed? Nope. While God healed me of eating disorder, I’ll probably always feel significant anxiety in certain situations. And it still doesn’t take much to wreck my sleep. My husband is perpetually cheerful, but it’s easy for me to get descend into sadness and rumination if I’m not taking good care of myself.

There truly are times of sacred chastisement, or severe mercy. Like a loving parent, what might look and feel like punishment to me is really God’s way of allowing pain to move me in His direction. While I don’t wish pain on anyone, I encourage Christ-followers and church leaders to help the people in your sphere of influence take a long-term view of what God has allowed to shape your life. Pray that He will show the people in your church how He even uses mental illness to equip His followers for our callings, for such a time as this. Knowing that He can use even the things I view as ugly thorns in my flesh for His purposes may just be one of the most palpable aspects of the hope found in Christ.

Catherine Boyle is the Director of Mental Health Ministry for Key Ministry. You can follow her work here or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and www.catherineboyle.com.