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    My Mind, My Enemy

    When mental illness struck, my mind became my enemy. Would I battle it, or learn to love it?

    By Sarah Clarkson

    August 29, 2023
    • K

      What a gift, this new way of seeing and relating to Jesus. I can relate to so much of this. After denying many years of little-t trauma and then being hit head-on as an older adult, I am learning to accept that my definition of healing is not the same as his. But his is better.

    • Geri

      This sounds so similar to challenges of living with drug never goes away but surrendering to win is a useful tool for early days. And then to discover that there may yet be a gift in the trials & tribulations where a hint of gratitude can start to appear maybe. But to be at peace with the struggle, the battle, the war even is a victory of sorts. Thanks for writing...

    • Debbie Childers

      Dear Sarah, how absolutely lovely to stumble on this article by you. Your use of language is deep and expressive. I have one adult child who has OCD and one with Bipolar. Both are incredible human beings but they are learning to steward the package God has given them….as are you. How do any of us embrace the awfulness and the awesomeness of who God has made us to be? But as you so beautifully convey, there is beauty in brokenness and Jesus is the only one who can show us how to hold both and experience redemption. Thank you for sharing your experience so vulnerably and hopefully. And in case you don’t recognize my name, I was the au pair who took you to parks and played duplos with you when you were 3 living in Vienna. So thrilled to have a glimpse into tue beautiful woman you have become!

    • Rebekah

      Thank you so much, I can relate and I am drawn to Jesus through your writing.

    • Joy Sylvester-Johnson

      A refreshing testimony shared to help others facing the same situation. I often refer to things like this as “a terrible gift”. Thank you.

    • Robin

      For me this article abruptly cut short. I have read Sarah's book, This Beautiful Truth, that greatly expands the story she begins here. Loved ones in my family struggle with the spectrum of OCD. I highly recommend the book. But I have also wondered, more details like how often does he OCD plague her? What are the most practical tips or "treatments" she has found helpful. Does she believe that medicine is necessary long term and did counseling actually help?

    • Marian Gilbert

      This is the best article I have read from the Plough. Not an intellectual debate, but a humble and soul piercing testimony of Jesus Christ, our Savior. I look forward to more of this kind of article. God Bless this beautiful author for sharing.

    • Benny

      Reading this between clients in a clinic for addiction/ homelessness brings me into a reflective space and reminds me of perspective. Thank you

    • Jenny

      Thank you for this. You are being a part of His healing with your words and openness.

    • Bert K

      Thank you very much for sharing this. It is very powerful. Your reminder that Jesus loves the whole self, even the broken pieces, has helped me greatly today.

    • Colleen Remein

      Beautiful authentic rendering of your life experience. So delicately expressed and so helpful to others!!

    • Matt H

      This article gave me some new insight into how to look at OCD in my own life. I can definitely relate to her mind being her enemy. A counselor recently suggested to me that my mind was like a bully. I had never thought of it this way before, but it definitely resonated with me because that's exactly what my mind sometimes seems like. Now that I have read this article, I have been introduced to another way of looking at and treating my mind which I will definately consider and try to do as I continue to live with this illness. Thank you for the article! P.S. I hope that maybe the author can give a little more information on how treating her mind with compassion rather than the enemy has worked for her and helped her.

    • Billie Jo Youmans

      Thank you for this ... so beautiful, such a contrast to the standard approach. I am left wanting to hear more, understand more deeply. Our maker, our healer is so gentle. Blessings prayed for you, sister.

    • Nicole

      Thank you for such a vivid and honest portrait of your journey. How horrible it must have been to experience this and yet, in Christ, you use your gift to offer a generous nourishment to those similarly wounded. Really, all the wounded. I was particularly grateful for your words on power. It's something on my mind lately as I acclimate to my home country after 14 years away. A wonderful read to start my day.

    • Dani Genz

      Thank you for your honest and humble transparency about something that afflicts more of us than we can hardly fathom.

    When I was a child my mind was a gift.

    Not the practical sort you’re supposed to use diligently but the magical kind, the sort of gift you’d find in the hands of your fairy godmother. My imagination was my secret companion. She was mighty and she was wild, and my first memories shimmer and burn with the beauty she revealed. The ordinary scenes of my outdoorsy, bookish childhood became the stuff of high fantasy. She made dryads of my backyard trees, filled the sky with talking stars, and made a heroine of sunburned little me on the commonest of days. I might return from an afternoon at play with the wistful air of an orphan or the lofty brow of a princess in search of her lost throne.

    As I grew older, the scenes in my mind spilled into words that I began to scrawl into half-baked poetry and tentative stories about kindly unicorns, then adventure tales, then yearning, windswept epics. As I stood at the cusp of adulthood, I found that my imagination led me into wide, starlit spaces within my own heart, where I lay hushed and wakeful in the long evenings, reaching toward a mystery I desired with all my being.

    She brought me so much goodness, until the day she betrayed me.

    I was seventeen when my mind became my enemy. I still find it hard to describe the experience of mental illness, of having a psyche you cannot control. From one day to the next, I found that this friend of my childhood bombarded me with almost uninterrupted images of explicit violence, sexual perversion, and disaster. The images were vicious; I could not look at someone I loved without seeing him or her entangled in a horror scene. What I saw was so real, evoking such a physical reaction of panic and such a pervasive sense of shame that I became almost unable to cope with normal life. I barely slept. I withdrew from my plans for college. My sense of self disintegrated. My health broke. My mind, this most intimate of companions, had become my enemy, and she was formidable.

    photo of a woman against a leafy background

    All photographs by Andrey Metelev. Used by permission.

    It took several months, quite a few counselors, and one psychiatrist to give me a diagnosis of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). The longer-term work of learning to contain and cope with my illness had just begun, but one of the first things ground into me by each professional was that the horror film in my mind wasn’t my fault. This was, on the one hand, a watershed realization for me. To know that I hadn’t chosen to fill my mind with violence and twisted sexuality, to know that my breaking wasn’t my fault, was to turn from mental disintegration toward sanity.

    But it also meant that a central aspect of my coping mechanism was to treat my mind as my enemy. I was taught to interact with my mind in terms of hostility: as something I must resist, fight, subdue. This was a battle and my mind was my foe. My prayers reflected this. I took all the frayed faith of my childhood I could grasp and asked God to subdue, or change, or obliterate the broken part of my mind. This idea was encouraged in me by Christian counselors who linked my illness to demonic influence, and by psychiatrists who told me that medication would subdue the beast within me. The subtext to every formal conversation regarding my illness was the assumption that the right combination of medication and therapy could control my unruly psyche. Because, in the parlance of those specialized worlds, my fractured, rebellious mind was my enemy, something to be beaten into submission.

    What does it mean to love your enemy?

    I didn’t think of Christ’s command in the early days of my illness. I never thought it might apply to my rogue mind, or my frail, maddening self. In fact, I had never considered these words of Jesus except in the abstract.

    blurry photo of a woman outside in a field

    Loving my sick mind was also unimaginable to me because the enemy language I learned to describe my mind fit quite closely with the language of spiritual combat I heard so often in church settings. I heard suffering described as a foe to be overcome, defeated. Sometimes I felt I was just doing something wrong; if I could just pray the right prayer, or enact the correct number of spiritual disciplines, or exist (somehow) more victoriously, then my illness would retreat like a vanquished army in the face of a greater power.

    That’s what all the language of conflict and combat centered upon: power. I suppose it makes sense. The promise of God’s power at work in our lives is central to the gospel, and we want to see it firsthand: opponents smashed, illness zapped, prosperous lives, and conversions by the thousands. And if our troubles are not obliterated – if we are not changed into powerful people ourselves – we wonder if God has turned against us.

    I took all the frayed faith of my childhood I could grasp and asked God to subdue, or change, or obliterate the broken part of my mind.

    Humans have often been pretty confused about what divine power looks like, but I think we struggle particularly in the modern world to conceive of God’s power as anything other than force, because we live in a world of dominative power. We have the relentless mechanical power of technology and the oracular power of unprecedented information and the social power of instant access to mobilize great mobs of people. But these sorts of power are all fundamentally about increased control over ourselves and the world, a kind of power rooted far more in the philosophy of writers like Nietzsche than in the teaching of Christ. Nietzsche understood the “will to power” as the basic drive of human identity, the kind of power that pushes for self-expression, destroying any obstacle in its way. It’s easy to baptize this view of power and see God as the ultimate strongman, just waiting to crush all the things we most dislike (including what is weak in ourselves).

    But the power of God is Jesus, the suffering servant, born simply to die for the healing of his people. Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of Nietzsche’s theological critics, wrote that in Christ we discover that God’s “absolute power is identical with absolute self-giving.” He comes not to destroy his enemies but to forgive them. He comes not to obliterate broken minds but to bear and heal them.

    The hands of our king are, in Tolkien’s words, “the hands of a healer.”

    I read those words in The Lord of the Rings during the early, dark days of my illness, as I struggled to come to terms with my precious, hostile mind. I had been waiting for God to act, assuming that would mean an end to my mental illness, an end to the shattered self I had become. I wasn’t sure what would be left, but it wouldn’t be the self I knew, fragile and bewildered. It was in Aragorn, Tolkien’s exiled king, that I glimpsed a God whose power in my life might arrive as a cradling of my broken mind, a healing of my fragmented identity, a bearing of my frailty.

    I barely recognized myself when I emerged, raw and afraid, from the first months of my illness and began the long-term work of coping with my kind of insanity. 

    Aragorn, having saved his people from obliteration, has gained the right to enter his city as conqueror and take his throne. But he comes instead, first, as healer. Entering the city by back gates, he slips into the houses where the wounded lie dying, fulfilling an ancient prophecy that “the hands of a king are the hands of a healer.” Moving from bed to bed, he draws his people back from the shadowlands of physical or spiritual despair. He heals even his enemy, Faramir, the man who could rival his claim to the throne. When Faramir wakes, he does so with a “light of love” in his eyes and names Aragorn as his king, recognizing him for his humility rather than his capacity to dominate.

    That’s how I recognized God’s arrival in my own story: by a grace and gentle presence that restored and healed me even as it bore the darkness of my broken mind. I barely recognized myself when I emerged, raw and afraid, from the first months of my illness and began the long-term work of coping with my kind of insanity. At first, I let the creative girl I’d been drop away. Imagination was now tinged with terror; it wasn’t something I could control and so I rejected it along with the evil images it caused. I stopped journaling, a habit I had cultivated since childhood. I stopped writing stories. I stopped dreaming. I shunned friendship but was also nervous of solitude. I was profoundly diminished, a ghost of my former self, trying to survive by subtraction. I prayed for God to zap everything back to normal and waited, suspended and silent.

    photograph of a woman standing by an open window

    But my prayers went unanswered. You cannot heal a broken psyche by destroying it. I gradually discovered that the imagination I had loved in my youth still ached and sang even in the midst of darkness. I found that, almost against my will, God drew me back into the beauty and creativity that had illumined my childhood. Celtic music provoked the ancient and wild joy I had once known. I found that novels led me back to the inward spaces of hope and dreaming I had once inhabited, that fragments of poetry waited for me to form them, that stories hovered on the edge of my consciousness when I sat alone. They came to me like food to the starving.

    A nascent understanding took root as I sat in my room during those long, wintry years: my enemy mind was still intimately, irrevocably, bewilderingly … me. It was part of myself, an agent capable of both goodness and torment, never to be untangled or separated from my entire being. My prayers for obliteration had been mercifully unanswered, but now I was filled with the realization that I might have to live with something that was both my treasure and my enemy for the rest of my life.

    But, as I was just beginning to discover, this is what it means to be human: created for joy yet broken by sin and in need of redemption. It wasn’t just my mind but my whole self that was a tangle of glory and disaster, one that God would not discard but cherish, forgive, and heal.

    Better than any mythical Aragorn, Jesus actually came and stood human and vulnerable among us. He came by the back door, with the hands of a healer, and he loved us even when we were his enemies. He stood among us, pouring out his life to heal broken minds and diseased bodies, evil hearts and twisted souls, setting free the enemies who would become his redeemed people.

    I can almost imagine it.

    Contributed By SarahClarkson Sarah Clarkson

    Sarah Clarkson is a writer and author exploring the intersection of good books, beauty, and theology.

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