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.

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.

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.

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.