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Give thanks for my mental illness? You can’t be serious

SAD WOMAN
Kamari | Shutterstock
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Suffering, evil, illness, that’s not what we’re grateful for. We’re grateful that our God is big enough and good enough to work with even those.

Holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom writes in The Hiding Place how she’d somehow gotten hold of a Bible in the concentration camp, and it was her one bit of consolation in captivity. Their barracks were horribly infested with fleas, so when Corrie’s friend suggested, quoting Thessalonians, that they “Give thanks in all circumstances,” Corrie bristled. But her friend insisted, “It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstances.’” So, Corrie recounts, “We stood between tiers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.”

Betsie wasn’t wrong, though. They later found out that in large part, the guards left them alone with the Bible because they didn’t want to get too close and be infected with their pests.

I have a flea problem too: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. So when my spiritual director suggested to me that I include “I thank you God, for the brain you’ve given me,” I agreed to say it, but it’s not always a prayer I can say with any sincerity.

I mean good grief, how do you thank God for something that tortures you?

I was at Mass today, just trying to sit with God, but my brain wouldn’t let up. “What if you don’t even believe this?” it asked. “What if you don’t love Jesus? What if you don’t love your husband? What if he doesn’t love you?”

Those “what if’s” are typical of OCD. I’m used to unwanted thoughts randomly popping into my mind–it’s just that old misfiring alarm system in my orbitofrontal cortex–but they hurt as badly as if they were real. Mental illness misrepresents reality; it tells you lies. How on God’s green earth are you supposed to be grateful for a brain that tells you awful, scary lies?

Sometimes I have moments of clarity, where I see how my own individual malfunctioning of body, mind, and soul, makes my need for mercy impossible to ignore. I can be grateful for that. I badly need to remember how much I need Jesus. More often, though, I’m just angry: “Jesus, I could be so much better of a better mother, a better wife, without this. What’s stopping you from fixing this?”

I’m grateful for that fleeting clarity, but either way I’m trying to remember that God doesn’t owe me answers. If he’s with me, working in my life, shouldn’t that be enough? Corrie Ten Boom’s story reminds me that you don’t need to know how God will use something, to remember that God can work with anything. God will tell you, when or if you need to know. And maybe, sometimes, not knowing is part of the plan too.

When I say plan, I’m certainly not saying that God damaged my brain and inserted this suffering into my life so that I’ll be essentially chased into his arms. Love doesn’t wound. The world God gave us is broken, though, through humanity’s own choosing, and God works within our broken framework so that nothing goes to waste. God allows the illness, but didn’t cause it and certainly doesn’t abandon me to it. I believe this, but I keep making the mistake of thinking that I have to understand how exactly he uses it, and what exactly I’m getting out of this prolonged, exhausting fight.

The thing is, it’s easy to be grateful when you’ve seen the good that God has brought out of evil. Everyone I know can point to a time they were asking God where he was, and it turned out that he was actually moving them in a necessary direction. Those stories are powerful, but remember–you don’t need to understand God’s mind to have peace. It is enough that God is working. How he’s working is secondary.

That’s small comfort, but it’s probably the key to being able give thanks in all circumstances, even in the throes of mental illness. Suffering, evil, illness, that’s not what we’re grateful for. We’re grateful that our God is big enough and good enough to work with even those, to draw us to himself. If I needed to know his plan in order for it to work, I’d be in big trouble, because my mind isn’t big enough to see with God’s perspective. Sometimes trying to understand is an exercise in futility, and that’s when you sigh, like Corrie did, thank God for being there in the middle of it with you, and wait to see what God will do. You might not know till Heaven, but that’s okay.

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