210 – Do Christians Suffer from Mental Illness? with Guest Kathleen Denly

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Do Christians Suffer from Mental Illness with Guest Kathleen Denly on Write from the Deep Podcast with Karen Ball and Erin Taylor YoungWe don’t like to talk about it. We’re afraid to admit to it. But the fact is that being a firm believer doesn’t keep mental illness from striking. How do we, as believers and writers, deal with the reality of mental illness? Guest Kathleen Denly joins us to share how God met her in her own struggle and continues to guide her to soundness of body and mind.

About Kathleen Denly

Kathleen Denly writes historical romance to entertain, encourage, and inspire readers toward a better understanding of our amazing God and how He sees us. Award winning author of the Chaparral Hearts series, she also shares history tidbits, thoughts on writing, books reviews and more at KathleenDenly.com.

Thanks to our sponsors on Patreon, we’re able to offer an edited transcript of the podcast!

Karen: Hi guys, and welcome to the deep. We are delighted you are here because we have an outstanding guest to share her experiences, knowledge, and wisdom with you. 

Erin: We do. Her name is Kathleen Denley, and I get to introduce her. Karen and I both got to know Kathleen through her writing. We both edited her work and it’s been great. 

Welcome, Kathleen Denly

Kathleen is the award-winning author of the Chaparral Hearts series. She writes historical romance to entertain, encourage, and inspire readers toward a better understanding of our amazing God and how He sees us. Kathleen enjoys finding the lesser known pockets of history and bringing them to life through the joys and struggles of her characters.

California, a favorite setting to her stories, is also her home, and she lives there with her loving husband, four young children, two dogs, and yes everybody, 10 cats. As the member of the adoption and foster community, children in need are a cause dear to her heart, and she finds they make frequent appearances in her stories.

So Kathleen, welcome. We’re glad to have you here. 

Kathleen: Thank you so much. I’m glad to be here. 

Take Courage in God’s Strength

Erin: Let’s just jump right in. Kathleen, we love to ask people, what does the deep mean to you? 

Kathleen: I’ve been listening to your podcast for so long. I thought about this for quite a while, and I feel like it changes depending on the season of life I’m in. Writing from the deep is about taking courage in God’s strength and wisdom, being able to go into those raw, dark, honest places that make you nervous. But again, leaning on God’s courage and strength to share the lessons he’s taught you from those dark and hard places with others.

Erin: I love that because we do, we have to go to the places where we’re nervous. That’s where it gets real. 

A Scary Truth

Today we wanted to talk about something more real than Christians sometimes want to admit, but we need to admit it. We need to talk about it, and it’s mental illness. We asked Kathleen to share her story with us. But first, Kathleen, why do you think that Christians sometimes struggle to admit the reality of mental illness? 

Kathleen: Well, first, I think it’s scary. We don’t want to think about the fact that this could happen to us. We wanna think, “Well, no. I’m a good Christian. I do all the right things, therefore I am impervious to this.” But that’s not actually what Scripture plays out. 

Karen: Right.

Kathleen: Several people in the Bible struggled with mental illness. If you look for the signs, you can see them easily. And there are even people who showed signs, and expressed the words, of suicidal thoughts, where they were despairing of life and they thought God had abandoned them. They had real struggles just like we do today.

Mental Illness Taboo in the church?

Kathleen: But our culture has made it somewhat taboo. There is a history in the church of misunderstanding back in the 1700s, 1800s, and even farther back, of what mental illness actually was. They thought it was strictly a spiritual thing, or it was a sign of moral depravity or immaturity. And so a lot of taboo and stigma developed. It’s not as scary if we can say, “Oh, well, not me. I don’t struggle with that.” I don’t think people intentionally think, “Oh, I’m better than them, because they have that.” I think it’s more of a fear-based reaction. 

Erin: And some Christians seem to think, “Hey, we have God so nothing can be wrong with our minds. We’ll just pray it away.” You know, as if you could pray away a broken leg. 

Karen: It’s like they’re trying to cover God’s backside. “Oh, he would never let you go into that. That can’t affect you because you have Jesus.”

It’s A Brain Problem

Erin: But there are very real struggles with the way our brains function. A friend of mine knows that I battle chronic fatigue and she just sent me an article about a recent study where they took MRIs and there’s a real dysfunction that they can see in the brain. It’s not like, “Oh, you’re lazy. Oh, you’re tired for no reason.” It’s a brain problem. 

Karen: And people don’t  recognize that about mental illness. There is often a physiological component to it.

Kathleen: I heard a quote on another show that I was watching and they said science is finally catching up with the Bible. The Bible has shown us that these things are real and they have not just a spiritual component, but also a physical component. I’m so grateful that we are at the point now where science is starting to help us understand that physical part of it.

Erin: Yeah, exactly. 

Situational Components

Karen: There’s also a situational component that comes into play. My father-in-law’s alcoholism, and the abuse that stemmed from that, resulted, for Don and his siblings, in some issues. The defenses they developed as children against what was happening to them tend to carry over into adulthood.

At one point Don and I were in a counseling session, because our marriage almost didn’t survive what had happened to him, and the counselor said to Don, “The defense mechanisms that kept you alive as a kid are destroying you as an adult.” So often we need to learn how to live without defenses we no longer need and, as believers, to know that we’re safe because God’s got us. 

Erin: So, Kathleen, you’ve had your own journey with this situation. How did you first know something wasn’t right?

Not Myself

Kathleen: Basically I started acting very not myself. I had experienced postpartum depression after delivering one of my children several years ago. I mean, he’s 13 now. But when I started struggling this time my thoughts were going to places that were darker than normal for me.

I even had, in the beginning, fleeting thoughts of, “I don’t wanna be alive anymore.” As soon as I had that thought go through my head, I went, “Wait, what? No, that’s not me. That’s not okay. That’s not normal.” I learned later that what I was going through was a side-effect of some pain medication that the doctor put me on.

I had incurred––and it sounds so silly to say it this way––a repetitive strain injury. That just sounds so simple, so much less than what it actually was for me. There came a point at which I was in so much pain that I started screaming and I couldn’t stop. 

Karen: Wow. 

Losing My Grip on Reality

Kathleen: It became so bad that, as my husband was trying to get me to medical care, I was beginning to lose my grip on reality. I was so consumed with pain that all of my other senses just shut off. I wasn’t seeing anything. I  wasn’t hearing anything. It was almost like I was out of my body  and the only thing that existed was pain.

I would float in and out of being able to see what was going on around me, just completely consumed by pain. The whole time I was screaming and screaming and screaming. I was convinced I was going to die. I thought, “There’s no way I can live through this. This is beyond anything. If I don’t die, I’m gonna lose my mind. I’m gonna go insane from just the sheer level of pain.” 

Erin: Wow. 

Kathleen: Finally I got medical help and they were able to help me grab onto reality long enough to tell them what was going on, as much as I could understand, because we were still waiting for all these tests and to see specialists.

“I did it to myself”

Kathleen: Finally the doctors gave me pain medication that brought me back into reality permanently. But that particular day, when it was so bad, is something I still have flashbacks to. And now I have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. And the really, really frustrating thing is that I did it to myself.

I didn’t know I was doing it to myself, but I did. I worked myself into that injury. I had pain off and on every time I wrote a first draft because I would do marathon writing sessions. The first time I did this, I started getting pain in my shoulder and my arm and my elbow and my wrist. But I just took an ibuprofen and keep working.

Then, when the ibuprofen wasn’t enough, I would take a day off. And by “a day off” I mean I would type with my left hand instead of my right hand. 

Erin: Wow. 

Kathleen: And then, when taking a day off wasn’t enough, I would take a week off. By my third book, it got to the point where nothing helped. The pain just kept getting worse and I wasn’t able to type at all. The pain interferied with my ability to even think about my stories, let alone type them out.

So I finally went and saw a doctor. Because it was interfering with my work. It had nothing to do with the pain other than I needed it to go away so I could get my work done. 

Listen to the Warning Bells!

Erin: Well, that’s a warning bell right there. 

Kathleen: Yeah, but I didn’t think about it that way at the time. I thought, “This is what good responsible people do. They get stuff done and they don’t let pain get in the way.” This is how I was raised.

In hindsight, I learned that what I had going on underneath was fear of what other people would think about me if I didn’t get stuff done––if I missed a deadline, if I wasn’t as successful as I could be on social media, if I didn’t have enough subscribers to my newsletter, if I didn’t have my platform strong enough, if I didn’t write enough guest posts…

I was even planning my to start my own podcast at the time. But I thought I was just doing all the things that you were supposed to do. 

Karen: You could have started the Scream podcast: “Okay. Scream with me folks.” I bet there are a lot of people who would join you.

Kathleen: Actually, I bet there are days when people would log on.

You Can’t Do It All!

Kathleen: Basically, I took all the advice from writer’s conferences, but I didn’t take it as suggestions or guidelines or things to think about. I made it all my life. Because I assumed––and again, this was not a conscious thought, this is something I figured out in retrospect––I assumed, “Well, my husband knows who I am. My kids know who I am. My mom, my friends, they all know who I am. They don’t need me to prove to them that I’m a good person.”

But all these other people––my new publisher, the other writers that I don’t know, the readers––they’re just getting to know me and need to have a good impression of me. And if I’m gonna give them a good impression, I need to do all these things and do them right now. And I need to do them perfectly. 

Karen: Man!

Kathleen: ‘Cause I can’t give a bad impression and I can’t offend anybody and I can’t disappoint anybody. 

Do You Hear Yourself?

Erin: Wait, just stop there for one second. Listeners, did you hear that? Do you hear yourself in there? Just a little bit? I think almost every beginning writer or intermediate writer, even experienced writer, sometimes hears that.

So then what? What happened from there, Kathleen? 

Kathleen: The sad result is that my family took second place to my work. Everything took second place to my work. Even my Bible study started taking second place. And I started thinking, “Oh, I’ve spent an hour and a half on Bible study this morning. I should have been writing. I should cut that down to 20 minutes. And how backwards is that? That’s totally backwards. 

Writers Need Bible Study Time!

Karen: That’s insane, is what that is.

Kathleen: Right? I’ve since learned that I need my Bible study to do good work. I need my Bible study to guide me in making the right decisions.

Instead, I got focused on being perfect. I got focused on getting everything done and I became a workaholic. And worked myself into injury. 

Erin: Which, for a lot of people, is not an unusual story. And there might be people out there who are heading that direction right now. If so, this is a cautionary tale for you. 

Kathleen: I hope so. 

Erin: What happened then? 

The Body Always Knows

Kathleen: Well, one thing I want to share is that before all this, I had done everything to make sure my setup was ergonomic. I had a chair that was completely customized. I had my screen elevated, my keyboard at the right level…everything was exactly how it should be. So I actually thought I’d protected myself from this kind of an injury.

Except nobody told me that you can’t just keep working. You have to take breaks. Your muscles wear out even if you’re doing everything the right way. After the injury, my physical therapist taught me to set an alarm every hour. To get up, move around, do stretches, move my body so that it’s doing something different than sitting and writing.

And I learned how vital it is to eat healthy and drink well to stay hydrated. To take care of your body because if you don’t, it doesn’t matter what your mind’s doing…

Karen: Yeah. 

Kathleen: …the body will eventually overrule you. 

Erin: The body always knows. I had a conversation with a counseling psychologist and she said the body always tells the story. So this injury forced you to stop trying to do it all, perfect or otherwise.But then you were on painkillers and they were messing with your mind.

The Process of Healing

Kathleen: Yes. I focused on healing physically, but eventually my brain started going, “Okay, now that we’re not in physical survival mode, here’s all this stuff I’ve been holding back on you.”

That’s when the PTSD symptoms started kicking in––the panic attacks and the anxiety and the flashbacks. I didn’t have a flashback until almost a year after the injury. When I say flashback, for me it’s audible, visual, physical––the whole thing.

It’s like somebody places a film over my eyes and I’m seeing where I was then laid over the faded image of where I actually am. And I feel the pain that I felt that day, and hear the sounds that I heard that day. It can be triggered by a noise, a smell, a specific environment. Anything.

I had to change my bedroom around because I spent six weeks stuck in bed, unable to do anything. I needed help to shower, to eat––with everything. So once I was better, we had to rearrange my bedroom so it wouldn’t remind me of when I was stuck there.

Erin: Wow. Okay. That’s hard. 

Coming Back from the Dark

Kathleen: I needed therapy and a researching of the scriptures to get myself back from the dark place I had fallen into. One day I looked at my author bio, because I was trying to get work done, and every single thing in that bio––the one that you read at the beginning of this podcast––I wasn’t any of that anymore.

I couldn’t hike. I couldn’t craft, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t mother, I couldn’t wife, I couldn’t do anything. I still lived in California and I was still married. Those were about the only things that still applied 

It felt like my entire identity had been stripped away from me, and my world had been turned upside down and I didn’t understand anything. So I clung to who God was. I knew His character and I clung to that like I was holding on with my fingernails to a rock ledge over a thousand-foot drop. 

Why Me, God?

Kathleen: I didn’t know why He was letting me go through this. I didn’t know where this was gonna take me. All I knew was God. God is good. God is unchanging. God loves me. God has a good purpose for my suffering. That was what I clung to. I had nothing else in the darkest of times. 

But the thing is, God knew there were so many lies being poured into my head at that time. Things like, I was worthless. I was helpless. I was a burden. I wasn’t helping anybody and they were all having to help me.

I didn’t realize I had this underlying belief that I was only as valuable as my accomplishments. I was only as valuable as much as I could help somebody else. And I didn’t know that until that was taken away from me.

Karen: Mm. 

A Deep, Dark Place

Kathleen: When I found myself in that dark, dark place, I had legitimate thoughts of ending my life. But God knew I would get to this dark place, and He prepared in advance the things that I would need. He gave me a husband who would not give up on me, who would not leave me alone, who would get me to the help that I needed.

And God also prepared the therapist and the psychiatrist that I would need to diagnose me, to treat me, and to provide me with the medication that I needed, all of which helped my brain work in a way that allowed me to battle the lies Satan was pouring into my head.

A Three-Tiered Approach

Erin: Wow. So you had a three-tiered approach there. 

Kathleen: Yeah. I really needed mental help, physical help, and spiritual help. God is so good and in His infinite wisdom, He gave me the shovels I needed to dig my way out from under that mountain of lies.

And He never left me. That was the one thing I knew, even when I was thinking about ending my life. It wasn’t because I thought God had abandoned me. It was because, in that moment, in that few minutes where I went that dark and that deep, I lost sight of the light.

He was there. I just wasn’t looking at Him. But He was there. 

The Light is Still There

Karen: The enemy makes a concerted effort to pull the curtains so that you can’t look at God. To make it feel as though you can’t see Him. I think anybody who’s been in that place, whether it’s mental illness or whether it’s just a place of despair, and is considering suicide––which, I’ve been there––we need help to find the light again.

I went to the Psalms and found them comforting because David was so immersed in, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me?” And yet in the next Psalm it’s, “Praise the Lord! He is faithful and glorious! And He is the only one worthy to be praised.” That  reminded me that yes, we go into those dark places, but the Light is still there. 

Look Past the Fog

When I was a kid, we used to go up into the mountains to get Christmas trees and the first time we were going up, there was fog that coated the valley. We eventually climbed higher than the fog, and there was sunshine there and blue skies! It had never registered with my brain that just because there’s fog or clouds doesn’t mean the sun is gone and that the skies aren’t blue.

They’re just being veiled. 

And that’s often what depression and mental illness can do to us, even when we’re not aware of it. 

God Loves You No Matter What!

Kathleen: The Scripture that had the biggest impact on me was about God knitting us together in our mother’s womb and loving us before we were born. It struck me so much harder than it ever had in my life. He loved me before I was born.

What does that mean? That means I hadn’t done a stinking thing to deserve to be loved, to be cared for, to have any kind of value of my own.

I just was existing, and even that only because of Him. So why did He love me? Because He created me! Period. End of story. I did nothing. I can do nothing to earn or deserve His love. So if tomorrow I have a terrible accident and the only thing I can do was lay in bed while somebody else feeds me and clothes me, I am just as valuable and just as loved as I am today. As I was in my mother’s womb.

And that was the biggest thing that pulled me out. That firm belief God loved me no matter what. 

Karen: Amen.

Erin: Amen.

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WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!

Have you or someone you’ve known suffered from mental illness? How did God help you through it?

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