I’m a graduate student in my late 20s who’s suffered from bipolar disorder since my early 20s. I have no formal training in psychology, but one of my academic interests is psychology and emotion in 20th century American culture (one of my specializations is cultural studies). Typically I look at mood disorders and emotions as cultural and social phenomena (as was perhaps evidenced by my last post on this blog), but I thought I’d temporarily suspend that avenue of thought and explore some thoughts on mood disorders and spirituality that stem from my own experiences.
Those who suffer from mood disorders (or who have watched loved ones suffer) know how difficult it can be to access God, feel the spirit, etc, when one’s disorder is not under control. Depression is a disease that causes immense despair and/or numbness, and often leaves the sufferer feeling cut off from God. Mania leaves its sufferers with racing thoughts and feelings, and often suffuses their lives with exhilarating delusions of grandeur rather than the comforting, affirming touch of the spirit.
One aspect of this phenomenon that really interests me is what we learn about emotion and the spirit from people who have these kinds of experiences. The spirit can touch our lives in many ways. We learn in D&C 8:2 that the spirit can speak to both our mind and our heart. While there is often a lot of discussion in church circles on what makes feeling the spirit different from other emotions and intellectual revelations (for instance, how do the emotions you feel when listening to a moving musical performance differ from a spiritual experience?), and I do think we need to examine the potential differences, in this post, I’m more interested in the commonalities. While spiritual experiences can differ from other emotional experiences in ways that can be difficult to express, I believe that God works through our thoughts and emotions to touch us with the spirit and his love.
Now enter into the equation mood disorders such as depression. “Mood disorder” is a term that doesn’t really encompass the totality of the experiences of its sufferers. These disorders are illnesses that affect both one’s cognition and emotional state (as well as other bodily processes such as appetite, sleep, etc). On the emotional side they can cause intense emotional pain, guilt, or even an absence of emotion (or, in the case of mania, intense feelings of euphoria or agitation). On the cognitive side, depression can cause a lack of creativity, difficulties in concentration, slowness in processing information, obsessive thoughts, etc. Because of these limitations, it becomes difficult to access the spirit; because one’s emotions and cognitions are so out-of-whack, it becomes difficult for God to inspire us in our minds or in our hearts.
I find myself constantly struggling with figuring out what feelings to trust: the church teaches us to trust our feelings, because the spirit is often equated with “feeling” (we “feel” a burning in our bosom, we “feel” twinges in our conscience when we sin, etc). However, mood disorders teach you that you shouldn’t trust your feelings: people with bipolar disorder who feel that they are God’s chosen servants aren’t necessarily so, people with depression who feel like they’re the most worthless people on the planet aren’t necessarily so, etc.
I do think it’s important to ask how one learns to trust the feelings that come from God while denying the feelings associated with the disorder. At the same time, I think the issue is more complicated than mere differentiation between feelings. Drawing lines between the Spirit and the disorder doesn’t look at the ways that we can experience both at once (or one through the other). For example, feeling the Spirit can affect my base mood level, and distorted cognitions and emotions change the lens I use when thinking about God’s answers to my prayers.
It’s important to not only consider how to distinguish between feelings, but to think about the general messiness and interconnectedness of different feelings. What do mood disorders and their effect on spirituality tell us about how God works through our cognitions and emotions? (What does it mean that when we’re emotionally and cognitively screwed up, it becomes much more difficult to access God and His love?) What can mood disorders teach us about spirituality more generally? How are other spiritual states that are linked to emotion (faith, hope, charity) affected by mood disorders, and how do these spiritual states affect mood disorders and our other emotions more generally?