One of the things I didn’t understand for the first 40 years of my life (I call those my 40 years in the wilderness) is that when we seek healing and help from God, there are layers of healing that can happen when we become aware of our thoughts.
I have suffered from OCD and anxiety since I was a young child. For many years, I also suffered from dysthymia (a low-level form of depression — “persistent depressive disorder” that is less pronounced than major depressive disorder but still impacts life in a significant way).
I can still remember as a child praying earnestly for God to take away my fears. But they never went away. I was so confused by this!
And I think at some point in my tween/teen life I gave up asking. (My heart hurts to even write those words.)
Now let me say that I didn’t lose my testimony. I still believed in God. I felt God guide me throughout my life, especially in major decisions (although I was always, always afraid that somehow I would make the wrong decisions and mess up my plan forever). I felt the Spirit on many occasions. I was diligent in scripture study, prayer, church attendance, and temple worship. I served a mission. I married in the temple. I did everything active Mormons do. (I don’t share this at all to boast; this is just what my journey looked like.)
I also share these things to show that all the doing of my Mormon life was not sufficient to heal my mind, heart, and spirit.
In spite of my religious habits, which were done with a good heart and real intent, I wasn’t ever consistently at peace. I was ignorant to how my own thoughts were sabotaging my spiritual health and leaving me weary of life. (I believe God unveiled me to this reality at a time when things were right in my life. But I also believe that my life could have been different had I known what I know now. And so I share in hopes that others “can be more wise than [I] have been.“)
The messages in my head were pretty constant, and included things like “You are not enough.” “What if you go through all of this life thing and find out you didn’t make it?” “You should be able to fix yourself. You have a testimony. Why aren’t you happy?” Or I would feel mad at God because I had so little peace. I would listen to conference talks and talks at church, and I would read scriptures, and I would attend the temple. And my brain still ended up feeling hopeless, seeing all I wasn’t doing. Then, because I had such a testimony, I thought the answer was simply to be more religious, to work harder to be more diligent, more dutiful.
Those in the Church who suffer from anxiety and depression may relate to some of these thoughts. Even though I had a testimony and was earnestly active in the Church, I simply didn’t know how to believe in God’s love for me (even though I could believe in it for others!) because THESE. THOUGHTS. WERE. SO. LOUD. (Yes, the all-caps was on purpose.)
I can’t speak for God, but I feel like He didn’t answer those little-girl prayers to simply take away my fears, because He knew that my 40 years in the wilderness would teach me something about my Egypt, my bondage.
God was allowing me to learn by experience to seek truth by learning through life experience what was not truth. He wasn’t ignoring me or torturing me. He was simply allowing me to experience my fall so I could know what the contrasting, personal, on-this-side-of-the-veil salvation would feel like when it was time for that healing to start to come.
I had to reach a pretty low point where I wanted more than some sort of quick-fix relief from my pain, fear, and shame. Life and health issues also brought me to a point where I couldn’t work harder or more. I had to learn how to work differently. What I needed was healing at my core, at that root level of my thoughts. That healing for me couldn’t start to happen until I connected with others further along this specific, thought-level approach to seeking the healing power of Christ.
I needed to know, first, that healing. is. possible. And I needed guidance on the how.
For me, angel-from-heaven therapists were a start and have been critical to my healing. But the real change for me started happening when I followed through on the heaven-sent idea to attend 12-step meetings, which I have been attending regularly for five years now. Immersing myself in a healing community has been life-changing. The Twelve Steps also have taught me the how of accessing the Atonement. It’s the different work that my mind and spirit had actually been desiring to understand since my youth. (I still remember asking people in my teens what it meant to put things at Jesus’ feet. I knew the what. But no one ever explain a how that I could wrap my head around. The Twelve Steps changed that for me.)
With that hope from hearing others’ stories of healing, and learning from their how, I eventually started to engage my own process of learning to identify and start to surrender these voices in my head. (Think of Moses’ experience in Moses 1 where he first experienced truth about God’s nature and power as the foundation to be able to recognize how much the devil truly was not God. I was a faithful member of the Church, so temple-recommend type of obedience was not my issue. But obedience alone to the commandments was not enough to heal my mind. My fallen thoughts were a channel for the devil to have a hold on my life.)
Along the way, I also have had impressions (personal commandments!) to do things like yoga and meditation as well (great tools for helping one learn how to observe one’s thoughts in a non-judgmental way and to be more present rather than obsessed with the past or the future).
I now understand that because my OCD and anxiety started when I was barely at the age of accountability, perhaps even before, the false beliefs around which my mind developed have been around for a long, long time. I now understand that it will continue to take time for the layers to be revealed to me, but I’m learning to cherish the process. God shows up in amazing ways to let me know that the real truth about Him is nothing like I had imagined in the hamster wheel of my head. As we learn in Lectures on Faith, we can’t really exercise faith in God unless we have a correct understanding of His character and attributes. Through this find-and-surrender/replace process, I am coming to know a God who is more gentle, loving, kind, patient, and ever-ready to help me than I ever could have dreamed. He meets me where I am and takes me one baby step, one thought at a time, to show me more of who He really is. He isn’t angry when I can’t just figure it out or fix myself.
In fact, one of the most important truths that has come to light is that it is simply not my job to change or fix myself. That doesn’t mean I sit passively. I can use my agency to surround myself with people engaging in this process. I can be willing to learn from the pain of my unhealthy thought patterns, and let the pain teach me (rather than expecting God to anesthetize me). I can choose to pray for courage to seek knowledge and insight from the pain that my hamster-wheel thoughts cause me (rather than trying to force myself to think differently — which only breeds shame — I can practice being kind to myself in that process). I can do my usual Mormon stuff (scriptures, prayers, church, temple, service) and also do the things that I now know help me stay plugged into this process and the hope for healing (my 12-step meetings and study of 12-step recovery stories and truths, taking walks with friends who are engaged in a similar process).
As I become aware and gently observe thought patterns that do me harm, I can journal and (especially) talk to others about what I am seeing. But it really gets exciting when I then turn to God to start giving Him my false beliefs and letting Him give me truth to replace those beliefs. I call this the divine find-and-replace process.
Again, I used to just expect Him to make my mind better, to make me feel better. I was confused and hurt and scared when He didn’t. This was an innocent desire, but an ignorant one.
I wanted a cure, but God wanted me to find the healing power of Christ.
I wanted instant relief, but now I realize He wants to give me more than that.
He wants to give me experience engaging Him in a very personal way. He wants to heal me at my core. It is a very individualized, sacred process. There are patterns of truth that appear in what others experience in this process (which is why I treasure my 12-step meetings), but the truths I practice believing are mine, from God, for me. I write them on my mirror and in my journal, and I ask support people to help me practice believing them. We practice believing together.
It is in identifying my personal pavilions — my own fallen, false beliefs (again, many of which I developed when I was a tender child) — that I become ready for Him to teach me about who He really is. How He really feels about me.
I am coming to believe that this is what Alma talks about when he talked about exercising faith. Faith isn’t about outcomes. It’s about a process. For me, it’s about God helping me identify the weeds that were choking out my seed that has been there all along, wanting to grow. He is helping me prepare the ground of my mind to create more space for Him.
This kind of faith is so much different than when I was trying to somehow earn God’s fixing power by simply being more religious. Without meaning to, I was treating God like a vending machine by focusing on the quick-fix relief I wanted. I now understand that He wants to engage a sweeter-than-sweet-fruit process with me that I can plug into every day.
I am repeating myself, I know. But the principles and patterns in this process are so powerful!
It’s also important to know that I have not been magically cured of my OCD or anxiety (although the persistent, depressive state I was in is all but gone). My brain still has a tendency to get stuck very easily. But I have tools now. Tools and truth. I feel like I have been given new life.
And, interestingly enough, my weak things allow God to show me His strength. Were all of my mortal weaknesses taken from me, I don’t think I would desire to lean on Him like I do now. (The words of Paul and Moroni mean so much more to me now.)
This week, I’d like to share a few stories (including ones I have just across this past week) that reflect some of these tools and truths. Only one resource that I will share will be from the Twelve Step world; I realize that not everyone will need or benefit from 12-step work. But the principles found in this process are true, and they show up in a lot of different ways, in a lot of different tools and techniques. I gain confidence in truth when those patterns appear.
Because even as this is a spiritual process, it’s also a very earthy one. Our brains are part of our fallen selves, and when we can work with God to bring our thoughts more into alignment with spiritual truth, I think it’s a way for us to experience more of the joy that God intends for us in this life. Through this process, I am coming to believe that we can experience glimpses of resurrected joy on this side of the veil.
For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element…connected, receive…joy;
And when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy.
The elements are the tabernacle of God; yea, man is the tabernacle of God, even temples
I share these experiences, tools, and truth because I know there are others out there like me. I know there are many people who are suffering (sometimes ignorantly, often in silence) with their own shame and hamster-wheel thoughts, whether because of mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, OCD, bipolar or other disorders; childhood abuse or trauma; adult traumas — or simply just because we all have layers that develop because we are mortal. Through the journey we call life, our mortal brains find quick-fix ways to make sense of our world, and often the false beliefs and coping mechanisms that develop along the way take up space where God wants to give truth.
I hope that some of what is shared here can be helpful. I know God cares about your pain. Don’t give up on the process; the pain can actually show you where He wants to heal you. Find others who can help and who understand. There is hope! Healing is possible!