I sat in my uncomfortable metal folding chair as the giant tent cleared. A few hundred women gathered on a campground to step back from the day-to-day, enjoy fellowship, and praise God. I felt alone. No one could possibly understand how I felt. None of the women I came with would even think about doing what I did.
The speaker had asked us to picture our heart like a house. With others, I had silently asked God to open the closed doors, light up the dark corners I would rather keep hidden, and blow through with a cleansing wind. I did not expect much. But something had to give.
Sometimes God grants me an image, like a mini-movie, that illustrates the invisible spiritual side of a situation. For a moment, I stood in an open space, the only walls diaphanous curtains, billowing and floating in a strong breeze. Everything was white, and bathed in light. Uncluttered. Peaceful. Clean.
My heart’s longing for that freedom overcame my resistance to look at the damage I was doing.
Regardless of what society preaches, sex is not just a pleasurable act of the moment. Nor is it a basic human right. Happiness is not the highest goal. Our choices and actions, even between consenting adults in private, do not affect just us.
A friend came back and sat beside me. She put her arm around me, and told me she had felt led to come pray for me. She thought she was there to pray for healing from the pain of my back injury, but I was so much more broken.
For various reasons, internal and external, I was miserable. I did not realize it, but my unhappiness and dissatisfaction were not merely circumstantial. My deepening feelings of hopelessness, the repetitive negative thoughts, almost overwhelming restlessness, and bursts of anger were more than simple bad moods. I knew I was proceeding toward trashing my marriage and family; I knew continuing would not solve my problems, but I did not really believe it.
Not-quite-harmless flirtation took the edge off.
I could not recognize my inability to evaluate potential consequences.
I just wanted to feel better.
In the two years before my wedding, I had developed a habit to reset my brain. But getting married fixed things, right? The vicious cycle was broken. The tension of the dance was always better than the sex, anyway.
But a wedding band is just a ring; a marriage certificate is just a piece of paper. It is two people who make a marriage. Two imperfect people. And sex is easier than true intimacy.
Unpleasant feelings lead to unhealthy choices lead to unpleasant feelings lead to unhealthy choices lead to…
Another shot of dopamine in my brain’s reward system was not going to fix anything. I would just keep wanting more, more often, as relational catastrophe loomed closer.
My friend was so concerned about how I felt physically.
What does it matter if I’m about to start another affair?!?
I heard myself say the words. They seemed far away. But brought me closer to the truth.
Sometimes I believe I am exempt from consequences. Sometimes I believe I deserve to lose everything good, that everyone should hate me and turn their backs on me.
But what I believe is not as important as what is true. Truth is constant, regardless of what I think about it, or how I feel.
Feelings lie. If I expect life to make me happy, I will be disappointed. Dissatisfaction grows like a weed; short-term fixes make it grow stronger. Depression whispers hopelessness; shots of elation in flirtation and sex quickly fade. Hypomania short-circuits my filters, but I am never actually invulnerable to consequences.
I am responsible for my actions and how they affect others. I know better; I really do. People have feelings, even when mine are blunted. Betrayal is betrayal even when it is me doing the betraying. If I choose to turn my back on my commitments, my kids will be hurt.
My mental health is not completely beyond my control. I have a glitch in my brain. The more I learn about it, the more responsible I am for keeping myself out of the worst of it and minimizing the fallout. Healthy habits are important: Doing my best to eat right, drink enough water, get enough sleep, short-circuit unhelpful thoughts, maintain friendships, go to church, pray, read my Bible.
Accountability is important. Sometimes others can recognize warning signs and pitfalls easier than we can. True friends are willing to call us out when we choose to listen to lies. They are more interested in what is good for us than what we think will make us feel happy in the moment.
After that day at Ladies Retreat, my struggle became easier for a while. My faith was a huge part of that.
I have also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and am on real medication.
When I realize I am fixating on or objectifying a man, I can remind myself that heightened interest in sex is a symptom of the glitch in my brain. Which is more helpful than you may think. No matter how good he looks or smells or sounds, no matter how good interacting with him makes me feel in the moment, it does not mean anything.
And when meaningless is oh-so-tempting, I have to step back and choose rationality, and accept the reality of potential consequences, for myself and others, I feel immune to. I am more than a bundle of emotions and drives.
It can be difficult to recognize sex as a symptom or unhealthy coping mechanism in mental illness, because society preaches that any sex between two consenting adults is healthy. Sex with whomever you please whenever you please is proclaimed a basic human right, that should be actively exercised and loudly shouted for. But my use of sex was far from healthy. I am grateful for a friend who helped me get my head back on straight, and for a God who is bigger than my broken brain.
Melinda VanRy writes about mental illness and faith on her Fruit of Brokenness blog. She wants everyone to know they have inestimable worth, though she often fails to believe it for herself. Bouts of severe depression have nearly destroyed her but instead make her stronger and give her a desire to help others who struggle with mental illness and faith as she does. Melinda lives in New York with her husband, their three kids, and more cats than she ever wanted. If you’re thinking big city, don’t. The VanRy family makes their home in rural Central New York. Way closer to Canada than New York City. And not far from Lake Ontario, which she loves.