Growing up, religion was always in the periphery of my life; a large number of my family members were in the drug and alcohol recovery community, which is very heavy into the ideals of faith. When one has become so entrenched in the tangible world of drugs and addiction, it makes sense that the aesthetic aspects of faith would be the most helpful and comforting in overcoming that, so I have always understood not only the attraction, but the necessity of it.
Due to this, I’ve always found my mental health issues ironic in that sense because, when broken down to its barest elements, many mental illnesses are like addictions in their own right; this is why one of the most effective therapies for personality disorders is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and it’s also one of the most effective treatments for addiction. It’s important to realize that there is an element of mental illness that, despite its infliction of pain, becomes familiar and the idea of losing that to an uncertain future is daunting, to say the least.
I began questioning my faith when I was nine years old, and as the years went on I found myself—unbeknownst to me—building resentment towards religion. I studied as much about different faiths as I could, from the Abrahamic religions like Catholicism and Judaism, to the Eastern religions like Buddhism, to the “new age” religions like Wicca. I convinced myself that I was searching for one that I connected to more than I connected to my Christian birthright, and for the most part that was true. I did not realize at the time that already mental illness was plaguing my psyche, growing like a fungus on the corners of my mind.
As the years went on, I would find myself often debating people on the subject of religion, not necessarily to challenge their faith, but, in retrospect, I believe I was trying to dissect it in order to figure out why it wasn’t prevalent in me. Looking back, I realize that, as the symptoms of my mental illnesses increased, causing me more and more angst, I was growing jealous of the peace that religion afforded people.
I feel that it’s important to note that faith is so effective in the recovery community because it connects the person to the idea of something outside themselves; drugs and alcohol are something tangible within this world that calls to them for one reason or another, but religion gives them something outside this world to grasp onto, which is wholly disconnected from the pain and anguish they feel that drove them to addiction in the first place. Unfortunately, mental illness is unlike drugs and alcohol because it does not exist in the physical world, which is why DBT has a large focus on mindfulness, or the practice of focusing on the tangible. In short, I feel that the biggest difference between an addiction to drugs and alcohol, and an addiction to mental illness is that the most effective treatment is the opposite for each, and this is why I had such a difficult time connecting to the idea of faith; what I needed was something to connect me to this world.
As I mentioned above, I didn’t realize it growing up but I was developing a jealousy and resentment towards those who found comfort in religion because I was unable to. At this stage in my life I understand that, and I no longer derive pleasure from arguing religion like I once did. I recognize now that religion offers hope to those who cannot find it in this world, and instead of shunning others for having it—which I deluded myself in believing that I disagreed with because it was illogical—I now envy them.
The hardest part about dealing with mental health issues while not being religious is that there’s no choice but to deal with the idea that this is it. That’s not to say that the idea of an afterlife is wrong; I’ve never been there so I cannot rightfully say that it does or does not exist. That is simply to say that my mind is transfixed on what is going on now, which is the pain of my own issues, and when one does not have something else to look forward to after this all they can do is focus on the idea that this will go on until they no longer exist. This is where people often mistake “suicidal ideation” for “suicidal;” they do not realize that for many people it’s not a desire to die, but rather a desire to not be alive any longer. The hardest part about suicidal ideation in a person who is not religious is that the concept of nothingness afterwards is horrifying. Faith allows for the peace-of-mind that, if the person does the right things in life, then afterwards there will be something more. When that is removed from the equation, there is simply pain in life and then nothing.
Many of the atheists that I’ve met tend to look down upon those who have faith, but what they don’t realize is that the religious people are the lucky ones. I have tried in this regard to believe, but unfortunately I am unable to; that’s not to say that I am right or that I’m upholding an ideal of truthfulness, but rather I am simply not able to fully grasp it, which I believe is for the reasons mentioned above. Mental illness can be a very dark and lonely place, and I wholly understand the comfort of knowing that there is something more than you; knowing that there is more to life than this world.
There are many who will read this, see the term “atheist,” and look down on me—if they even finish reading it—because I do not share their beliefs. There are also many who will read this and praise me for “not following blindly.” I feel that they are both wrong in their ideals. Those who have faith and read this should not look down on me, because they should realize that that are far luckier than I could ever be, and that I am more unfortunate for not sharing their beliefs.
However, those who would praise me for not being religious are also wrong, because they do not realize how fortunate the faithful are for having something more than this world to grasp onto.
The validity of religion is not the issue here, but rather it’s the lack of understanding that faith in something more than us is what’s necessary. Many will turn to addiction in order to compensate for that—be it addiction to drugs and alcohol, or an addiction to the pain of mental illness—because if we are forced to believe only in what’s in this world then we will quickly become lost. Again, that’s not to say that religion is right or wrong, but rather it’s a belief, and that’s what’s important. At a young age I lost my faith, I gained an addiction, and I’ve been searching my whole life to reverse the two.