Mormon author talks about his mental illness and faith
Understanding panic disorder, agoraphobia and OCD
Editor's note: This content by Robison Wells originally appeared on Real Intent. It has been shared here with the author's permission.
The hardest thing about writing any article about mental illness is figuring out where to start. So, I'll just begin with the facts: about two years ago I was diagnosed with a severe panic disorder, which is essentially a problem with the autonomic nervous system the fight or flight response where I constantly feel that I'm in danger. This led to agoraphobia (which is loosely defined as the fear of being in a situation where I'll have a panic attack), then to depression, and ultimately to the scariest of them all: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). According to my doctors, they believe that I was genetically-predisposed toward having these problems, but that a stress event (in my case, being laid off from a job and facing significant financial problems) sparked them. While the prognosis is good in some cases panic disorder is expected to be completely curable it's not so good in others: OCD is something I'll likely have to live with for most or all of my life.
I am eager to talk about this in a gospel context, something I haven't written about before. My problems have put a major cramp on my church involvement. I attend Sacrament meeting about half the time, but when I do I have to sit in the back, next to a door. (Agoraphobia is also defined by fear of not being able to escape; I need to have a quick path to an exit.) But worse, my OCD destroys my Sundays.
OCD, in layman's terms, works this way: You have obsessions that are overwhelming and irrational, and you often feel that the only way to deal with those obsessions is to engage in compulsions. The classic example is an obsession with cleanliness, combated by a compulsion to wash your hands 50 times a day. In my case, my obsession is with work: I constantly have the need to be occupied with work, and if I'm not, then I will engage in my compulsion which is, to put it bluntly, punching myself in the face.
Fortunately I have a good doctor, and good medicines, to help me fight these problems. But Sunday is by far the worst day of the week for me. I don't work on Sunday (trying to keep the Sabbath day holy and all) so my compulsions become overwhelming. Every Sunday is a fight, trying to stay busy, either through long car rides or video games or hobbies or other projects that will occupy my mind. Tragically, going to church isn't one, because I'm not actively doing something it's a lot of sitting around, listening.
Likewise, while I'm a temple-recommend holder, I haven't attended in over a year, partly because of the need to be occupied constantly, and more acutely because of the need to be able to escape, which is possible, but not recommended during an endowment session.
However basic this may sound, if I could convince readers of one thing in this essay it would be this: Mental illness is real. I can't count the number of times when people have suggested, in essence, that I just "get over it." Or the number of times my wife has had to explain why I don't sit with the family in sacrament meeting and she gets doubting or disapproving looks. Mental illness is a real medical condition, and it's hard enough when people believe you; it's infinitely worse when they don't, or when they offer cures that obviously don't understand the problem. (No one gives a pneumonia patient a book about how to think happy thoughts in order to cure their pneumonia.)
Fortunately, church leadership seems to understand this much better than the layperson; I don't know if it's because they get training, or if they're in tune with the spirit, or simply have a lot of experience, but Ive been blessed to have bishops who have been completely understanding and whose counsel has been consistent with that of my doctors. Elder Alexander Morrison, of the First Quorum of the Seventy, published a book on the subject, "Valley of Sorrow: A Layman's Guide to Understanding Mental Illness," in which he states:
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