Mormon author talks about his mental illness and faith

Understanding panic disorder, agoraphobia and OCD

By Robison Wells

For Real Intent

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20 2013 10:00 a.m. MST

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:

No small part of the suffering experienced by those with mental illness is the direct result of the ignorance, prejudice, and wrong-headed thinking of family members, friends, business associates, Church members and others. I firmly believe that as in other areas of life, conveying the truth is the key to banishing ignorance, stigma and prejudice that surround mental illness. Such truth will, I trust, encourage sufferers from mental disorders to seek appropriate and ecclesiastical and professional assistance, and help dispel their own debilitating fears, feelings of guilt, and self-doubt.

It's worth noting that even the most elect among us have been struck down by mental illness. Though not widely known and discussed, President George Albert Smith suffered from some undiagnosed condition likely a panic or anxiety disorder, or depression where even as prophet he often was unable to attend church services for months at a time. The Journal of Mormon History, by Mary Jane Woodger, details some of these problems:

[A] granddaughter, Shauna Lucy Stewart Larsen, who lived in George Albert's home for twelve years as a child, remembers that "when there was great, tremendous stress, mostly (of) an emotional kind, it took its toll and he would literally have to go to bed for several days." Grandson Robert Murray Stewart remembers, "There were problems associated with his mental health, just maintaining control of himself."

So what can be done about this? If mental illness is real and doctors and ecclesiastical leaders agree that it is then what can you and I do to relieve the suffering of those around us? I hate to bring up an even touchier subject than mental illness, but we can do our home teaching. I can't tell you the number of times I've wished we had regular home teachers to visit and understand us. I am in constant need of priesthood blessings, as is my wife, who has faced the brunt of this burden. For that matter, visiting teachers who really care and understand (and visit!) have been an enormous benefit for my wife.

And we can do as Elder Morrison suggests: Find ways to stamp out ignorance, act without prejudice, and correct the wrong-headed thinking that is so pervasive on this issue.

And in all of these solutions, the real key is obvious: Love unconditionally; seek to understand; act with kindness. It's the solution to dealing with those with mental illness, but it's the very core of the gospel itself.

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