Staying Faithful with Mental Illness: Howard Chang

Our guest today is Howard Chang. Howard is from Southern California (So Cal, as the kids call it these days). Howard graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and a minor in religious studies from Pomona College. His blog is called Redemptive Suffering. I read a post there called, “Spiritualizing Mental Illness: The Peril of Reductionist Thinking in the Church.

I sat down with a mug of Guatemalan java at Wegmans and we have the following chat. My words are in italics.

 

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Can you briefly describe any personal experiences you have had with mental illness?

I think that the term “mental illness” should be used with a high degree of caution, and since mental health nomenclature is such a complicated and sensitive topic, perhaps we shouldn’t venture into that territory today. With that said, I have never had what I consider to be a “mental illness,” though I did experience a two-year struggle with an anxiety condition that developed into depression. I am now fully recovered, but it took doing the right work and getting the right help to get there. One of my passions these days is sharing my story in the hope that it would edify others who may be going through similar horrors as the ones I went through. I also want to do my small part in providing the right information to sufferers. There is a lot of wrong information out there about anxiety and depression, and I was blessed to be able to work with therapists who understood these conditions and how to treat them in the best way.

 

How did this all begin and end for you?

I experienced some pretty traumatic experiences a few summers ago which I did not know how to cope with. What started out as fearful thoughts about my situation at the time quickly morphed into catastrophic thinking about my entire life and future. One day I was sitting at my desk studying for a big exam, and all of a sudden I felt an intense terror in my heart. I started sweating profusely, and I began to feel faint and see stars. I went and lay down on my bed for the next hour while all the sensations ran through my body and a million fear thoughts ran through my head. It was a horrifying experience. My first full-blown panic attack. And since I didn’t know what it was or how to cope with it, I became frightened by it. The next year and a half I was stuck in a perpetual fear cycle that I could not escape, since I didn’t have the right tools for dealing with anxiety and depression. In fact, fear of the sensations and symptoms of anxiety and depression is the one thing that tends to cause people to get stuck in a quagmire, and, for some, sadly, their entire lives. The more we fear our condition, the greater control it has over us, and usually the more severe it gets.

I recovered after a long process of doing the right things and getting the right help. I can’t get into all of it here, but the most important aspects of my recovery involved: pursuing spiritual maturity, getting involved in the right church community, working with the right therapists, changing my lifestyle (e.g. improving my diet and reducing my stress), and practicing mindfulness meditation.

 

This leads me to a question about faith. Some people believe that faith conquers fear. That if you only have enough faith, you will, “Fear not..” Others have a more nuanced view. How would you describe the relationship between faith and fear?

This is a very complex issue. Many of the fears that Christians have are common to the fears of any human being (pain/suffering, loss, death, career, money, children/family, etc.). Yet Christians also have additional fears that non-believers do not have (for instance, fear of God’s judgment, fear of not “being good enough” in God’s eyes or the eyes of the Church, etc.).

I do think that many of these fears are rooted in a lack of a deep faith and a close relationship with God. I know people, including my mother, who are so close to the Lord that they are no longer burdened by the common fears of believers or nonbelievers. They are confident in who God is and how He views them, and they take joy in the Lord constantly.

But for people who have a full-blown anxiety or depression condition, like I did at the time, the brain and the body have physiologically changed. I was on fight-or-flight mode constantly, which is not normal. So in addition to cultivating my spiritual life, I absolutely needed “secular” approaches to recovering — e.g. reducing my stress, meditating, getting counselling, taking medications, and so on. Developing a greater faith in God did not simply have spiritual benefits for me, but also physiological ones. The more peace my mind had, the more my body had as well. So learning to overcome fear definitely required maturing in my faith, but I can’t deny the physiological and emotional impact that spiritual cultivation had on my recovery as well.

 

I see you are helping your church organize a series of panel events in the upcoming months, including one on depression. How is that going and where did this motivation come from?

I’m really excited to share about our event series called “Citizen.” The title is based on Phil 3:20 and Phil 2:15, where Paul says that believers are citizens of one kingdom (God’s) while living in another (the world). Essentially we are bringing in speakers from a variety of professions to talk about topics of cultural significance in our society today and how belief in God radically alters how we should view them.

We have an event on May 8th about depression and suicide, where we are bringing in a medical doctor, a psychologist, and a pastoral counselor, who are all believers.

I think that churches need to know how to better help people with mental illness, anxiety, or depression by offering resources and support beyond spiritual practices. Mental health conditions can be spiritual in nature, but the solutions are often not exclusively spiritual. I talk about this in my “Spiritualizing Mental Illness” piece. If spiritual practices were all that was needed for people to recover, I don’t think that mature believers in the Church would be struggling with their conditions to the extent and duration that they do. Sadly, the Church can be unhelpful when it merely exhorts seasoned believers to simply “have more faith,” as if they have not already mustered all the faith they can, and yet are not getting better. One of my desires is to see the Church enter into uncomfortable spaces related to mental health and be humble enough to admit when their spiritual formulations are not always the best — or only — solution to recovery.

 

As a person who has struggled, have you felt affirmed by the Church?

I have had poor experiences at certain churches when I reached out for help during the worst of my condition, but at my current church I have felt very affirmed. This church community provided me a safe place where I felt free to fail, to look stupid and scared, and to confess with blunt honesty all of my weaknesses and problems. I was a train wreck when I first started going to this church. But I was welcomed with warmth in spite of it. There are a lot of broken people in our church who have been through a lot of pain and suffering, and since they were so candid with what they have been through, I felt that I could be that way as well. That in itself was very healing.

But also as I started to get more involved with church by serving others, I began to focus less on myself and my own needs, and when I stopped thinking so much about my anxiety and my depression, the stranglehold they had on my life began to dissipate.

I am now very involved in my church. But I only felt comfortable doing that because I was given the space to do so by a community of caring people.

So my time at this church in relation to my condition looked something like this: 1) I felt loved and cared for -> 2) I gained confidence and a desire to serve -> 3) I began to think less of myself and more of God and of others -> 4) My anxiety and depression started to fade away slowly as I worked on my recovery strategies.

 

I appreciate that very much. Like you, I have been embraced by the grace of God within the body of believers and now I’m sent to serve. Do you have any final thoughts about your journey?

My suffering was the most important thing I went through. It allowed me to see clearly what was important in my life and what was not. It helped me to find a beauty in God and His creation that I had never known before. The most harrowing suffering of this world with God is better than the finest pleasures of the world without Him. Not everyone is in the right place to hear or accept that, and I understand why. But I firmly believe that’s true. The Scriptures are all about pain and suffering and how God, who is always available to us, is the ultimate prize. Fortunately, He is there in the suffering. And especially so. Where you don’t tend to find Him is in worldly riches or a pain-free existence.

 

I can see now why your blog is called, “Redemptive Suffering.” Okay, thanks very much for your time. I will put a link to your “Citizen” series on my social media. Both as an example of what one church is doing, and for my So Cal friends who may be interested in going.

That would be awesome. Thank you! It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Take care.

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About the Author:

I am a man of faith who delights in the One who delights in me.