Mental Illness and Abuse in Christianity

Content Warnings for Discussion of untreated/unmanaged mental illness, suicide, and domestic violence

“Am I allowed to end a relationship with an abusive person even if they have unmanaged mental illness?”

This was a question I posted on Facebook nearly a decade ago to a select group of trusted friends.

I grew up in a culture where loving people, as Jesus did, meant no boundaries. Because boundaries were an obstacle for someone to feel the love of Christ in their relationship with you. You had to give, give, give.

Even if it killed you.

When I asked this question, I was in a very dark place. I felt like I was barely treading water. I was mere moments away from slipping beneath the waters and losing my life to the abyss. To say I was drained of all resources would be putting it lightly. I had given everything I could to being the love of Jesus, and I had nothing left for myself.

And yet, I struggled with this question.

I thought that if I didn’t give until I killed myself loving others, I would not just be failing the people around me. I would be failing God. I would, without a doubt, stand before the judgment seat of Christ one day to the damning shame of not giving enough.

This is the impact of toxic theology. It kills you slowly and you never notice until you’re nearly beyond saving.

My relationship with this person was deeply troubled and chaotic.

Some days, we would be the best of friends. We could speak a language that was uniquely ours. We could see the world the same way; a lens that nobody in this world had except for us. We enjoyed each other’s company and we loved each other deeply.

But then the storms would roll in, and it was like a completely different person entered their skin and took over their body.

They hated me. And when I say, “hate,” it’s not hyperbole. It was true and raw hatred. They would say the cruelest words to me that should never be spoken to anyone. They often made “jokes” about how stupid they thought I was and how they wished I would kill myself. They hid their cruelty behind the façade of humor.

My physical well-being was also threatened. They would chase me around the house, the threat of death in their eyes. The moment I found safety behind a closed door, they would do their very best to kick it in to get to me. Eventually potential weapons in the house were hidden away for fear that this person might inflict serious harm on others.

I quickly learned to keep the cordless phone in my hand during moments we were left alone. If they knew that I had the ability to call 911 in a heartbeat, they would keep their distance from me. However, it gave them one more reason to hate me.

I never knew, one moment to the next, which person I would get. Would I be safe with them? Would we be best friends again? Or would I have to run away to be safe?

As time passed, the constant pull-push dynamic of our relationship grew more turbulent.

My nervous system eventually had enough and began to take over. I could never understand why, but my behavior towards them turned hard and cruel to match theirs. The things that would come out of my mouth, unbidden, shocked me. I had no understanding where those words could have come from or how I could be so angry and so mean.

I never meant to be bad. But it was like something else was controlling my body and my mouth.

I prayed so hard for God to cleanse me of my sin and to change me into a kinder person. The person I turned into when I was around them was not someone I recognized and not someone I liked. I wanted so badly to be different.

Alas, it did not matter how hard I tried, or how desperately I prayed for God to change me, I remained the same angry person when they were close by.

It wouldn’t be until years later that I had a label for what was happening to me in those moments. This uncontrollable cruelty, was actually a symptom of C-PTSD. I was expressing a passive form of anger towards someone who had bullied me and abused me for years.

Passive anger. This type of anger doesn’t always exhibit as anger and is difficult to identify. When one experiences passive anger, your emotions are displayed as apathy, meanness, or sarcasm. People exhibiting passive anger might look to others that you are intentionally sabotaging yourself, although you may not realize it.

The Importance of Anger and Rage,

This response is a protective posture for someone who has been in an abusive relationship. It’s a part of the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response in which the nervous system is attempting to guard itself against further harm.

I didn’t know any of this at the time, of course. All that I “knew” was that I was in sin. I was sinning against this person and against God, and that meant that I was a bad person.

As I paint this picture of someone who was once so dangerous to me, I want to also offer balance and nuance. Yes, this person was unsafe for me and harmful to my well-being. However, as cruel as they were to me… their inner thought-life appeared to be even more cruel to them.

I won’t get into too much detail, because that is not a story of mine to share. But suffice to say: they lived in agony. I truly believe that the treatment I received from them, was something of a mirror image of what was going on inside of them. And they had no recourse other than to live with it with whatever coping mechanisms appeared to serve them best. And bullying me became a coping mechanism of theirs.

We lived in a world that did not believe in mental health.

Psychology was considered a doctrine of demons at worst and at best: a scam that turned children against parents and destroyed marriages.

Sure, in extreme cases a person might need to go on medication to “balance chemicals” in the brain. But those were rare situations and should not be considered normal.

So when we were in crisis due to untreated mental illness, we had nowhere to turn. No one knew what we lived with. We all just became convinced, in our own ways, that there was something deeply wrong us. So we isolated and learned to live with the shame until it became white noise that we no longer noticed. It was just always there, hovering around us, and holding us deep in its grip.

Time moved on, as it tends to do. Chaos became our normal. Shame became our comforting blanket. We wrapped ourselves up in it and never left home without it. It kept us from opening up too much to others about what we were going through. They wouldn’t understand, shame told us. They would judge us and reject us if they knew.

And then one day, things changed; and not for the better.

Big News broke and in an instant, everything changed.

The storm clouds gathered and poured rain for days, weeks, months.

I knew, instinctively, that if I didn’t get out and find a safe place of my own, I would drown.

So I left.

I found a lifeboat, and I was going to take it somewhere far away where I could heal and get a new chance at life.

This is where I found myself wondering, in a moment of deep self-questioning, if I was failing this person and God all at once. I knew they should not be allowed in my life anymore. I’d been pushed to the absolute limit of how much abuse I could take from them, yet didn’t I owe it to them to continue a relationship? They couldn’t help how they treated me, so shouldn’t I be the one to suck it up and keep loving them?

Was I in sin?

Was I a bad person?

Everything within me said that I was wrong to want to create serious distance between myself and this person, and yet a very tiny part of me wouldn’t stop whispering, “you get to feel safe now.”

This was when I logged on to Facebook and created a small list of trusted individuals to ask about whether or not it was Christlike to cut contact or to distance myself from someone who was abusive and also mentally ill.

Every single person responded with some variant of: “You get to feel safe. Abuse is abuse, no matter where it stems from and you do not have to allow it into your life. You get to choose.”

My God. The conflicting feelings I had in that moment. I was 98% sure they were all wrong and I was in sin. but that 2%? It was incredibly loud and persuasive.

The reason I am sharing this small glimpse of my story with the world today is because this does not get talked about enough in Christian circles: even the ones centered on survivor advocacy and trauma.

Too many of us have been saturated by the message that Christ’s love conquers all, so it doesn’t matter how mean or cruel or even physically abusive someone gets: it’s our job as Christians to stay and love that person. Eventually the light of the gospel will shine through and the Holy Spirit will convict that person of their sin and all will be well.

That’s not actually how it plays out in the real world though.

Despite the anecdotes I’ve heard, and I’m sure all of you have heard as well, that really never happens. No abuser is loved into changing their behavior. No one is loved into leaving cruelty behind. It doesn’t happen.

I’ve been active in survivor advocacy circles for nearly a decade now, and I have never once heard of an abuser who was loved into repentance while still allowed access to their victims and enabled to continue their abusive behavior.

On the contrary, I have heard about wives who barely escaped their marriages with their lives.

I’ve heard about children who were forced to endure levels of abuse that no one should ever have to experience even once, let alone their entire childhood.

I’ve met countless people who have walked away with varying degrees of BPD, PTSD, or C-PTSD, and still have not encountered even one success story in keeping with the narrative that all anyone needs is the gospel. Those are the people who are scrambling, years and decades after leaving their abusive situation, to keep keeping on.

Sadly, I am also aware of many whose nervous systems would not allow them to continue living anymore because the trauma associated with living through an abusive relationship was too overwhelming.

I didn’t know when I left my abusive situation if I was actually allowed to protect myself rather than endure to show this person the love of Christ. I could have easily walked back into that storm, and I very well may never have walked out again.

I’m so glad, and I thank God every day, that I didn’t listen to the religious programming I’d grown up with that told me to stay and endure. I’m so thankful for whatever part of my soul knew that I needed, and deserved, safety.

If you need someone to tell you that you do not have to endure abuse that stems from unmanaged mental illness, consider me that person. Your tender heart wants to stay and love them into health, and while that level of love is admirable, it is also unrealistic and unsafe.

You do not have the power to heal someone through your love.

You also do not have the power to heal someone through the gospel.

The people who get better are the people who see the need to seek help. It is their responsibility alone and no amount of love or enabling from you will get them there.

One day, perhaps, they will see the need to seek help and deal with their issues. But today is not that day and you absolutely deserve to feel safe. You do not have to be saddled with the burden of someone else’s responsibility to be a healthy and safe person.

Get out. Save yourself. Find your own healing with a licensed and trauma-informed therapist. You deserve healing and safety.

All of this comes with the obvious disclaimer that not all people who live with mental illness are abusive or dangerous. That is not at all meant to be the message conveyed here. Mental illness is a deeply complex and nuanced topic that goes beyond the scope of this article

This post is for those who find themselves in the situation I was in a decade ago: torn between being the love of Christ to someone who is abusive and the desire to be safe. I needed permission to break free, and I hope someone else may find that permission here today.

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