In the midst of the pandemic, Marilette Sanchez tried to care for everyone near her at the expense of her own well-being.

How Mental Illness Drew Me Closer to the Heart of God


words by

Marilette Sanchez

illustrations by

Karen Mills

Queens, New York, June 2020

Fear enveloped our once vibrant city. Rising cases of the newly named coronavirus led to a stay-at-home order by New York Governor Cuomo three months prior. I was stuck in our 1,000-square-foot apartment with five kids under 9, including my nursing infant. My husband did the grocery shopping, so I couldn’t remember the last time I’d left our apartment. No in-person church, no home school co-op, no public parks. 

At the time, we all thought it would last for just a few weeks. But here I was, four months into an unprecedented time of communal grief and loss. And through it all, I tried to stay engaged in full-time ministry.

I also worried about my dad’s health. His bone marrow condition weakened his immune system, leaving him defenseless against COVID-19. After my parents arrived from the Philippines at JFK airport, my family and I only waved out the window as they drove by the apartment, out of an abundance of caution. This was the most contact we’d had with them in months.

In hindsight, I see how I tried to care for everyone around me at the expense of my own rest and health. My world was falling apart and everyone needed me. But as the pressure grew, I lost sight of what I needed. I needed to stop. And I needed Jesus.

Soon, the insomnia set in

I lasted for a full week on two hours of sleep per night. But instead of feeling groggy, I felt energetic — euphoric even. My sister noticed how quickly I spoke, rambling incessantly. It’s like my mouth couldn’t keep up with the speed of my mind — a far cry from my usual mellow, reserved personality. By day six, I wasn’t making much sense. I remember telling my husband, Moses, that I could ask God any yes or no question and he would quickly answer. I burst outside into the street late one night, claiming God told me to do it. I lost all inhibitions. I lost touch with reality.

Art for Marilette Sanchez article on Cru Storylines May 2022

Before I knew it, family and friends were at my house praying for me into the night, to no avail. By day seven, I exhibited moments of unexplainable paranoia, eventually becoming so aggressive that when the paramedics arrived, they restrained me on a gurney so I wouldn’t hurt myself or others.

I was hospitalized for a total of 10 days, released with the diagnosis of Bipolar 1 Disorder. What I’d experienced that sleepless week was called a manic episode with psychosis.

I'm on the road to recovery

I treat my mental illness with medication (as I would a physical illness), therapy (a gift from Jesus), as well as diet, exercise and supplements. I’m making so much progress that I’ve gone from seeing mental health professionals several times a week to checking in every few months.

Art for Marilette Sanchez article on Cru Storylines May 2022

But even today, I am tempted to feel regret or shame. Why didn’t I take better care of myself? Why didn’t I reach out for support instead of taking on everything by myself?

Maybe you’ve been there.

Have you experienced this sort of jarring experience with your own mind that you never considered could happen to you, a follower of Christ?

Do you have someone in your life with mental illness challenges? Are there ways you can continue to grow in compassion and empathy toward their struggle?

There is a value to sharing our stories about our mental health struggles and how the Lord meets us in the midst of them. But more is needed to confront mental illness in the power of Christ.

In the church, mental illness tends to raise difficult spiritual questions that we don’t always know how to answer: Are individuals accountable for their behavior when showing symptoms of mental illness? Is demon possession the underlying cause? Why does God allow the kind of suffering that can cause despair, delusions and crippling anxiety?

In her book Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission, Amy Simpson addresses the question, “Why isn't following Jesus enough to heal mental illness?” Simpson falls back on the advice of Dr. Archibald Hart, professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary: “Unless you are trained in psychopathology … the most responsible action you can take is to refer the troubled person to a psychologist or psychiatrist for diagnosis.”

While outdated ideas regarding mental illnesses often exist in churches, the most effective way to combat this is by fostering open communication. We can also help relieve some of the stigma by recognizing mental health issues, supporting others’ pursuits of medical treatment and therapy, and ultimately remembering that God is near to all. God’s grace reaches everyone no matter the depths of any struggle, mental or physical. All this creates a safe environment where Christians can support one another’s mental health.

Consider these starting points if you struggle with mental illness:

1. Know that you are not your diagnosis.

Step away from the shame and forgive yourself for any hurt or sin you may have caused while under the influence of your mental illness. Your diagnosis doesn’t define your character or who you are.

2. Lean into community.

There’s no way around it: Having a mental illness humbles you and highlights your vulnerabilities. Surround yourself with good people, those who invest in you as much as you invest in them. Seek mentorships with those who are a few steps ahead of you.

3. Remember, healing is a process.

Don’t be afraid of that process, including its steps of therapy, medication and self-care. Healing takes time, but you’re worth every moment.

 

To those who love someone with a mental illness:

1. Avoid cliches and ready-made solutions.

Comments like, “God works everything out for the good of those who love him” or, “You need to pray more” may seem helpful. Yet they may actually do more harm than good, especially for someone reeling from a recent diagnosis. 

2. Listen without judgment.

Brene Brown says: “Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” Listen with the intent of making room for that person and their pain instead of trying to fix them.

3. Look for space to process your own thoughts and emotions.

Maybe your loved one’s diagnosis left you in shock or confused. Find safe spaces and people, like a close friend or therapist, to express what you are feeling.

I don’t have it all together, though there is much to celebrate: I’ve learned to invest in my friendships, I’ve learned self-care, and I’ve learned that because ministry can be draining, I need to recuperate via solitude.

But my mind needs renewal daily.

Almost a year to the day since my hospitalization, I had a mini-breakdown with my husband. As we prayed, I heard a phrase from the Holy Spirit that got me bawling: “Grieve the loss of normalcy.”

As the cleansing tears washed over me, the Father met me. He told me it was OK to miss the carefree days when my mental stability wasn’t always at the forefront of my brain. It was OK to miss the days before I had to remember to take medication daily, before this newfound responsibility. It was even OK to grieve the loss of normalcy that the whole world was experiencing alongside me, in a pandemic.

I’ve had to learn to depend on the Lord for my strength, for his power is made perfect in my weakness.


2 Corinthians 12:9

It wasn’t my choice to have this experience, this mental illness, this ongoing battle. But God, in his sovereignty, has allowed this struggle to be part of my story. So I trust him and his process, and strive to be a good steward of it. For me, I see the purpose behind my experience if one person silently suffering with mental illness reads this and is encouraged. My suffering will have been worth it if one person gains a new perspective on their loved ones who are suffering with mental illness.

We rejoice in our weakness

The truth is, despite moments of regret and shame that sometimes plague me, I am thankful. While I don’t believe that God causes sickness, including mental illness, I believe he can redeem anything. What the enemy meant for evil, God uses for good.

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within [me], will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” ‭‭(Philippians‬ ‭1:6‬, New Living Translation)‬‬.

A Godsend of a friend once told me this: “What I see is God fighting for you, helping you, walking with you, holding your hand, carrying you and answering your prayers.”

 

None of this is easy, but if it draws me closer to my Savior, it is worth it.

Next Step

Take some time to sit with God today and examine your own heart, health and needs. Or ask him how you can help those struggling with their mental health (see Where to Start When You or a Loved One Struggles With Mental Health).


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How Mental Illness Drew Me Closer to the Heart of God

When the pandemic hit New York City in 2020, Marilette Sanchez experienced a jarring mental health crisis. Now she candidly shares her story of chaos and God’s faithfulness through it all, in hopes of encouraging fellow sufferers and those whose loved ones struggle with mental health.

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