When I was a kid, I remember the moment that San Francisco Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky broke his arm on the pitcher’s mound. Dravecky had cancer in the humerus bone of his pitching arm, and cryosurgery treatment left the bone vulnerable to fractures. He threw a pitch to Tim Raines of the Montreal Expos that day and said that he felt as though he’d hurled his left arm toward home plate along with the ball. I picked up Dravecky’s book about his ordeal the summer after my freshman year at college. Dravecky was a born again Christian, and I could relate to him. After all, Dave was sad just like I was, and God was using his suffering to teach him valuable, character building lessons.
I experienced my first bout of major depression the summer after my freshman year of college. I hated my university, but I didn’t have the gumption to transfer, which is what I should have done. Partially because I hated the college I was going to, I became highly religious. Getting back to the fundamentalist Christianity of my upbringing gave meaning to my struggles in school: God was teaching me a lesson that would make me more like Jesus. It also felt good to tell myself that if no human really seemed to notice how unhappy I was, God cared. Of course, he wasn’t doing a fat lot about it, but He allegedly cared.
Reading Dave Dravecky’s books made going to therapy okay. After a long struggle with cancer, Dravecky had to have his arm amputated. Naturally, being a Major League pitcher and all, he was more than a little bummed out. He went to therapy for help, and that seemed to be all right with Jesus. So I found a Christian therapist in Little Rock and made an appointment for myself.
My therapist’s name started with an “H.” We’ll call her Helene. She looked like the quintessential Southern woman. She had a large, unnaturally red coif, perfectly applied makeup and a polished if matronly wardrobe. Her office smelled a bit like nitrous oxide, and the odor always made me feel somatically dizzy. We had a few sessions, and I didn’t go back. She sent me a note scolding me about backing out of therapy.
I slogged through the next year and continued to feel miserable, so I called Helene again and returned to therapy. By then, I had more troubles than just my sorry educational experience. I had decided that my father was to blame for my emotional problems, so I wanted to dive deep into my daddy issues. I was also starting the long process of losing my faith. Fortunately, Helene had the answers. These problems could be handled with dispatch.
During one session, we talked about evolution. Essentially, I had ceased to believe in the biblical account of creation. I told her about it and how insecure it made me feel. She looked at me intently.
“You’re over that now, right?” she said.
I wasn’t really over it, but I figured I should be, so I said that I was. We moved on to the daddy issues.
Helene wanted to try what she called a Gestalt technique. She asked me to bring a photograph of my father to therapy and to write him a letter listing my complaints. Then, she propped the photo on top of a chair and told me to read the letter to the picture, which I did, although I felt incredibly stupid. She pronounced me cured of my daddy issues and said I didn’t need any more therapy. Jesus, vis a vis Helene, had cured all of my problems in fewer than 10 sessions.
Now, Helene was obviously a piss poor therapist. Many people seek religious counsel from much wiser and more qualified people, and they find it very comforting and helpful. You only have to visit a bookstore, however, to see that Christian self-improvement is a cash-generating juggernaut. Many of these authors say that if you choose to grow closer to Jesus and be filled with the Holy Spirit, then your problems will disappear. If they don’t, then it’s no big deal because God is, once again, teaching you a valuable lesson. Besides, when you go to heaven after you die, you’ll forget that you ever had problems, and you’ll get a prize for enduring suffering during your depressing, miserable life. And if your problems continue, not to worry. The author has another “deeper” book coming out in six months.
In some cases, what some evangelicals call “therapy” is highly questionable and perhaps unethical. My soon-to-be-ex (STBX) went through some “how not to be gay” therapy sessions connected with a group called Exodus International. Exodus is an umbrella organization for a number of evangelical “pray away the gay” groups. They used to have seminars for people so that they could overcome their gayness in accordance to God’s will. They also used to send people to reparative therapy with non-credentialed “Christian” counselors who were supposedly equipped to help them change their homosexual desires into good old red-blooded heterosexual lust.
Exodus no longer performs reparative therapy. The president of the group, Alan Chambers, has admitted that the process doesn’t work. I applaud him for doing so, but I wonder how many people threw away thousands of dollars trying to cut the gayness out of their psyches the way a 1970s surgeon used to perform radical mastectomies. I also wonder how many people who were attracted to others of their own gender were made to feel as though their sexual orientation, which they couldn’t change, was unacceptable to God. Asking someone not to be gay is like trying to remove the flour from cookies after you’ve baked them. It can’t be done without destroying the cookie or, in this case, the gay person.
If you do seek religion-based therapy, then don’t assume that you don’t have to do any work. I often heard that if you increased the quantity of faith in your heart, and you believed hard enough, that Jesus would help you overcome any issue. You may get a prayer or Holy Spirit-induced contact high for a few minutes or hours, but your problems will still be there. Anyone who tells you differently is no more ethical than people who sold tonics out of a wagon in the Old West. If believing that God cares gives you comfort, then hold onto your belief. Just know that the issues that you’re refusing to face and the chemical imbalances that come with depression will not magically go away.