You are Not Your Illness

You are Not Your Illness

"So often people claim ownership of their problems. They say 'my anxiety' or 'my depression got the better of me'.

This interesting observation begs some questions. If it's theirs and they own it, why don't they just get rid of it if it's something they don't want?

Any retort to that question will go something like, 'no, you don't understand. It isn't that simple.'

So you say it's yours, but you don't have any power over it? Hmm alright well then. Well, I'm sorry, I understand it sucks and it is complicated, but that's just a plain and simple contradiction. Let's see if I can make things less confusing.

So either it is yours and you can control it, or it isn't yours and you can't control it. I've heard argument after argument saying people struggling with a mental illness can control it and that they need to just stop. That hasn't gotten anyone anywhere and hurts more than it helps.

So let's try the other route. This thing ISN'T yours and you can't control it. To me that's a breath of fresh air and a weight off my shoulders already, knowing that there is nothing I can do to fix things. Now that's just me. I'm sure a lot of (if not most) people don't read that with optimism. Most will read that they can't do anything about it and feel utterly defeated and hopeless. I get it. But it's something I really, really need you to understand. There is nothing you can do about it.

Phewth. Alrighty then. Now that that part's over with, let's get to the good stuff. So now that we know that it isn't yours, then whose is it? It's got to belong to someone right? Well that's where the good part comes in.

I'm not quite sure enough to say who owned it to begin with, but I do know who owns it now and what price they paid to get it.

All of that stuff is owned by Jesus and He paid for it with His life. He died to purchase the rights to all of that anxiety and depression that has been tormenting you. He died so that He could set you free from it. All you have to do is stop holding on to it. Stop claiming it as yours. He purchased it; give it to Him."

Where did that come from?

A few months ago, after a shower one morning, all of this poured out through my finger tips typing away on my phone. It was one of those moments where you just write everything as it comes, sit back once you're done, reread it, and go, "huh, I wrote that?"

It was born out of listening to sermons on biblical identity, attending a class on Abnormal Psychology, wanting to help those around me, and making heads or tails of my own trials. At the time especially, and every now and then still, I was the recipient of minor anxiety attacks. These typically took the form of what I'll call "retrospective social anxiety". I would randomly be reminded of a past embarrassing moment or a moment that looking back is now embarrassing. Anything from bumping into someone, saying the wrong thing, or remembering moments of childhood ignorance. I would then be flooded with stress over something that happened months, or even years, ago. It wouldn't last too long luckily. I would calm down and realize that any of these moments that I was finding embarrassing, anyone else involved likely had no memory of the situation.

Through all of it I wrestled with the knowledge that these attacks weren't who I was and the feeling of wanting to call them my own. It's a strange feeling being aware of how easy it feels to take ownership of something you don't want. No matter how much I wanted rid of the feeling, my unconscious reaction was to claim it as my own.

However, once you call it what it is, it becomes easier and easier to recognize it for what it is. I began calling an anxiety attack an attack, originating from outside myself, after the attack happened. Then, I began to recognize it as an attack while it was happening. After awhile I began to recognize the attack starting and could call it what it was before it caused an emotional response. Now the attacks are less frequent. Every once in a while I will be distracted or stressed about something unrelated. My guard will be down, and an attack will come. But, things are much better now that I've chosen to recognize attacks as attacks and not as a part of me.

Well that's all well and good, but what does the Bible actually say?

Glad you asked.

'for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.' (ESV)
2 Timothy 1:7

'So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.”' (NLT)
Romans 8:15

'For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.' (ESV)
Galatians 5:1

'Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."' (ESV)
Matthew 11:28-30

'Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.' (ESV)
1 Peter 5:6-9

'I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.' (ESV)
Galatians 2:20

Fear, anxiety, or depression are not yours and are not who you are. Give those burdens to Christ and He will give you rest. Be watchful and aware of the temptation to take back what has been crucified with Christ. Do not hold onto what Christ died to take from you.

' I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well' (ESV)
Psalms 139:14

'Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own,' (ESV)
1 Corinthians 6:19

Did God create you with fear, anxiety, or depression? Would those things be found in the temple of the Holy Spirit? Maybe they came from somewhere else and shouldn't be held onto.

'Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,' (ESV)
Ephesians 6:10-18

'Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.' (ESV)
2 Corinthians 5:17

'For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,' (ESV)
2 Corinthians 10:3-5

'do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.' (ESV)
Philippians 4:6-7

Your battle is against the devil, not yourself. The battle is fought with truth, faith, and prayer.

'But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.' (ESV)
John 1:12-13

'Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.' (ESV)
Romans 8:35,37-39

'If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.' (ESV)
Colossians 3:1-3,15

More encouragement in your identity through Christ.

And last, but not least, my favorite verse that I have held onto that keeps me from any anxiety or worry.

'And he said to his disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.' (ESV)
Luke 12:22-34

Some more resources to check out on this topic:

That was a lot. And there was a lot I left out. The best way I can think to sum it all up is to say that while our struggles seem big, God is bigger and and has commanded us to give our troubles to him, not keep them for ourselves. You are not a child of pain and hardship but a child of God!

Yeah, but what about science? I prefer good scientific facts.

Glad you asked that, too!

Note: Because I am no longer a student and journals are expensive, most of these quotes will be from the abstracts and without me having read the full article.

The Impact of Illness Identity on Recovery from Severe Mental Illness, American Journal of Psychiatric Rehabilitation, 13:2, 73-93, (2010)
In particular, we have suggested that to begin with a definition of oneself as mentally ill and to assume that mental illness means incompetence and inadequacy, places people at risk of ceasing to try to work and fit into their communities. We have suggested that when stigma leads to an impoverished sense of self, low self-esteem and suicide risk follow. These, then, promote not only avoidance and poorer psychosocial outcomes but may also help sustain symptom severity, leading to a vicious circle.
-Philip T. Yanos, David Roe & Paul H. Lysaker

‘Stealing Me from Myself’: Identity and Recovery in Personal Accounts of Mental Illness. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 42(6), 489–495, (2008)
To understand and promote recovery from serious mental illnesses, it is important to study the perspectives of individuals who are coping with mental health problems. ... Individuals with mental illness and their family members described a loss of self and identity that had to be overcome, or at least managed, for recovery to become possible.
-Wisdom, J. P., Bruce, K., Saedi, G. A., Weis, T., & Green, C. A.

Here's an interesting article written by someone diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

And more links to journals related, or tangentially related, that are a good read (the abstract at least) but lack a quotable line.

From what I can tell, the psychological impact of identifying with a mental illness is a relatively new area of research. Psychological research takes years of development, following up with participants over their entire life. While the number of scientific examples is far less than the number of verses I have supplied, I believe that as time goes on we will see more and more scientific research that supports the idea that identifying with a curable mental illness delays, if not completely hinders, progress towards that cure. I believe science is also just beginning to understand the role that identity plays in wellness overall and will soon discover the value of a core identity founded in a single, concrete source that is greater than oneself. With this core identity firmly established, all other identities can then build upon it.


Biblically, and scientifically, holding onto and identifying with your struggles isn't the solution. Realize that you are not your pain in order to let go of what holds you back. The land of victory is blocked by a fence. A fence that is a little too tall to climb by yourself. But Jesus is there beside you, ready to help you up over that fence into the land of all He has prepared for you. But first you need to put down the baggage He bought from you five miles ago. Put down what isn't yours, and let Jesus lift you up into your destiny.