Light in Darkness
June 1998

“Light in Darkness,” Ensign, June 1998, 16

Light in Darkness

For persons struggling with psychological disorders, anchoring their lives in the gospel can provide longed-for peace.

People of every society and culture, including Church members, encounter challenges during their lifetime. Included among the variety of possible personal struggles are a wide range of psychological disorders. The causes of these disorders are varied. Chemical imbalance, childhood abuse, and genetics are just a few of the factors that may play a role. However, to someone struggling with one of these disorders, finding the cause may not be nearly as important as finding a solution and learning to cope. Hope and help become critical as confusion, impaired functioning, and fear increase.

Medical and psychological sciences offer medication and therapy; sometimes both are helpful in establishing a degree of stability in a psychologically uncertain life. Even though medical and psychological answers sometimes may be evasive, hope and relief are also available through faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the teachings of the gospel, and the guidance of the Holy Ghost.

“Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world,” the scriptures teach, “which hope cometh of faith [and] maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast” (Ether 12:4). Anchoring one’s life in the gospel provides peace throughout life’s storms and darkness. Jesus Christ taught the people of his time that he was the “light of the world” and that “he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). He invited those carrying terrible burdens to “come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

Following are personal experiences of members (names have been changed) struggling with psychological disorders who have found light in the darkness as they have anchored their faith in Jesus Christ.

Healing Effects of the Atonement

As a young man serving a mission, I didn’t realize that the wide swings in my enthusiasm and energy were anything out of the ordinary. Now I realize that my actions resulted from my first major episode of an affective disorder named bipolar, frequently called manic depression.

During the manic phase of the disorder, I felt absolutely wonderful, as if I could accomplish anything. My energy level soared and my mind seemed so clear that I felt in total control of my life and my future. Getting along with people and making friends was easy, even though I sometimes became frustrated with others because I thought they weren’t working “up to speed.” I demanded perfection in everything I did, and my seemingly heightened abilities made me feel like I could do it all without help from anyone.

After a few months, I cycled into the depression phase of the disorder. My energy and enthusiasm waned as I realized that my goals were unreachable. Feeling sad and hopeless, I lost interest in nearly everything, including food and sleep. I couldn’t concentrate, and I even thought about suicide. I felt totally worthless and isolated from family, friends, and Heavenly Father. Eventually things would come back to normal until the cycle started over again.

After I came home from my mission, the mood swings continued to interrupt my life. I became extremely distressed. Every time I began a relationship with a young woman or moved toward establishing a career, my mood shifts got in the way. Finally, I felt so suicidal and hopeless that I entered a treatment program. It was here that my symptoms were diagnosed. I learned that medication and therapy would help alleviate my symptoms, but I still had a hard time accepting the fact that this would be a lifelong challenge.

In therapy, learning to recognize the signs preceding the manic cycle and the depressive cycle of my disorder became my first goal. Then I focused on learning to manage my symptoms. Gratefully, since my therapist and I were both Latter-day Saints, the spiritual dimension became part of my treatment. Using the doctrines of the Atonement, we deeply explored Jesus Christ’s role in bearing our burdens and binding up our wounds. I came to understand as never before that the Savior was a partner in my healing process.

My bishop, home teachers, and some of my friends became part of a support group I could draw upon whenever I recognized the signs of a coming mood swing. When I headed toward a depressive cycle, I called members of my support group to help me straighten out my distorted thinking. I also turned to hiking, biking, scripture reading, and the temple. Just knowing that I had options and could take some action at these important turning points helped me a lot.

When I felt myself going into a manic cycle, I drew upon other resources. Since I felt great during the up part of the cycle, I would sometimes stop taking my medications. My roommate helped me monitor them during this time. When it needed to be, he would not take no for an answer, even when I became irritable.

Rallying my resources allowed me to balance my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors within a spiritual framework. As a result I minimized, to some degree, the effects of my mood swings. In the process, I came to rely on the Savior for strength. I also drew comfort from the example of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his suffering in Liberty Jail. It seemed that the Lord was talking right to me when he told the Prophet: “If thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.

“The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?

“Therefore, hold on thy way, and the priesthood shall remain with thee; for their bounds are set, they cannot pass. Thy days are known and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever” (D&C 122:7–9).

At times I feel that I have been “cast into the deep” and that “all the elements combine to hedge up the way.” Realizing that the Lord Jesus Christ “hath descended below them all” still brings tears to my eyes. While my suffering does not equal his, knowing that he understands what I am going through and that he is always there brings me peace and hope in my future.

“What Is Happening?”

The first signs of my severe psychological disorder appeared when I was 16. My family had just moved from Canada to England, and I felt like I was stepping into a whole new world.

I attended a private, all-girls school, complete with uniforms, curtseys, and walking practice. At first this seemed charming and unique, but after several weeks the strict routine became almost unbearable; my Canadian schooling had done little to prepare me for the rigors of a traditional British education.

Although I did well in school, I struggled desperately, both intellectually and emotionally. There were hours of homework every night, textbooks of totally unfamiliar material, and few friends.

After months of this stress, I became almost totally unable to function. The thought of attending school or church filled me with indescribable terror.

“Please don’t make me go,” I pled with my parents. Although they didn’t understand what was happening, they reluctantly acquiesced.

“What is happening to you?” they asked.

I didn’t know. All I knew was that terror and fear were taking over my life. These episodes became more and more frequent. My heart would race; I would hyperventilate; tears would stream down my face; I was excessively agitated. Perhaps what I remember most were the feelings of extreme emotional agony. I felt as though my heart, my soul, were being ripped in two.

Soon even leaving the house became an agonizing ordeal. My world became ever smaller and smaller as, consumed by fear, I blocked off more and more facets of normal life.

Fairly soon after arriving in England, I had felt a strong urge to get my patriarchal blessing. I remembered the sweet blessing of love and guidance that was poured out upon me. I was promised many wonderful things: marriage to a righteous young man, children to cherish, academic success, the opportunity to use my talents in the service of God.

But there was one paragraph that seemed ominous and foreboding, discussing a profound darkness that would be part of my life. When I received my blessing, I didn’t understand that paragraph; now I was beginning to. I struggled to obey the commandments, to read the scriptures, and to pray regularly in order to find guidance, answers, and comfort. I spent many nights crying and begging the Lord for relief and help.

A loving Heavenly Father answered my prayers—not with the healing that I so desperately prayed for but with other blessings. At times when I needed it most I felt the Spirit of the Holy Ghost. Small answers came, enough to get me through each day. My patriarchal blessing became a precious possession.

Included in our family and personal prayers were petitions for guidance in finding medical help. It took time and patience and visits to several doctors before we finally found solid answers. After several years I found a doctor who assured me I wasn’t going crazy or losing my mind. What was happening to me, he explained, had a medical description. I was suffering from panic disorder with agoraphobia. I remember my feelings as I heard those words: acute relief mixed with alarm. The diagnosis sounded serious, severe. I was right.

As the psychiatrist detailed the symptoms, I knew immediately that his diagnosis was correct. Finally I could be cured, I thought. After all, wasn’t being diagnosed half the battle?

I moved forward with hope, but I would soon learn that for me a “correct diagnosis” wouldn’t necessarily result in a cure.

The psychiatrist wrote out a prescription for an antianxiety drug, and I began a round of psychotherapy at once. Feeling optimistic, I started school.

Again, however, I began to do well academically then fell apart emotionally. I spent hours huddled in my parents’ closet in tears. Twice I blacked out, and I began trembling and shaking. Finally I was taken to a local psychiatric hospital. My two and a half weeks there probably saved my life. I started a new course of drugs and learned more about feelings, relationships, and communication.

When I left the hospital, I was more stable than I had been for many months. There was a temporary surge of optimism; surely I must be getting well. I entered school again, and once again, within months, my life began to crumble. The panic, the terror crashed in on me. I withdrew from my classes and returned home.

I could now see that my situation was complex and it would take time to find answers. I was despondent. “Dear Heavenly Father,” I pled, “please take this illness from me. I have been sick for four years. I look around at the people my age and see them achieving everything that I dream of: school, marriage, a career. I am disabled. I know nothing but intense pain. Why is this happening to me?”

It’s been almost five years since my withdrawal from school, and frustratingly little has changed. I suffer severe bouts of clinical depression and have signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. There are times, all too frequent, when life seems hopeless and my burdens too heavy to bear. I worry about my future: Will I ever marry, be able to return to school, learn to drive, live away from home, feel comfortable at church?

Yet through it all I have felt my Heavenly Father’s Spirit, his guidance, his love. Despite periods of despair and darkness, he has blessed me with the courage and light necessary to continue on. In my illness I have been given many things: a loving and supportive family, some understanding friends, my patriarchal blessing, and a wonderful psychiatrist.

Through the past nine years, I have learned tremendous lessons of patience, faith, and empathy. Never again will I take for granted the most supreme gifts of health and peace. My problems haven’t been taken from me, but I have been given the resources to cope with them.

Help for Heather

Individuals struggling with psychological disorders are not the only ones who suffer. Family and friends often have no idea how to best help those they love. But once again, the gospel of Jesus Christ can provide guidance.

I was stunned. I stood at the sink for several minutes, dismayed at my discovery. My daughter, Heather, had just eaten, and traces of her food in the sink were blatant proof of what she had done with her dinner.

Moments before, she’d left the house, energetic and excited to be with her friends. She was not physically ill; she was bulimic.

My mind raced as I tried to find answers. Why would Heather do this? She was slender and healthy, and she seemed happy. She had many friends and was involved in church and school. She participated in family activities and family prayer; she attended her Church meetings. She had been taught that her body was a temple, that she was a daughter of God, and that her family loved her.

Heather and I had even talked about eating disorders; she had a friend who was bulimic. She knew the serious physiological consequences of binging and purging. What went wrong? What did I do? What did I not do? What do I do now? I felt bewildered, guilty, angry, frightened.

Quickly, my feelings changed to compassion for Heather as I thought how desperate she must be feeling to have resorted to self-induced vomiting. My heart softened as I imagined her fear and guilt, and I realized that my next step was critical for my daughter’s future.

My husband was out of town on business, so I went to our bedroom and knelt in prayer. I knew that as I anguished for Heather, Heavenly Father cared for her, too. He knew of my anxiety; I knew he would help me help her.

My prayer was intense, and I received an answer through the Holy Ghost. I felt calm and assured that I would know what to say to comfort and counsel Heather. I relaxed and waited for her to come home.

Later that night, Heather and I were alone. To this day, I marvel at the love, wisdom, and influence of the Holy Spirit during our conversation.

“Heather, I know that you have been dealing with some problems,” I began. “I know you are binging and purging to cope with these problems. Would you like to speak with someone who could help you with these things?”

Sobbing, Heather replied, “Yes, I want to get some help. But I don’t want it from you and Dad.”

“I understand. Do you want to speak with the bishop?”

“OK,” she responded. “Thanks.”

Then we both hugged, crying tears of relief and love.

The Holy Ghost worked overtime that evening. I will always be grateful for the spiritual promptings given to me and for Heather’s courage to receive help.

She saw the bishop the following Sunday, and he recommended a therapist who specialized in adolescent behavior. Heather attended private sessions, while my husband and I went one evening a week to a parents’ support group.

We discovered that Heather was feeling tremendous pressure from school, the pep club, and a move we had just made to a new neighborhood. She was self-conscious about her braces, pimples, and developing figure. A classmate had committed suicide, and she was frightened and depressed as she pondered that tragedy. Heather felt her life was out of control.

Thankfully bulimia is a psychological problem that can be controlled. We worked hard on therapy, and we continued our commitment to family prayer,family home evening, scripture reading, and Church activity. Individually we all spent many hours in prayer and scripture study, seeking Heavenly Father’s loving guidance.

For me it was essential to continue doing the things I believed in: reading scriptures, praying, attending church, and trying to live by the Spirit. Many times when I was seeking answers, one sentence spoken in an opening prayer or during a Church lesson provided the information I needed.

I also heard and learned much about psychological disorders, and I prayed to find a balance, wanting to discern truths and the ways of God and not rely solely on the arm of flesh.

Gradually Heather made progress, and she found solutions to her problems. As she gained control of her life, she began eating moderately and the number of days between her purging episodes increased.

This experience taught us much about faith, prayer, and agency and about our Heavenly Father’s plan. If we rely on our intellect and reason, we can go only as far as the rest of mankind. But as I have prayed for help during this family crisis, I have received strength, insight, and hidden treasures of knowledge far beyond my mortal capacity.

Background: Composite photos © Tony Stone Images; all photos posed by models; electronic compositions by Patric Gerber

The Second Coming, by Harry Anderson

Those suffering from psychological disorders often feel as if they have been “cast into the deep” where the “billowing surge” conspires against them (above, left). Help comes through the gospel, the counsel of mental health professionals (above), together with guidance from Church leaders. (Inset: Photo by Steve Bunderson. Left: Composite photos © Tony Stone Images and Superstock; posed by models.)

Support from family members can aid the healing of those suffering from eating disorders. (Photo © FPG International/Ron Chapple; posed by models.)

Panic disorder with agoraphobia can leave a person feeling afraid to leave the house (above, left). Supportive family members, scripture study, and priesthood blessings (above) can help the person feel reassured and loved. (Inset: Photo courtesy of Visual Resources Library. Left: Composite photos © Superstock and FPG International; posed by models.)