Unlike other afflictions, mental disorders try to kill you by telling you lies, whether about yourself, other people, or the nature of the world. They override logic and truth by telling you no one actually cares about you, or your body is corrupted and you are going to die, or everyone is going to abandon you. Even if you know that, objectively, those messages are untrue, they’re still very easy to believe.
Christian orthodoxy teaches that our bodies and souls are so linked to each other that physical suffering frequently coexists with spiritual suffering, and vice versa. In those moments, it’s so easy to turn inward and believe that this is all there is, that the way we currently experience the world is how we’re always going to experience the world. What do we need in order to be whole human beings, even when in chronic distress?What if trusting God with our disorders, or the disorders of the people we love, means not trying to figure out the reason for them?
YA author John Green’s recent book Turtles All the Way Down is, on the surface, a missing-person mystery, but said mystery takes a backseat to a young woman’s struggle with her mental health. It spends most of its pages inside the head of Aza Holmes, a high school junior who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. We read transcripts of what she calls her “thought spirals,” the unrelenting messages that her body is somehow corrupted by bacteria and that she will die unless she does something about it. She reopens, drains, and re-bandages the same cut on her finger over and over, even though she knows, on some level, that it’s not actually doing her any good, but she has to keep doing it to quiet the voice in her head. “I felt certain,” she tells us, “that something was going to kill me, and of course I was right: Something is going to kill you, someday, and you can’t know if this is the day” (133).
In the meantime, Aza’s best friend, Daisy, becomes obsessed with a missing billionaire who lives in their city, who incidentally is the father of one of their classmates, Davis. Davis and Aza strike up a tentative relationship, but thanks to her fears and obsessions, it takes place mostly via text message. It’s clear that he is absolutely smitten with her, and she with him; both of them in their insecurity wonder what the other person sees to love.
Daisy accuses Aza of not caring about anyone else. And Aza tries to communicate how hard it is to get outside of her own head. Their fight takes place just before a car accident that lands Aza in the hospital. There, her thoughts spiral out of control to the point that she makes a nearly fatal choice. She descends into a kind of hell, and when she comes back out the other side, she has another choice to make: What now? Slowly, she opens back up again. She reconciles with Daisy. She starts taking her meds regularly. She undergoes a kind of resurrection.
Love is its own kind of chaos—it’s messy and difficult and disruptive and reorders our lives in ways that we sometimes don’t enjoy. But love also takes us outside of ourselves and realigns our lives toward other people. Aza concludes at the end of the book “that love is both how you become a person, and why” (285). It is love that pulls her, however briefly, out of the thought spirals that consume her life; it is love that helps her cope; it is love that brings her back from death. It may not completely heal a person, but it can at least be something to hold onto in the midst of trouble and can disrupt the cycle of destruction.
John Green wrote Turtles from experience; he has dealt with OCD, anxiety, and depression for most of his life and has been frank about his experience in interviews. He has especially spoken about mental illness’s isolating power, how it cuts off a person from the experience of the outside world, how it’s frequently misunderstood by others. But he also makes sure to express his thanks to the people in his life who give him support and love—his family, his friends, his psychiatrist—and how it’s because of them that he can cope.
In my own times of mental and emotional turmoil, the most troubling thing has been how hard it is to love other people because I cannot think about anything else besides my own distress. And yet I have been most healed by other people’s care for me; they have reconnected me to the rest of the world through hugs and tears and making sure I get enough sleep. Most importantly, they have picked me up and left me at the foot of God’s throne when I could not drag myself there.
Green makes it clear that love cannot cure a mental illness, but it can at least become more bearable when other people help carry its weight. The Christian hope is that not only do we have other people around us who can bear our burdens in love, but also that, ultimately, Love is a Person who entered the dark and disorder for our sake. He may not immediately make us well, but He very much understands us. He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows in His body on the cross. And one day He will make us whole people who love perfectly.
It’s estimated that one in every hundred adults in the United States has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and about 20% of us in total have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness. (These statistics don’t even touch on the probable thousands of people who have remained undiagnosed.) And, of course, some of these adults are in the church, their anxiety or depression or bipolar disorder sitting alongside their faith. Some of us have found support from our fellow Christians; too many, though, have encountered ostracization, awkwardness, or well-meaning but still harmful advice. “You should just have more faith,” people will say. “Just trust God with whatever you’re anxious about and it’ll go away.” Or worse: “Your emotional problems are sinful and you need to repent.”
Even those of us who say that we don’t believe in the prosperity gospel, with its promises of wealth and abundance to true believers, can fall into the habit of thinking, “If I do [x] thing, God has to give me a good life, right? Isn’t that what He promised me?”
Turtles All the Way Down does away with such notions. Aza doesn’t really question why she has the problems that she does; she’s trying to get herself to cope with them instead. Granted, she lives in a disenchanted world, where the supernatural doesn’t factor into her life. But what if trusting God with our disorders, or the disorders of the people we love, means not trying to figure out the reason for them? Instead of treating it like a puzzle we can solve if we can just put the right inputs into the God machine, what if we just got on with trying to be obedient in the circumstances we’ve been given?
Our God is a God of peace, not of disorder (1 Corinthians 14:33), but that doesn’t mean He owes us explanations or a comfortable life. What He does promise us is Himself, and His people, as ballast in the middle of our various storms. As Kate Bowler puts it in Everything Happens for a Reason, “What if rich did not have to mean wealthy, and whole did not have to mean healed? What if being people of ‘the gospel’ meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough.”
Davis’s love, her mom’s love, Daisy’s love—all imperfect, but all genuine—were enough for Aza. May we, as the people of God, love each other to the uttermost, even when our brains try to lie to us.
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