A Loathsome Insect Over the Fire : Denying God for my Mental Health
After my parents left Akron Bible Church with a group of other parishioners disgusted by an adulterous pastor, we worshiped in a closed theater in Barberton with red carpet and plastic seats leading down to a small stage where a pastor stood before a movie screen. For some time, our church met in a closed diner with a checkerboard floor where my feet dangled from a red booth while Bibles laid wide out on the counter. I was programmed to believe without doubt that God was all around us. He was not only in the sanctuaries shrouded in red and gold and glittering under chandeliers, or in the leather-bound bibles highlighted and underlined, or in the crackers and the wine. He went with us to see Muppets from Space in ’99 and joined us for dinner at Taco Bell in 2000 when they gave away Digimon metal trading cards. My baby sister and I could not take a bite from our dinner plate before our father said grace, beginning, eyes closed and head bowed, each day: “Dear heavenly Father, praise be to you, father…” And after homework was done and baths were taken, we were tucked into bed with a bedtime prayer led by our mother, which consisted of a grocery list of people with problems needing attention from Him. He was always there, and certainly as real as you and me.
A New England minister named Jonathan Edwards wrote a sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in 1741, and in 2007, Miss Ritch made it assigned reading for my high school English class. “The God that holds you over the pit of hell,” Edwards began, “much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked.” He goes on to explain how God’s wrath burns like a flame, and not only are each us worthy of nothing more than to be cast into his fire pit, but many of us shall be burning sooner than we could guess.
This piece of writing found me at the perfect moment so as to plant a seed in me that would grow into psychosis as I was an unmedicated depressive adolescent with severe body issues, sexual confusion, a recent trauma, and another one approaching. I worried, already, that I would burn in Hell someday because I was a filthy sinner—homosexuality was most assuredly a severe offense. At one point, I recall carving a pentagram into my hip with a pencil until it raised the white skin, red and stinging, and I went to church wondering if He might expel me from his house. I was sick, in need of therapy and medication, but when I asked for these things, my mother insisted that the only way I would get counseled was at church. She made this choice, she told me years later, because she was worried I was losing my faith, acting out of hate and rebellion, not sickness. She didn’t know how bad things were, and I should be able to move on, but I have still never forgiven her. The trouble is, things only got worse.
On December 19, 2007, as I hit the button to publish a comment on my step-brother’s Myspace page asking him to contact me because our family was worried, my mother rushed into the house. Rory’s mother had died recently, so we were concerned he might be depressed or on a bender since he hadn’t been in touch. She was frantic as she told me that we needed to leave right then to drive to Medina where we would find my brother dead. I looked into his gray face 40 minutes later. His eyes were shut, his jaw slack, and his body was laid on a slab in an emergency room where, outside, Amish women waited with glass jars of water for refreshment and a man held a handkerchief containing the tip of his nose, bloody and real as you and me.
I was not allowed to play the song Armor For Sleep’s song “The Truth About Heaven” at his funeral because, my mother said, “no one wants to hear that ‘it rains in heaven all day long.’” They played Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” instead. I only cried at the funeral when I saw my father cry. As it were, my father blamed himself for my brother’s suicide because he had tried to kill himself a number of times in the 1970s. He quoted William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” when he said, “The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children,” but he attributed it to the Holy Bible. I did not think to Google the quote at the time, but as it turns out, scripture says: “Everyone shall die for his own sin. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge…” (Jeremiah 31:30), and “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. …” (Ezekiel 18:20). Knowing that then probably would not have made any difference, though.
I was shaken like a human beehive on the edge of eruption, worried about what my father might do to himself and what affect that would have on my mother, who can not work, and my sister, who was just 12-years-old at the time. Then came the spring morning in 2008 when a neurotransmitter went haywire or a dam of dopamine broke in my mind—something went wrong. I had a nervous breakdown that left me shattered on the linoleum floor at the back of my high school Spanish classroom. I was suddenly and surely convinced that God was to burn my house down and kill my family to punish me for my sins. It came all at once, and I couldn’t shake it. I burst into tears, left school and told my mother what I believed to be true. She laughed.
My overwhelming fear of flames consuming everything in my life caused obsessive behaviors I was unable to control, like checking two, three, or four times to see whether phone chargers and hair dryers were unplugged before sleeping or leaving the house. It left me unable to spend the night at friends’ houses or let them sleep at mine. At just sixteen years old, I became a recluse, trapped in a pink bedroom where I surrounded myself with piles of magazines and journals, afraid to lose anything at all.
Fortunately, I was able to seek therapy when I turned 18 and started college at Kent State University. For $5 each session, a graduate student, under the supervision of a licensed therapist, would talk to you about your problems and offer a possible diagnosis. I was told I had generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder with obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Most of the behaviors that came as symptoms of my teenage trauma have come to an end with the help of cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication, but I still have compulsive behaviors that affect me daily. My anxiety isn’t like a physical ailment—I’ll never be in remission. I’ll always be fighting it, with positive affirmations, medication, exercise, or something.
I will say that I agree with that minister, Edwards, about one thing: “How dreadful is the state of those that are daily and hourly in danger of this great wrath and infinite misery!” He meant those faced with an eternity in Hell, but it is dreadful for many of us to believe in an angry god, in sin, and, yes, in hell. It is infinite misery to be depressed while indoctrinated with the belief that someone is watching over you. I know, I often wondered how any god could love me when I hated myself so much. I have had intrusive suicidal thoughts ravage my tender mind for years. The truth is, Hell hath no fury like one’s own self-loathing.
Today, I am a recovering hoarder, prescribed to Venlafaxine and Aripiprazole and visiting a psychiatrist’s office in Fairlawn once-a-month. I do not pray before bed—hell, I do well to brush my teeth before I pass out. I do not believe in a higher power with omniscience, mercy, or wrath. I no longer believe in any god because my balloon-mind must be tied down by a string of logic or it might get carried away by the slightest breeze. I denied God for my mental health, and I have never felt so secure.
Angel Cezanne is a queer feminist poet and essayist and the creator of Eleanor: A Zine. She graduated from Kent State University, which means she has bad credit but good vibes.