THE BLOG
05/31/2016 06:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Quitting Catholicism Helped Me Get the Mental Health Treatment I Needed

By Nneka M. Okona

This post originally appeared on Revelist.

I learned at a young age that obedience to God is the key to a great life. My family raised me as a non-denominational Christian, though we attended an A.M.E church for a period of time and later converted to Catholicism. My earliest memories are littered with reading marathons, musing about life in the composition notebook hidden underneath my mattress, and church. Lots of church.

I was always at church and it wasn't just for Sunday services. Fellowship after services with fried chicken, cornbread, collards and an assortment of cakes and pies were a must. Sunday school. Bible study on Wednesday evenings. Various activities on Saturday afternoons. Church, school, and home were the three places where my presence was mandated.

These three places were the supposed keys to leading a good life, a life where I was actually happy. Not just spiritually, but mentally, emotionally, and psychologically as well. I fell in line without questioning anything because I wanted the happiness this life promised.

Church was at the hands of my mother, whose devout faith stems from her southern Baptist upbringing in Huntsville, Alabama. Even though she's a spiritual woman, my mother is not nurturing or well-equipped to parent the emotionally sensitive person I am.

When I came to her for advice, her answer always involved a variation of everything happens for a reason and it's time to pray. She also told me to make sure I diligently read my Bible, attended, church regularly, and faithfully tithed my 10%.

I remember one time in particular when I was frustrated, drowning in teenage angst I suppose. As I clutched a mahogany leather Bible with my name engraved in gold cursive script, she murmured,

"If you read your Bible and pray, God will give you anything you want. That's all you gotta do."

And that's all I believed it ever really took for anything to transpire in my life. I had a very limited and specific understanding of God. Four years ago, what I had internalized about God, religion and Christianity wasn't enough anymore.

I'd been a practicing Catholic for three years when the ritualistic nonsense I first found powerful and symbolic wasn't anymore. This was part of my awakening to myself; I was stretching to own what spirituality meant on my own terms, not solely what I had been taught.

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The confines of Christianity didn't fill me up. The attending of church. The reading of spiritual texts. The concept of obedience and it being the key to whether or not your life was filled with ease and peace. The guilt, the copious amounts of guilt, if you didn't follow the edicts of guidance. The looming threat of hell and burning in a fiery pit of eternity -- as if the guilt wasn't enough.

I stopped attending church around the fall of 2012. I lived without the restraint of religiosity choking me for two years, which coincided with an international move to Madrid, Spain, to teach English. It felt like freedom but it also felt incredibly empty. I prayed very little those two years although I never stopped believing in God.

I suffered quite a bit living in Madrid for nine months -- loneliness, being broke, losing teaching jobs for unexplained reasons, an aching of missing home. These are all typical things most expats deal with, but I was ill-prepared.

When things didn't get better once I'd reached the magical six month mark other expats told me would make the difference in my adjustment, I prepared to return home. In the summer of 2014, I moved to Washington, D.C., where my father had moved months before I left for Madrid.

Life was a good for a little while. I reconnected with my spiritual advisor, who I started seeing the year after I converted to Catholicism in 2010, but lost contact with while I was in Madrid. She taught me years before how to meditate but the art of it didn't become real to me until I had to consistently commit to doing it on my own.

I started meditating every morning and experimenting with other meditative states and practices. From there, I researched crystals, per the recommendation of a friend who had a large collection and bought my first ones -- citrine, green quartz and black obsidian. I felt really good. Great even for the first time in a long time. But eventually this blissful state wore off.
In a matter of months, I went from being excited about being back in the States to being withdrawn, lacking interest in anything, and a profound sense of melancholia and hopelessness. I would wake up every morning and cry for hours, fall back asleep and resume crying once again.

Sometimes there would be stretches where I wouldn't bother getting out of bed save to use the restroom. No eating, showering, or even changing of clothes.

I went into a defensive fit of rage when my father suggested I was depressed. I couldn't be depressed. I prayed. I meditated. I repeated my positive affirmations. I read certain passages of Marianne Williamson's "A Return to Love" and Louise Hay's "You Can Heal Your Life" in tandem almost every day. I was doing the hard inner work every single day.

So, how could I be depressed? I began to blame myself. My outer world was reflecting my inner world and I had the power to shift that. Yes. This was on me.

But as I talked to other friends who had been depressed, it dawned on me how detrimental this new vein of spirituality I had internalized had become. Despite it grounding me and giving me the center and peace I needed, I was functioning in the same was as being a Christian had done. It put the onus on me to shift was what beyond me. It made me feel like if I had altered my actions I wouldn't be in this predicament.

In January 2015, after finding the right therapist for me in the D.C. area, I received my official diagnosis: adjustment disorder with depressed mood. In layman's terms, I had situational depression. Situational depression isn't clinical despite how its manifestation can feel and present as such.

Typically, once the trigger or triggering situation is resolved, the depression fades away. This was what happened to me. I had become so overwhelmed with all the new adjustments -- living back in the U.S., living with my father after living alone, adjusting to a new city, coping with extended unemployment -- and floundered.

I needed help, from a trained, licensed professional, to cope and begin healing.

Healing isn't a linear journey nor is it a solitary one. There is no shame in saying it's no longer heroic to stand, and drown, on your own. And although the principles of New Age, mystic and spiritual teaching can be powerful and useful in practice, they are no substitute for proper mental health treatment.

I know this now, and I don't hesitate to tell anyone the power of therapy and how sometimes we have to empower ourselves by courageously entrusting in others.

There is one thing I can hold dear from my Christian upbringing, one thing I still do hold as true -- obedience does make all the difference. But not in the traditional sense to a deity. Obedience to my heart.

Obedience to my spirit. Obedience to my intuition. Obedience in honoring all these still, silent parts of myself and reaching for support, love and assistance outside of myself when life gets most tenuous, especially when my mental health is ailing.

I do need to be obedient, but not for God or an archaic set of rules. I need to be obedient to myself and what I need.