Episode #227 - Intrusive Thoughts

May 12, 2024 Damon Socha Season 1 Episode 227
Episode #227 - Intrusive Thoughts
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Episode #227 - Intrusive Thoughts
May 12, 2024 Season 1 Episode 227
Damon Socha

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Intrusive thoughts and emotions are a significant problem within mental and emotional illness.  This is especially true for members of the Church of Jesus Christ and other Christians.  Thoughts of death, sexuality and worthlessness are just a portion of what we battle as we attempt to manage a difficult illness.  However, the Lord is infinitely merciful and kind to those who suffer.

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Send us a Text Message.

Intrusive thoughts and emotions are a significant problem within mental and emotional illness.  This is especially true for members of the Church of Jesus Christ and other Christians.  Thoughts of death, sexuality and worthlessness are just a portion of what we battle as we attempt to manage a difficult illness.  However, the Lord is infinitely merciful and kind to those who suffer.

Episode #226 – Intrusive Thoughts.  Well today we are going to enter a part of my mind that I rarely share.  I’m not entirely comfortable with doing so but I intend to be as honest as I can be.  I do so with the intent that others who are having similar difficulties with their mental and emotional health can understand that everyone who suffers deals with a difficult level of intrusive thoughts in their lives.  For individuals listening who might not be suffering, what I say might sound a little crazy and so I give you fair warning.

Because of the nature of mental and emotional illness, which is defined by its ability to alter one’s emotions beyond circumstances and environment, intrusive and unwanted thoughts and feelings are common.  Meaning simply our emotional state tends to cause our patterns of thinking.  

Now before I get too deep in my personal battles with intrusive thought patterns.  I want to address the church doctrine and culture surrounding thought patterns.  Not too many years ago, Elder Packer gave a talk regarding removing thoughts from your mind.  He mentioned that when an intrusive thought entered the mind that one could sing a hymn and that would replace the evil thought.  While this coincides with current psychology and with a normal response to intrusive thoughts, I don’t think that he had mental and emotional illness in mind when he gave his talk.  This doesn’t mean that a good song doesn’t help in the short-term or that psychological methods to not work in some instances.  What I mean in stating that he didn’t have sufferers in mind, is that general authority talks do not always include those who fall outside normal emotional and psychological ranges.  More recently we have noticed the general authority concerns with this idea when Elder Carl B Cook stated the following in his talk “Just Keep Going – with Faith”  

“When I say discouragement, I’m not talking about the more debilitating challenges of clinical depression, anxiety disorders, or other illnesses that require special treatment.3 I’m just talking about plain old discouragement that comes with the ups and downs of life.”

When we read, listen to and work to apply principles and doctrines found in talks, we should remember that the audience is world wide and so is the message and that generally causes some relatable issues when it comes to subjects dealing with emotions, thoughts and the illnesses that affect them.

We who suffer are different in many ways emotionally and mentally to the normal human being and when we attempt to apply the doctrine strictly as though we had not an illness, the gospel can be a troubling place to live.  Given that understanding, when we approach the principle of emotional control and mental management we need to approach it with some understanding that applying principles that work in a normal sense may not work for us.  That is OK.  The gospel works for every person and their difficulties.  We just have to see our thought patterns and emotional control from a different perspective.  This means our experiences with thought patterns and emotions are going to be far different from others who apply the gospel in normal ways.

 For instance how we hear the spirit is likely to be very different from others.  How we approach working with our thought patterns and our emotions may be drastically different from the normal church member.  Applying Elder Packer’s humming a hymn, rule of thumb when evil thoughts come to our mind may not work for our particular situation.  We may need counseling, medications, and practical solutions that meet our needs.  And beyond those aids we may need help from the Lord to calm our mental anguish.

Given the prevalent idea within the church that it is fully within our responsibility and capacity to completely control the thoughts in our minds and by nature the desires in our hearts, the church can be a very difficult place to experience mental and emotional illness. By its very nature that kind of control is a difficult task to accomplish and for most normal individuals the task is entirely overwhelming to the point that they remove themselves from the pressure to accomplish it.  That is most certainly not what the Lord wants.  He does understand the difficulty that we face and makes accommodations for our illness.

When we approach the gospel perspective of thoughts and emotions, we should do so with the understanding that an illness controls portions of our emotional and mental response.  While we are responsible to do our best with these emotions and our intrusive thoughts, they are not entirely within our control and management.  The Lord fully understands this and provides mercy and grace for those who suffer.  Our responsibility is to manage the illness to the best of our daily ability which provides for emotional and mental management.  And the Lord knows that because of the illness we will fail a great deal.  He is not concerned with the failure except in the sense that we keep trying.  What is most important to understand is that the Atonement of Jesus Christ covers the problems and difficulties associated with our mental and emotional health trials.

Now having said all of that, I will attempt to express my inner thoughts as intrusive and sometimes as shocking as they are.  I am going to admit that I hide my thoughts well and so many individuals do not know that my mind has such concerns and issues.  My issues have never really ceased from my youngest memories to the current day.  I have learned to deal with them in more effective ways but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

The first thought that I frequently have is that I desire to die.  Not commit suicide but die.  It is a consistently reoccurring theme that has always invaded my life when depression, and the consistent pain of autoimmune disease ravage my body.  Over the last two years it has been very consistent as my illness has worsened at times.  Yes I fight the desire to die regularly.  It occurs everywhere I go and I admit is an intrusive thought that I have never really been able to fight effectively.  At least in the sense that I cannot avoid its persistent nature.  I am not at the point of suicide or even death ideation.  Just don’t desire to go on living with the illnesses that I have.  I spend a good amount of time sleeping to remove this thought from my mind and that is one of my coping mechanisms that I have used for many years.  I nap can often reset my mind.  I do take appropriate medications and if you ever see me playing a game on my phone it is likely because I am using it as a coping mechanism for the pain.  Pain management and pain diversion are a fairly consistent pattern in my brain and along with that the body naturally inserts methods for removal of the pain, one of which is the desire for death.  I did come to the suicide point at one time in my life and so I fully understand that feeling.  I am cautious with this emotion and intrusive thought pattern and manage it daily and I admit sometimes more effectively than others.  I don’t ever mention it to anyone because mentioning the idea of death and desiring death is very problematic within church circles.  I have found that many who suffer with chronic pain and mental illness often have such feelings and intrusive thoughts.  Those thoughts are going to be common with anyone who suffers regularly.  Just understand that you are not alone.  As part of my coping mechanisms I have also learned to talk to my body and mind as a separate entity.  Yeah I know that sounds crazy, I am talking to myself but it helps me to focus on the illness and pain as something foreign rather than a part of me.  I address the thoughts and pain from a third person perspective and even at times address my illness as not a part of me but an invading force.  This helps my mind to focus on the real problem and to somewhat fight those incessant troubling thoughts.

My second problematic thought pattern is one that is more difficult to share among members.  That is simply because of the supposed shame surrounding it.  When I suffered with bipolar until my early thirties I dealt with emotional difficulties surrounding hypersexuality, meaning my drive for sex was increased dramatically without an input from my side of things.  In some way I don’t understand, it has wired my brain with intrusive thoughts of a sexual nature.  So I am regularly bombarded by thoughts of this nature and the range is wide.  I don’t think that details matter in the sense of what is occurring as I am sure it will be different for everyone.  However, I know that it is not uncommon for individuals who experience mental and emotional health issues to have intrusive thoughts regarding sexuality.  The opposite is also true.  Some individuals have a lack of desire and thoughts of this nature.  But for those who deal with it regularly, it can feel demoralizing to not necessarily be able to control the intrusive nature of the thought pattern, especially as a church member and with our heavy emphasis on sexual purity.  So members who deal with these type of thoughts and problems associated with their illness tend to hide this part of it in shame.  And many simply retire from the faith unable to reconcile their mental difficulties.  

I have also come to understand in my conversations regarding mental health with others that intrusive sexual thought patterns can also include LBGTQ concerns where sexuality is expressed in other forms.  While I have not personally experienced this in any significant level, I understand how it is possible and how difficult it must be for those who experience it as members.  It is very troubling to have reoccurring intrusive thoughts of a sexual nature and especially outside a heterosexual pattern.  One can feel entirely broken and unworthy.  Know that you are not.  Mental and emotional problems often cause serious issues with sexuality, relationships, the feelings and ideas of love, compassion and empathy.  When you don’t have fully control of your emotions and thoughts, it will be difficult to form relationships and maintain those relationships as so often when we suffer with these problems we turn inwards with a focus on our problematic emotions.  This leaves little time and capacity to reach outside of oneself.  Relationships need this outreach and emotional connection.  When those two things suffer in a relationship, it can be difficult for the other person to fully understand and remain within the relationship.  I admit it takes a special kind of person to fully love and work with someone dealing with mental and emotional illness.  I am especially grateful for my family and most of all for my wife and a mother who did not fully understand but have been able to weather the storm.

Now intrusive thoughts of this nature especially those that come through the portals of mental and emotional illness are not sin.  They are by definition not something that was sought for but intruded anyway.  However, their persistent nature does often lead many to commit sin and remove themselves from the church because they feel broken.  These types of intrusive thought patterns are not something discussed within church circles as the subject of sexuality and the desire for death are often a somewhat forbidden topics that make individuals uncomfortable.  Having been a church member all my life I understand why the uncomfortable feeling occurs and I understand that discussing such matters tends not to occur in larger groups but with leaders and advisors.

The problem is often that many leaders and advisors do not understand the nature of mental and emotional health problems and often give advise and counsel that does not help the affected person.  More often than not these types of problems are treated as sin and the usual process of repentance is advocated.  However, repentance will not cause the problem to retreat.  This has been the case for me.  This is because repentance is not the real issue.  I have many times attempted the repentance process and continued discussions with the Lord about my weakness in thought patterns and he has been kind and merciful.  He has noted even through general authorities that sin is not the thought patterns but the development of those thought patterns that leads to action that is the sin.  The problem is distinguishing when and where that development actually occurs.  How do you know when you are developing the thoughts rather than them being intrusive?  Because even the intrusive nature of the thoughts can worsen based on our illness.  The answer can only reside with the Lord.  While we might find it great difficulties in hearing his voice, he does still speak in ways that we can understand.  Again the Lord provides bounteous mercy and grace when we struggle with the deep and troubling emotions and thoughts.

Now I am certain that many individuals have asked, as I have, to have the Lord remove the patterns of intrusive thought.  In other words, heal at least this part of the illness.  And I admit that a more righteous desire probably doesn’t exist.  However, for me, the Lord has simply said not right now.  The thought patterns for me concerning death and sex have remained among several others.  I am reminded of Paul when he asked that one his tormenting weaknesses be removed and the Lord said no.  While I don’t fully understand it, the Lord uses these types of weaknesses to develop certain attributes. And he provides sufficient mercy to cover the weakness as long as we continue to do our best to keep our covenants.

Do I have other intrusive thought patterns?  Yes I do.  And we should probably talk about them as well as they are very important to the discussion of spiritual nature.  I regularly have serious doubts enter my mind.  My doubts arise out of the emotional pain, anxiety and depression that accompany my illnesses.  These are not simple doubts but those that rock the very foundations of spiritual faith.  They are doubts about the existence of God, a Savior, prophets and the core foundations of the Church of Jesus Christ.  Many might be surprised to learn this.  Again it is the nature of the illness.  Doubt and not just thoughts of doubt but deep feelings of doubt occur regularly and this is especially true with depression and anxiety.  Even those affected by deep pain for long periods of time can experience these terrible bouts of doubt.  Doubt brought about my mental and emotional illness is especially difficult as it can feel as painful as sin and as deeply troubling as you might imagine.  And nothing seems to stem the tide until the episode lifts.  And then you are left in an empty void where you must find those pieces of testimony and rebuild them.  It can as difficult as anyone can imagine.  These deep emotions of doubt are one of the major causes of suicide as they lead to thoughts of worthlessness, hopelessness, and a depression so dead it can feel impossible to see out.  When one feels these emotions the body can only withstand them for so long until thoughts of suicide enter. Everyone who gets to this point of despair is likely to have intrusive thoughts of suicide and they will be penetrating and overwhelming at times.  Once suicidal thoughts enter the mind, I don’t believe they ever fully retreat.  I regularly feel them, although for me they don’t shock my mind and lead to action as they perhaps once did in my life.  Anyone who has mental illness is likely to have suicidal thoughts.  Again this is not sin, just our bodies reaction to the emotional illness.  However, one must always be cautious of suicidal thoughts as they can develop rapidly and overcome our natural desire to live.  I am mindful of them and have coping mechanisms I have developed to aid in their diversion.  I do use sleep, television and media, games on my phone and other methods of mentally putting these thoughts on the shelf into my never will I box.  I know that sound strange to have a mental never will I box.  But that is how I deal with it.  When they come, in my mind I take them and put them in that box along with a variety of other thoughts.  This helps me to divert them and attempt to bring other thoughts to mind.

Yes these moments of doubt can be arrested and gradually lifted but the causes and difficulties associated with the illness need to be addressed.  One cannot battle these types of intrusive thoughts alone.  Help will always be needed when the doubts and the thoughts of suicide persist.  This includes friends, family, spouse, medical professionals, counselors and of course the Lord.  I have battled these deeply troubling emotions most of my life and had hoped that one day I would be relieved of them.  For now, the answer is no but I know the Lord to be merciful and kind.  When my test is done so will the emotions and thoughts that trouble me so often.  

It is easy to associate experiences in our lives with organizations, places and people.  So one of my rules that I attempt to live by is to never make decisions under the influence of these intrusive thoughts.  My rule is to wait for the moment to pass, find some relief and then think about what I should do in response.  Does this always work?  No but it certainly helps and keeps me from finding greater troubles. Emotions and thoughts lead us to action.  That is in many ways their purpose and design.  However, allowing them to dominate and free flow in our minds is a dangerous problem that always leads to dead end roads.  So coping mechanisms are critical to help us through the moment.  I have shared a few of mine and I hope that you will find your own personal methods of diversion during those dark moments when intrusive thoughts come one after another.

I realize that my discussion today of intrusive thoughts will be helpful to some and for others it might be a little disturbing.  I understand it.  They are often disturbing to me.  But they are part of mental and emotional illness that will always exist and they can be and are troubling to so many people.  The key to these intrusive thoughts is that they are not sin unless we develop and act upon them.  Even when they dominate our minds they are not sin especially within an episode of emotional difficulties.  The Lord has made allowance for such and has great mercy in store for those who suffer with such debilitating problems.  He knows the dark moment we face and he has experienced them.  He can feel the weight of them in our lives. And he can help us walk through that valley of the shadow of death.

While their may not be any real answer to entirely stop these thoughts within our mortal bodies.  The truth is that the Savior is always available to us and he can and does provide needed relief to our minds and hearts.  He many not remove the illness or the cause of the illness but he can and does temper the ferociousness of the waves.  Of that I can testify and tell you that he fully knows you and loves you to a degree you cannot comprehend.  He will come to you and walk with you.  He will be with you when those moments feel impossible.  Many he bless you today to feel that deep love.  Until next week do your part so that the Lord can do his.