It was 2:15 a.m. and I was wide awake, my eyes glossed with tears. I sat on the hardwood floor beside my bed, gripping my arms tightly around my knees, my bedroom door shut. I tilted my head up.
“God, please help me,” I begged. “I’m so sad, God, I’m miserable, I don’t think I can handle it anymore. Please, I just want to be happy again.”
I inhaled quickly to silence my sobs. I didn’t want to wake my family. I rocked myself like an infant, crying and hyperventilating to the point where I felt like I might not be able to catch my breath. After what seemed like an eternity of gasping and aching, I subsided into quiet tears. Looking out the window, I wondered if God had heard my prayer and if he would answer it.
I repeated this routine in secret many nights for years starting when I was 14. Before that, I was a carefree girl who hosted talk shows for an audience of my dolls and the trees in our backyard. I liked to ride my bike to the top of steep hills in the park, bursting with adrenaline as the wind swept over my face. I loved going on adventures in books and exploring the places I created with paints and pencils. To me, the world was splashed with every color of the rainbow.
But as I transitioned from a child into a teenager, I started to lose that happy nature. I didn’t ride my bike or hold backyard talk shows anymore; I rarely left my room. The world began to seem cold, lonely, and gray. It felt like sadness stuck to my soul like glue.
A Crisis of Faith
I grew up in a Christian family, attended a Christian school, went to church every Sunday, and heard so much of the Christian Family Radio network that I’m sure I know some episodes by heart. When I was 9, I accepted Christ into my heart and became a Christian. From then on, my faith was so important to me that I couldn’t see who I was without it.
I grew up hearing about Jesus’s miracles: making the blind see, the crippled man walk, and breathing life into the dead. They all had one common thread: faith. I believed that if Christians had enough of that, they could overcome any problem. So when I didn’t feel any less sad despite my prayers, I told myself it was because my faith wasn’t firm enough. Therefore, God had judged me and deemed me unworthy of his love.
I later did some research on faith, Black communities, and mental health and learned that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. According to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center, “nearly 80% of Black identify religion as important, compared to only 50% of the general population.” For many Black people, the belief in a higher power has provided hope in the midst of oppression, from the horrors of slavery to Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and the era of Black Lives Matter.
“The church and spiritual connections have been one of the safe spaces for the Black community to deal with their problems,” Dr. Isaiah Pickens, a licensed clinical psychologist, told me in an email. “At the same time, these spiritual havens have also had unspoken rules that if someone is dealing with mental health problems, then it is possible their spiritual faith is not strong enough.”
Unwavering beliefs in God and Christianity have sustained my parents through difficult times, and I wondered how their faith was so strong. They immigrated from Haiti to New York in the 1980s. My dad had practically no money and my mother has been working since she was in high school. They have lost people they loved. Yet then and now, they have praised God endlessly. On weekend mornings, my dad turns his speakers up to the highest volume and sings along as songs of worship vibrate through the house. He belts out the lyrics with so much joy and passion that you would think he’d led a gospel choir.
Praying Does Not Feel Like Therapy
Once my dad told me why he loves praise songs so much. “It’s my therapy, alone time with me and God,” he said. “When I listen to him, I just know that he’s there and never going to leave my side. In everything, girl, trust God.”
But praying didn’t feel like therapy to me. I didn’t feel like God was by my side. I was so depressed and angry that when I prayed, it felt like I was screaming into an empty black field. How could I pray to a God who had abandoned me? Why did it seem like he was so far out of my reach when I was in so much pain?
I yearned to have what my dad had with God. Was I just praying the wrong way? Was I not praying enough? Or maybe it was the fear that haunted me the most: I was too broken to be loved by anyone.
I felt ashamed for having such doubt and confusion about my faith. I thought my parents would be disappointed if they knew how I was feeling. I continued going to church with my family, but I mumbled along during worship and barely paid attention during the sermon. Growing up, church was a place for communing with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. As a child, I looked at the cross and the pulpit and remembered why I was there. Now, church was just a reminder of a God that didn’t care about me.
Is God Real?
One morning in 10th grade when my father was driving me to school, he put on one of his favorite playlists: “Best Live Worship.” He sang along while I sat in the backseat in silence, thinking about his words: “In everything, trust God.” I wondered how someone could have such profound faith in a God that he had never seen.
“Is God real?” I asked. We reached a red light and my dad lowered the volume on the music. His eyes met mine, and his face softened.
“What makes you ask something like that, girl?”
“He’s supposed to be our healer, right? He’s supposed to take care of us, love us. So why is there so much suffering, Dad?” Tears welled up in my eyes.
“Why am I in so much pain?” I asked, lowering my voice. “Doesn’t he care about me?”
My father kept his eyes on the road and shifted in his seat. He took a deep breath.
“Gaby, you have the wrong idea about God,” he began. “Of course he cares about you. He loves you, but he lets us make our own choices, and with that comes suffering and pain. He is always listening, and will always help you. But you can’t expect him to give you a perfect life, because that just doesn’t exist for anyone.”
He glanced at me. “You asked me when I knew he was real. There wasn’t one single moment. I came from Haiti with almost nothing and now I have your mom, your brother, and you. It’s waking up each day and feeling alive. That’s how I know. It’s natural to doubt, but please don’t give up on him just yet, OK?”
God, and Therapy Too
I nodded and my dad continued playing his music. I thought about what he said as he dropped me off at school and waved goodbye from the window.
“Don’t give up on God just yet.” I had thought that he was the one who had given up on me. But maybe I had been seeing God the wrong way. He doesn’t expect us to be perfect, so why did I hate myself so much for not being so?
I had to reconcile that no matter how long and hard I prayed, nothing would change unless I helped myself. I had to recognize that God is not a genie; he doesn’t hear our prayers and answer them in the exact way that we want.
So last summer, I decided to ask my parents to help me find a therapist to talk about the feelings I have been having the last few years. It was the most terrifying but also the strongest thing that I had ever done. To get there, I had to realize that I was not a bad Christian for feeling broken and wounded. I had to reject the God that I had conjured in my head of a being that could wave a wand and make things better. I still struggle with my faith, but I want to know the God my father sings to and my mother praises in church with boundless joy. That takes time, but I know someday I will.
I used to think that seeking help outside of church or prayer meant that I was a weak Christian. Many religious people, including myself, worry that a therapist or counselor from “outside” won’t understand our faith. A lot of people of faith also think that therapy is a rejection of God: that it means relying on the creations of man, rather than on him and his word. But if you believe in God the way I do, then you believe he created everything, including doctors, therapists, medicine, and psychologists, and that they are all here for a reason.
I discovered that as a person of faith who struggles with depression and anxiety, prayer is not the only approach to healing. God is not a therapist, but therapists can do his work. Trying to be completely self-reliant can leave you suffering in dreadful silence. Saying the words “I need help” was scary, but it was the greatest thing I ever did for myself.
How to Get Mental Health Help
Therapy can be expensive, and the healthcare system can be confusing and difficult to navigate. But there are places teens can get affordable or free mental health help. If you are feeling bad, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of the following services.
Text WELL to 65173 or call 1-888-NYC-WELL 24/7 to connect with a counselor through the city’s WELL program. They’ll listen to you and suggest resources where you can find ongoing mental health support. The service is confidential and free, aside from the standard messaging rates your phone provider might charge.
You can also chat with a counselor on their website.
If you are between 12 and 24, you can get free mental health counseling at The Door, a nonprofit youth center. It’s free to become a member, which is required to get mental health services. To sign up, visit the center Monday to Friday, 2 p.m. – 5 p.m., with extended hours until 7 p.m. on Wednesdays. For more information, contact The Counseling Center at 212-941-9090, ext. 3452.
555 Broome Street, New York, NY
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
If you or somebody you know is thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You will be connected with a trained crisis worker who can help you. For help in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454. It’s free, confidential and the line is staffed 24/7.
You can also talk with a crisis worker on their website.