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Going Crazy

Guest - July 30, 2005

Submitted by ARJ

This is not meant to offend.  I have no experience writing about mental health issues, and I don’t mean to trivialize what I know is a sensitive topic.

In any case, what brings this disclaimer up?  We are moving in three weeks.  Leaving Boston to be "Utah Mormons" once again.  (Use of that term is a joke and not an excuse to derail the discussion!)  What does that have to do with going crazy?  Not what you might think.

When we moved a little over three years ago, a day before it was
time to leave I sat in our house and looked at all the junk we had and
then a pile of boxes we had purchased to pack and I was unable to
move.  I wanted to pack.  I needed to pack.  I was frozen on the couch.

The enormity of the task combined with the approaching hard deadline
of packing a truck washed over me.  To put it bluntly, I had a small
breakdown.  I called my wife and told her that I wasn’t able to
function.  I am not sure she believed me.  She thinks I am prone to
exaggeration, especially when I might be procrastinating.  I called my
parents.  I broke down and cried, I got very dizzy.  In what seemed
like an instant there were there.  I know it had to have taken 30
minutes, but I honestly cannot account for that time.

Once they were there things got better, and eventually I was
actually productive in packing.  While I can’t remember the experience
in great detail, what lingers is a sense of complete loss of control.
That I couldn’t simply will myself to do what I wanted to do.

This was a frightening thing for me.  I had always felt (and
experienced) that short of a physical impediment I could will myself to
do whatever I wanted to.  This was strongly tied to my very Mormon
concept of free agency.  I am free to act as I see fit, and the live
with the consequences, right?  Yet there I was, unable to move, and
experiencing things in a way that was not what I was accustomed to.  My
world was suddenly much smaller.  I was fragile in a way I had never

What (if anything) does this say about agency?  How was my earlier
model inaccurate?  Do others feel that Mormons have an especially
strong reliance on the concept of willpower?  Does this marginalize
those that have breakdowns or illnesses that are more serious than what
I experienced?


  1. It’s an interesting question.

    Over the past few years, I have become convinced that much of the reason why people do what they do is related to the way their brains are put together. I am not in any way saying there is no free agency; what I am saying is that making certain choices can be much more difficult for some people than it is for others. I don’t think it’s a particularly Mormon trait to say that people can do whatever they want with willpower, but I do think that many LDS (and people of other faiths too) are more prone to assign a moral value to the choices people make (that’s a good thing sometimes, not good other times).

    Although I haven’t experienced what you did, aRandomJohn, I can certainly undertand it, at least intellectually. From the outside it looks like only willpower would be needed; but from the other side, it’s obvious that isn’t enough.

    I have struggled with problems related to incredible disorganization brought about by ADD. I have learned that willpower isn’t the answer. (How much willpower does it take to pay one’s phone bill when there’s sufficient money in the bank account? Almost none. But I have had the phone disconnected more than once under those circumstances.) It isn’t a matter merely of telling myself that I will do what I must do. For me, dealing with my particular mental condition has been a matter of trying various approaches of doing things and seeing what works. Some of the counterintuitive ones have worked best, surprisingly.

    From the outside, it would be easy to say I’m irresponsible. From this side, I feel that I’m doing what I can and hopefully learning. Ultimately, God will be the judge.

    I’ve rambled now and forgotten the point I was going to make. But I do think willpower is vastly overrated.

    Comment by Someone with adult ADD — July 31, 2005 @ 12:35 am

  2. Someone with adult ADD wrote:
    I have struggled with problems related to incredible disorganization brought about by ADD. I have learned that willpower isn’t the answer. (How much willpower does it take to pay one’s phone bill when there’s sufficient money in the bank account? Almost none. But I have had the phone disconnected more than once under those circumstances.) It isn’t a matter merely of telling myself that I will do what I must do. For me, dealing with my particular mental condition has been a matter of trying various approaches of doing things and seeing what works. Some of the counterintuitive ones have worked best, surprisingly.

    I suffer from periodic bipolar depressive episodes that at times completely incapacitate me. I too have let them turn off the electricity and telephone even though I had plenty of money in the bank. When I’m really sick, I just can’t deal with anything. It is almost like being falling down drunk even though I live the Word of Wisdom.

    To me it is clear that our “free agency” is exercized within the physical limits set for us by our bodies, and the brain is an organ that acts up from time to time just like the stomach, or the digestive tract or any other part of the body.

    God judges us by how we exercize the agency we have, and we all have agency. But I think that agency is circumscribed by the limits of our imperfect, mortal bodies, and only God understands those limitations. That is why he is the only one qualified to judge us as to whether our performance is good or bad, adequate or inadequate. We ourselves are not even qualified to make that judgement because a person who seems to be irresponsible or even wicked may be doing the best he can.

    Consider suicide. It is the terrible sin of murder if the person was in his right mind and fully accountable. But how could anyone but God know? On the face of it, suicide itself is a pretty good evidence pointing to a mental disorder, some of which can be really severe even if only temporary.

    I think the question of accountability and free will as related to mental illness is one that cannot be answered. This is an area in which science simply does not understand the situation, and even revealed religion has not revealed many of the answers. God will have to sort it out when mortal life is over.

    In the meanwhile, each of us has to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. The opinions of others are worthless because they are necessarily based on an incomplete data set.

    Comment by John W. Redelfs — July 31, 2005 @ 1:20 am

  3. In re-reading this post, it occurs to me that I should probably mention that my wife was at work, and simply leaving is not an option in her profession.

    Comment by a random John — July 31, 2005 @ 9:09 am

  4. John, I totally agree with you; our ability to function here is strongly conditioned by the chemicals running rampant in our brains.

    On the issue of suicide, J. Reuben Clark decided, when he was in the First Presidency, that suicides within the church should always be given a church funeral because the act of suicide was proof positive (in his mind, at least) that the individual in question was not mentally well enough to be accountable. My source for this story is D. Michael Quinn’s biography of Clark.

    ARJ, drawing on my personal experience of this kind of crisis and not on any possible kind of clinical expertise, I’d say that your experience sounds like an anxiety episode. The fact that the experience subsided once the task began to seem manageable seems to me to fit with this. In my experience, fully paralyzing anxiety can be very real and very frightening. I freeze up completely in much the same way for about 24 hours whenever I have to fly on a plane. Not fun stuff. After your move, you should consider talking to a psychiatrist. There are medicines that can help with this sort of thing, and in any case it’s always a good idea to get a professional opinion. (Just don’t tell Tom Cruise that I’m violating your human rights by making this suggestion.)

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — July 31, 2005 @ 9:19 am

  5. John Redelfs,
    Interesting thoughts. I like the thought that we are accountable within the physical limits of our bodies. And it makes a good case for any council against that which forms addictions of any kind. Being addicted to alcohol almost always begins with free agency, a choice, yet ends with an addiction. Even though your body needs the substance to survive, you are still accountable for that previous choice.

    Interesting thoughts all around.

    Comment by Rusty — July 31, 2005 @ 2:38 pm

  6. I wouldn’t be so tough on yourself, ARJ. There are people with diagnosed mental conditions that create real periodic conditions or behaviors, but just losing it for a few minutes in the face of an overwhelming task, responsibility, or crisis is not abnormal.

    I suppose this might qualify as an “anxiety attack” except that there is a clearly identifiable cause here (the daunting task of loading a truck and the attendant emotion of leaving one’s present home), whereas true anxiety attacks appear for no particular reason.

    Perhaps it was the deep dread of actually moving to Utah that overcame you? ;-)

    Comment by Dave — July 31, 2005 @ 6:40 pm

  7. The church leaders are being counseled to be lenient and compassionate towards people who are mentally ill, especially those who have been abused as children. For instance, I know personally two people who were abused and have committed some sins as adults that would ordinarily merit excommunication. But no action has been taken, expressly because of their mental condition.

    As for suicide, I’ve felt that awful despair and wanted to die. I think if I had taken my life, there would be a price to be paid, but I also think God knows and understands our pain, and is more generous than we could ever comprehend.

    Comment by annegb — August 1, 2005 @ 10:51 am

  8. I’ve had the same questions about how agency works in the face of mental illness – my questions mostly come from not understanding the church’s view (if there even is one?) on the cause(s) of mental illness.

    I’ve struggled with occasion episodes of mild depression, and wondered how God views my actions at these times. Am I supposed to exercise my willpower and cheer up (which is mainly what I tell myself to do), or am I less/un-accountable for my actions. I doubt I would be excused from murder, suicide, etc. as a result, but am I excused for wallowing around the house in my bathrobe and snapping at my family? And how would this change if I had a more “serious” clinical depression or other mental illness?

    Without derailing this thread too much, can anyone tell me whether the church believes mental illness is a failing of willpower/demonic possession/chemical imbalance/etc? And is there any credence to the idea I hear from some church members that those with certain mental illnesses are guaranteed exaltation (i.e. those with Downs syndrome or those who are severely autistic)?

    Again, I’m not trying to derail the thread, as I’m very interested in future responses to aRJ’s post.

    Comment by Hanna — August 1, 2005 @ 4:31 pm

  9. How about this… Prior to seeking any medical help I’ll see how I handle this upcoming move. In fact, if I am still sane once we reach Utah I will post an update here. I should probably clarify that the earlier move was from Utah to Boston, and the upcoming move is from Boston to Utah.

    Comment by a random John — August 2, 2005 @ 3:14 pm

  10. Thanks, arJ, for writing this and I want to thank the commenters for sharing their experiences as well. It’s helped put some things in perspective for me. Just knowing there’s a lot of us that suffer from occasional moments of inability, for lack of a better word is comforting. It’s not even necessarily mental illness, maybe it’s just life.

    Anyhow, thanks. Reading this thread cheered me up.

    Comment by SeptimusH — August 5, 2005 @ 2:38 am

  11. I think the guaranteed exaltation stuff is for individuals whose mental age never crosses the age of accountability. If you have the mental capabilities of a 5 year old, Heavenly Father won’t hold you accountable.

    That being said, severe depression and other mental disorders are very real and can be completely debilitating. Speaking as a wife of an abuse survivor and severely depressed husband, it requires a lot of love and charity to help and prod along the right path. These individuals have their agency and should be held accountable, but they should also be loved and guided just like any wayward sheep.

    Understanding goes a really long way.

    Comment by ML — August 9, 2005 @ 5:07 pm

  12. I struggle all the time with the differentness that being a little crazy labels me with in a solidly Mormon community. When, as a gray-haired grandma, I should be calm and serene, instead of telling people routinely to go to hell.

    However, I do get away with a lot, I am not making light. Because I am a little crazy, people just expect me to act differently, and I can pretty much do what I want. It’s very freeing.

    Comment by annegb — August 15, 2005 @ 11:27 am

  13. Packing is going well! Still able to function!

    Comment by a random John — August 15, 2005 @ 3:40 pm

  14. ARJ,
    Good! We hope it continues that way. You’ll have to make an announcement once you reach Utah.

    Comment by Rusty — August 15, 2005 @ 4:39 pm

  15. An update:

    There is no such thing as Mormon Moving Karma!

    During three years here I have been EQ 1st councilor for a year and EQP for 2 years. I’ve done moves during my work day and moved people that I had never seen before or since. I can say with some confidence that I’ve been to more moves in the last three years than any other individual in the ward. When I move how many people respond?


    Hired goons it is then!

    PS If I go crazy it will be today.

    Comment by a random John — August 18, 2005 @ 8:16 am

  16. Ugh, too bad we can’t be moving goons by proxy. Sorry man, that sucks.

    Comment by Rusty — August 18, 2005 @ 10:48 am

  17. I should note that I survived without any lapses in sanity that I am aware of.

    Comment by a random John — April 24, 2007 @ 9:56 am

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