People will sometimes ask me, “What its like to be a Christian and to have a mental illness?” I’m not entirely sure I can really answer, but I do try. It seems almost always there are misconceptions, or even a stigma attached to their curiosity. But here goes.
It’s like I’m a ‘giraffe on roller skates’, It seems like I’m always lurching and tottering— always on the verge of total collapse. (It’s a wonder I’m even ‘standing.’) Careening from one side to another, I’m aware that I’m becoming quite the spectacle, and I imagine I hear whispers about the ‘splash’ I’m making today.
I’m uneasy and unsure. (Am I being inappropriate?) I seem to speak too loud and pressured, I feel conspicuous; like I’m slightly inebriated at a party of Mormons. I’m aware of nervous glances and uneasy whispers.
Welcome to the world of bipolar mania.
I have a mental illness. ‘Rapid cycling’ bipolar disorder is my particular ‘flavor.’ I’m on meds (and have been for some time) but it only seems to do is to take of edge off— but I’m grateful for even that small mercy. Over time I’ve been able to accrue some coping mechanisms. Identifying my paranoia and random delusions is simple ‘Bipolar 101’. It has become the present state of my world. I don’t always do it well— but I do ”do it’. (And I take my lithium daily.)
There is a learning curve to all of this. It must be discovered. I have tried ‘avoidance tactics’, and I suppose most of the time they seem prudent. But life can’t really be lived cloistered in your room. That is safe, but also very dull. The isolation becomes more toxic than ‘the spectacle.’
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ, and having bipolar disorder creates some problems. I’m aware of the incongruity. But my faith often uses these issues I face; they propel me closer to Him.
Being ‘broken’ has become a real blessing.
28 “Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Matthew 11:28-29, NLT
The promise of Jesus is for those who carry extra weights (like mental or physical illness). It’s for those whose ‘cheese has slipped off their cracker.’ It’s for giraffes on roller skates. Anything we bear is endurable, and easy. He carries us far beyond every weight and every burden. He alone gives rest to the troubled, and real peace to those troubled by their souls.
30″ For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”
What Jesus actively does is to puncture my pride, and then release His spirit and grace over me. But He also makes things ‘light’. The reality is that I bear nothing. All that He does is ‘light’. My blundering is seen and never belittled. But His grace only gets revealed in my weakness.
“So stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body.”
Ephesians 4:25, NLT
I intend to be simple. I am worried and distressed by my own confusion and a simple disorientation about my own detachment to what is spiritual. I confess a trust in Him, but am wary of an evil attachment to things that take me away from Him. I know this sounds confusing, please bear with me.
I turn to Him, and yet I know that I know that a small part of me does not really belong to Him. I want to belong, but am conscious that I just don’t work into the Kingdom. I am a liability. I quickly will admit to some confusion, but I have no real intention to deceive anyone. I desperately want to be His, but I’m aware of issues that would defy such a connection.
I have an incredible infatuation with Jesus, and His teaching. He is the most amazing man to step out out of the ‘river’ of the human race. I see in Him so much, and deep down I want to fall on my knees and worship Him. The things He did are honestly the most sublime in the history of man. He is astonishing.
And yet, I continue to struggle. I see all of this and yet I’m confronted with my own issues. I know what I would like to be. But if I press, I begin to short-circuit. I do, certainly turn it over to Him. But I also am aware of a certain antipathy or rebellion (although that word seems too harsh) against the whole idea of grace. I can not figure ‘grace’ out. Grace perplexes me. It is the ‘Gordian Knot’ of the entire human race.
But I do connect with Him. My bipolar would quickly render me a traitor. I vacillate much more then the average person. Ultimately, I do turn and trust Him. He has led me to a wonderful place. If it is all a delusion, then so be it. But I will still believe in Him who gave Himself for me.
If that makes me a disciple, then so be it. But I know I am the least of His. I guess faith would venture more. But I scrape up all that I have and a saving hope it is enough. I look at the accounts of Him and am pretty much astonished. Jesus did things, consistently, above others before Him and after Him. He is quite exceptional.
I am a follower. I will struggle, and then have to deal with that sin. But I do believe and intend to keep believing. I only wish I was more consistent. I sometime wonder that in the “Book of Life’ if my name would include an asterisk. (“Made it, but by the skin on his teeth.”)
Don’t fret, I am under His hand. He deals with me, and fully intends to lead me, home. I so do want that. If on that Day, you hear someone hollering, it will be me back in the 715,426,488th row, shouting ‘I am finally here”, in the fellowship of heaven.
Some will understand this:
“He who has this disease called Jesus will never be cured.”
“I will not leave you alone. You are mine. I know each of my sheep by name. You belong to Me. If you think I am finished with you, if you think I am a small god, that you can keep at a safe distance, I will pounce on you like a roaring lion, tear you to pieces, rip you to shreds, and break every bone in your body. Then I will mend you, cradle you in my arms, and kiss you tenderly.”
God stalks us. He never lets up. We can never, never out run Him. A popular 182 line poem, from a generation ago, was called “The Hound of Heaven“. It described a person being pursued by God. This is part of it.
I fled Him down the nights and down the days
I fled Him down the arches of the years
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears
I hid from him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped and shot precipitated.
The very remarkable thing is not our prodigal hearts; rather it is the amazing love the Father has by chasing us. Jesus is consistently reckless about capturing us, and making us his own. His love is like a homing mechanism in a missile shot at us that defies our escape. We can weave and dodge all we want, but we have been targeted, and He is coming for us.
The way we talk and posture, it as if it is us that does the choosing. I’m not saying we don’t to a degree. But the Bible paints God in a different light. He initiates, and He chooses. He superintends our life, choreographing our movements. If you remember the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis it will support this reasoning.
My Bipolar depression and epilepsy issues can never thwart or nullify Jesus’ love for me. I can’t point at them as reasons not to be his follower. He is not intimidated by my medical condition. My brain tumor and the death of my daughter didn’t phase Him. They are merely physical footnotes to the story of my life.
We opened with a Brennan Manning quote. He observes that life with Jesus will involve being torn to pieces and such. He will not complacently love us, He just isn’t fond of you because you’re sort of a likable person. His love is rough, and savage and furious. He is quite tempestuous and intractable. He won’t let go. Your issues are probably not as significant as you think.
If you’re depressed, manic, paranoid or delusional you can still surrender to Jesus. These are not your identity, they are not permanent. Yes, I get depressed and have incredible issues with anxiety. I have a hand tremor almost all the time. And I can get really paranoid. But, I am his follower–first and foremost.
Let Him love you today. His kind of love will heal you completely.
He will seize you and draw you close. You will find the rest you seek leaning on Him.
“Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30, NLT
“Your faith will not fail while God sustains it; you are not strong enough to fall away while God is resolved to hold you.”
From an article in Christianity Today, February 9, 1998
“The only army that shoots its wounded is the Christian army,” said the speaker, a psychologist who had just returned from an overseas ministry trip among missionaries. He summed up the philosophy of the group he worked with as:
1. We don’t have emotional problems. If any emotional difficulties appear to arise, simply deny having them.
2. If we fail to achieve this first ideal and can’t ignore a problem, strive to keep it from family members and never breathe a word of it outside the family.
3. If both of the first two steps fail, we still don’t seek professional help.
I have been a Christian for 50 years, a physician for 29, and a psychiatrist for 15. Over this time I have observed these same attitudes throughout the church—among lay leaders, pastors, priests, charismatics, fundamentalists, and evangelicals alike. I have also found that many not only deny their problems but are intolerant of those with emotional difficulties.
Many judge that others’ emotional problems are the direct result of personal sin. This is a harmful view. At any one time, up to 15 percent of our population is experiencing significant emotional problems. For them our churches need to be sanctuaries of healing, not places where they must hide their wounds.
THE EMOTIONAL-HEALTH GOSPEL
Several years ago my daughter was battling leukemia. While lying in bed in the hospital, she received a letter, which read in part:
Dear Susan, You do not know me personally, but I have seen you in church many times….I have interceded on your behalf and I know the Lord is going to heal you if you just let Him. Do not let Satan steal your life—do not let religious tradition rob you of what Jesus did on the cross—by His stripes we were healed.
The theology behind this letter reminded me of a bumper sticker I once saw: “Health and Prosperity: Your Divine Right.” The letter writer had bought into a “healing in the atonement” theology that most mainstream evangelicals reject.
According to this traditional faith-healing perspective, Christ’s atonement provides healing for the body and mind just as it offers forgiveness of sins for the soul. The writer meant well, but the letter created tremendous turmoil for my daughter. While evangelicals have largely rejected “health and wealth” preaching—that faithful Christians will always prosper physically and financially—many hold to an insidious variation of that prosperity gospel. I call it the “emotional-health gospel.”
The emotional-health gospel assumes that if you have repented of your sins, prayed correctly, and spent adequate time in God’s Word, you will have a sound mind and be free of emotional problems.
Usually the theology behind the emotional-health gospel does not go so far as to locate emotional healing in the Atonement (though some do) but rather to redefine mental illnesses as “spiritual” or as character problems, which the church or the process of sanctification can handle on its own. The problem is, this is a false gospel, one that needlessly adds to the suffering of those already in turmoil.
This prejudice against those with emotional problems can be seen in churches across the nation on any Sunday morning. We pray publicly for the parishioner with cancer or a heart attack or pneumonia. But rarely will we pray publicly for Mary with severe depression, Charles with incapacitating panic attacks, or the minister’s son with schizophrenia. Our silence subtly conveys that these are not acceptable illnesses for Christians to have.
The emotional-health gospel is also communicated by some of our most listened-to leaders. I heard one national speaker make the point that “At the cross you can be made whole. Isaiah said that ‘through his stripes we are healed’ … not of physical suffering, which one day we will experience; we are healed of emotional and spiritual suffering at the cross of Jesus Christ.” In other words, a victorious Christian will be emotionally healthy. This so-called full gospel, which proclaims that healing of the body and mind is provided for all in the Atonement, casts a cruel judgment on the mentally ill.
Two authors widely read in evangelical circles, John MacArthur and Dave Hunt, also propagate views that, while sincerely held, I fear lead us to shoot our wounded. In his book “Beyond Seduction”, Hunt writes, “The average Christian is not even aware that to consult a psychotherapist is much the same as turning oneself over to the priest of any other rival religion,” and, “There is no such thing as a mental illness; it is either a physical problem in the brain (such as a chemical imbalance or nutritional deficiency) or it is a moral or spiritual problem.”
MacArthur, in “Our Sufficiency in Christ”, presents the thesis that “As Christians, we find complete sufficiency in Christ and his provisions for our needs.” While I agree with his abstract principle, I disagree with how he narrows what are the proper “provisions.” A large portion of the book strongly criticizes psychotherapy as one of the “deadly influences that undermine your spiritual life.” He denounces “so-called Christian psychologists and psychiatrists who testified that the Bible alone does not contain sufficient help to meet people’s deepest personal and emotional needs,” and he asserts, “There is no such thing as a ‘psychological problem’ unrelated to spiritual or physical causes.
God supplies divine resources sufficient to meet all those needs completely.” Physically caused emotional problems, he adds, are rare, and referring to those who seek psychological help, he concludes: “Scripture hasn’t failed them—they’ve failed Scripture.”
A PLACE FOR PROFESSIONALS
When adherents of the emotional-health gospel say that every human problem is spiritual at root, they are undeniably right. Just as Adam’s fall in the garden was spiritual in nature, so in a very true sense the answer to every human problem—whether a broken leg or a burdened heart—is to be found in the redeeming work of Christ on the cross. The disease and corruption process set into motion by the Fall affected not only our physical bodies but our emotions as well, and we are just beginning to comprehend the many ways our bodies and minds have been affected by original sin and our fallen nature. Yet the issue is not whether our emotional problems are spiritual or not—all are, at some level—but how best to treat people experiencing these problems.
Many followers of the emotional-health gospel make the point that the church is, or at least should be, the expert in spiritual counseling, and I agree. Appropriate spiritual counseling will resolve issues such as salvation, forgiveness, personal morality, God’s will, the scriptural perspective on divorce, and more. It can also help some emotional difficulties. But many emotional or mental illnesses require more than a church support network can offer.
I know it sounds unscriptural to say that some individuals need more than the church can offer—but if my car needs the transmission replaced, do I expect the church to do it? Or if I break my leg, do I consult my pastor about it? For some reason, when it comes to emotional needs, we think the church should be able to meet them all. It can’t, and it isn’t supposed to.
This is why the emotional-health gospel can do so much harm. People who need help are prevented from seeking it and often made to feel shame for having the problem. Thankfully, more and more people in the Christian community are beginning to realize that some people need this extra help. If professionals and church leaders can recognize the value of each other’s roles, we will make progress in helping the wounded. Forty percent of all individuals who need emotional help seek it first from the church, and some of these will need to be referred to mental-health professionals.
Church leaders should get to know Christian therapists in their communities so they can knowledgeably refer people with persistent emotional problems.
Some of us struggle with mental or physical illness. Some people don’t understand us and they walk away. This really hurts, and so we isolate ourselves even more. We might feel not only forsaken, but cursed. We may see ourselves as consummate losers. But these things shouldn’t separate us from our Father’s love. I think He loves “his special needs” children even more, lol.
But we must believe that we our transformation is happening, more and more, into the image of Christ. We are becoming like him (hence the word, Christlikeness). This is a long process, but it is happening! God has given his word. Don’t give up. Don’t give up on his plan for you.
I’m seeing lately that spiritual growth and getting older often work hand-in-hand (and why shouldn’t they?) As we get older, we will start having many different issues. When your 50 years old, you don’t have the same situations that you had when you were 14 or 30. Physically we grow and understand things differently, and this works into us spiritually. This blends or melds together, especially when the Word and Spirit are present.
“Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God. 4 Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy, 5 for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now. 6 And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”
Philippians 1:3-6, NLT
It is my wish for you that you could walk in your own shoes, and not somebody elses. Also that you would know the grace of God intimately. Being disabled means special efforts will often be necessary, but Jesus’ love for your soul will be molded to fit that disability. There will be no wheelchairs or canes, or even ‘seeing-eye dogs’ allowed in heaven. I imagine there will be a considerable pile outside the gates. Glory awaits.
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
Does your child have extreme behavior changes too? Does your child get too excited or silly sometimes? Do you notice he or she is very sad at other times? Do these changes affect how your child acts at school or at home?
Some children and teens with these symptoms may have bipolar disorder, a serious mental illness. Read on to understand more.
What is bipolar disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a serious brain illness. It is also called manic-depressive illness. Children with bipolar disorder go through unusual mood changes. Sometimes they feel very happy or “up,” and are much more active than usual. This is called mania. And sometimes children with bipolar disorder feel very sad and “down,” and are much less active than usual. This is called depression.
Bipolar disorder is not the same as the normal ups and downs every kid goes through. Bipolar symptoms are more powerful than that. The illness can make it hard for a child to do well in school or get along with friends and family members. The illness can also be dangerous. Some young people with bipolar disorder try to hurt themselves or attempt suicide.
Children and teens with bipolar disorder should get treatment. With help, they can manage their symptoms and lead successful lives.
Who develops bipolar disorder?
Anyone can develop bipolar disorder, including children and teens. However, most people with bipolar disorder develop it in their late teen or early adult years. The illness usually lasts a lifetime.
How is bipolar disorder different in children and teens than it is in adults?
When children develop the illness, it is called early-onset bipolar disorder. This type can be more severe than bipolar disorder in older teens and adults. Also, young people with bipolar disorder may have symptoms more often and switch moods more frequently than adults with the illness.
What causes bipolar disorder?
Several factors may contribute to bipolar disorder, including:
Genes, because the illness runs in families. Children with a parent or sibling with bipolar disorder are more likely to get the illness than other children.
Abnormal brain structure and brain function.
Anxiety disorders. Children with anxiety disorders are more likely to develop bipolar disorder.
The causes of bipolar disorder aren’t always clear. Scientists are studying it to find out more about possible causes and risk factors. This research may help doctors predict whether a person will get bipolar disorder. One day, it may also help doctors prevent the illness in some people.
What are the symptoms of bipolar disorder?
Bipolar mood changes are called “mood episodes.” Your child may have manic episodes, depressive episodes, or “mixed” episodes. A mixed episode has both manic and depressive symptoms. Children and teens with bipolar disorder may have more mixed episodes than adults with the illness.
Mood episodes last a week or two—sometimes longer. During an episode, the symptoms last every day for most of the day.
Mood episodes are intense. The feelings are strong and happen along with extreme changes in behavior and energy levels.
Children and teens having a manic episode may:
Feel very happy or act silly in a way that’s unusual
Have a very short temper
Talk really fast about a lot of different things
Have trouble sleeping but not feel tired
Have trouble staying focused
Talk and think about sex more often
Do risky things.
Children and teens having a depressive episode may:
Feel very sad
Complain about pain a lot, like stomachaches and headaches
Sleep too little or too much
Feel guilty and worthless
Eat too little or too much
Have little energy and no interest in fun activities
Think about death or suicide.
Do children and teens with bipolar disorder have other problems?
Bipolar disorder in young people can co-exist with several problems.
Substance abuse. Both adults and kids with bipolar disorder are at risk of drinking or taking drugs.
Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Children with bipolar disorder and ADHD may have trouble staying focused.
Anxiety disorders, like separation anxiety. Children with both types of disorders may need to go to the hospital more often than other people with bipolar disorder.
Other mental illnesses, like depression. Some mental illnesses cause symptoms that look like bipolar disorder. Tell a doctor about any manic or depressive symptoms your child has had.
Sometimes behavior problems go along with mood episodes. Young people may take a lot of risks, like drive too fast or spend too much money. Some young people with bipolar disorder think about suicide. Watch out for any sign of suicidal thinking. Take these signs seriously and call your child’s doctor.
How is bipolar disorder diagnosed?
An experienced doctor will carefully examine your child. There are no blood tests or brain scans that can diagnose bipolar disorder. Instead, the doctor will ask questions about your child’s mood and sleeping patterns. The doctor will also ask about your child’s energy and behavior. Sometimes doctors need to know about medical problems in your family, such as depression or alcoholism. The doctor may use tests to see if an illness other than bipolar disorder is causing your child’s symptoms.
How is bipolar disorder treated?
Right now, there is no cure for bipolar disorder. Doctors often treat children who have the illness in a similar way they treat adults. Treatment can help control symptoms. Treatment works best when it is ongoing, instead of on and off.
1. Medication. Different types of medication can help. Children respond to medications in different ways, so the type of medication depends on the child. Some children may need more than one type of medication because their symptoms are so complex. Sometimes they need to try different types of medicine to see which are best for them.
Children should take the fewest number and smallest amounts of medications as possible to help their symptoms. A good way to remember this is “start low, go slow”. Always tell your child’s doctor about any problems with side effects. Do not stop giving your child medication without a doctor’s help. Stopping medication suddenly can be dangerous, and it can make bipolar symptoms worse.
2. Therapy. Different kinds of psychotherapy, or “talk” therapy, can help children with bipolar disorder. Therapy can help children change their behavior and manage their routines. It can also help young people get along better with family and friends. Sometimes therapy includes family members.
What can children and teens expect from treatment?
With treatment, children and teens with bipolar disorder can get better over time. It helps when doctors, parents, and young people work together.
Sometimes a child’s bipolar disorder changes. When this happens, treatment needs to change too. For example, your child may need to try a different medication. The doctor may also recommend other treatment changes. Symptoms may come back after a while, and more adjustments may be needed. Treatment can take time, but sticking with it helps many children and teens have fewer bipolar symptoms.
You can help treatment be more effective. Try keeping a chart of your child’s moods, behaviors, and sleep patterns. This is called a “daily life chart” or “mood chart.” It can help you and your child understand and track the illness. A chart can also help the doctor see whether treatment is working.
How can I help my child or teen?
Help your child or teen get the right diagnosis and treatment. If you think he or she may have bipolar disorder, make an appointment with your family doctor to talk about the symptoms you notice.
If your child has bipolar disorder, here are some basic things you can do:
Encourage your child to talk, and listen to him or her carefully
Be understanding about mood episodes
Help your child have fun
Help your child understand that treatment can help him or her get better.
How does bipolar disorder affect parents and family?
Taking care of a child or teenager with bipolar disorder can be stressful for you too. You have to cope with the mood swings and other problems, such as short tempers and risky activities. This can challenge any parent. Sometimes the stress can strain your relationships with other people, and you may miss work or lose free time.
If you are taking care of a child with bipolar disorder, take care of yourself too. If you keep your stress level down you will do a better job. It might help your child get better too.
Where do I go for help?
If you’re not sure where to get help, call your family doctor. You can also check the phone book for mental health professionals. Hospital doctors can help in an emergency.
I know a child or teen who is in crisis. What do I do?
If you’re thinking about hurting yourself, or if you know someone who might, get help quickly.
Do not leave the person alone
Call your doctor
Call 911 or go to the emergency room
Call a toll-free suicide hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Contact NIMH to find out more about bipolar disorder.
National Institute of Mental Health
Science Writing, Press & Dissemination Branch
6001 Executive Boulevard
Room 8184, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
I wrote this poem a couple of months ago. I wrote it while trying to process the struggle of dealing with one sister who suffers with mental illness (bipolar disorder and bulimia) and other family members who don’t understand.
I have experienced seven years of major clinical depression myself, and over the last few years have come to the realization that ending up there again is not outside the realm of possibility if I’m not ever vigilant. But that doesn’t make the family relationships any easier, and I often feel like I’m the only glue or buffer holding things together, and I’m not doing a very good job at it.
I share this here to maybe give someone else the strength to keep being that glue or to appreciate the one in the family who is the glue or . . . well, frankly I’m not sure why. It just seems like something I need to share.
A note on the final stanza: I do not, in any way, wish that the person this poem is about was dead. Far from it. I’ve lost too many other family members, including another sister who died of cancer two years ago. But on the day I wrote this, that felt like it would have been easier to take than the present situation.
Why does it feel like I’ve lost you
when you aren’t even dead?
Why am I the only one
who wants to make amends?
Why does it have to be so hard
after all these years?
Maybe it’s the tears
mine and yours, and theirs,
that makes breathing and living
loving and forgiving so impossible
I guess sometimes families and madness
can’t survive one another
Because that’s what you are, you know,
mad, or crazy, or mentally ill
whatever you want to call it
It’s torn us apart
because you don’t understand
why they can’t begin to comprehend
what’s going on inside your head
It’s torn us—you and me—apart
because you’ve convinced yourself
that I don’t at all understand
what’s going on inside your head
You forget I’ve been there
that those crazy, mad thoughts
have been inside my head, too
But then you’ve forgotten a lot of things
all the times I was there for you
just to listen
and the times you were there for me
Forgetting the good
is a tragic side effect
of medications meant to help
Somehow they don’t erase
memories of the less-than-perfect moments
My greatest desire is to forgive
and to be forgiven
to live and laugh and love again
to mend what has been torn asunder
to heal the thoughts inside your head
But right now, in this moment
it feels like you might as well be dead
at least that would be easier to live with