A Bipolar Christian: Roller Coaster Joy
I wrote the first section in 2004, and the P.S. in 2005.
John recently wrote me saying, “You seem so much more upbeat, too. What has gone on for you that has made such a positive change? I know that when I talked to you a while ago, you were nearly suicidal. Now, it seems that things are so much better. I'm really glad, but what happened? What changed for you? I want to be part of the joy.”
John is referring to me being bipolar. I am trying to live my life more by our spiritual nature. Joy cannot be conditional upon whether my chemistry is up or down. Joy is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as we realize our spiritual eyes are pointed to the future, not on this fleshly existence and its momentary fixations.
Being bipolar wreaks havoc with your life. You generally think of improvement, whether that be during recovery or just building in general, as being a continual movement in a positive direction. This progression is usually labeled as moving "up" in the world, or moving closer to your objective or goal.
I know everyone has up's and down's and setbacks. We aren't referring to those here. Manic depression is also known as bipolar disorder because a person's mood can alternate between the "poles" of mania (high, elevated mood) and depression (low, depressed mood). This change in the mood or "mood swing" can last for hours, days, weeks, or even months.
So for those of us who suffer from bipolarism, there is no such thing as continuity or consistency. There may be improvement and upward movement as a trend over a long period of time. But in the here-and-now, in day-to-day living, it seems like for every step forward we take, two steps backward are right around the corner.
When manic, we start to build things, make plans, and begin projects. When we are depressed, we are too tired to care, too fuzzy-minded to follow through, and too confused to have any idea what it really is we are searching for. Through this frustration we may subconsciously, and possibly even knowingly, sabotage the momentum that had been won during the previous manic episode. Regardless of whether we contribute to this "break in the flow", it will happen one way or the other. Damage to progress is inevitable under these circumstances.
How can we cope with this roller coaster ride? For me, I first had to admit that it was not something a bottle of pills was going to fix in six weeks. I am not employed. I was approved for Social Security Disability earlier this year. We don't know why they approve an application, we just get a yes/no answer. But on the application, I put Bipolarism, OCD, General/Social Anxiety, PTS, some loss of vision due to glaucoma, and loss of two inches of height due to osteoporosis. (My right eye can't read. With the compression in my spine, some physical labor is restricted.) (After I wrote this I learned I also had cataracts.)
I just passed the one year mark of going to a community services organization for free mental health care, because I have no income or insurance. I am in the same category as street people! We go to the same facilities. I did have to sell my house, but I am living with my parents, so I do have a place to call home.
I had to come to grips with the fact that I am no longer the highly competent business professional I used to be. Dave said this about me. "It is not the height of great successes that marks your victory, it is the fact that you get back up each time."
I think there will definitely be some great successes for me, regardless of the setbacks. But I have had to learn to give myself permission to fail. I don't mean to give up and stop (except temporarily). I mean that "no goal is worth killing my spirit because I cannot reach that goal". I have to hug myself and say God loves me without me performing. This is not an excuse to stop trying. But I certainly cannot beat myself up endlessly over things that are beyond my control.
I truly cannot work in a business environment for many reasons. I am able to function some now in a limited, self-controlled environment. But put me in a new environment, or alter this one, and... uh oh. When I am depressed I shut down, and experience many other things that interrupt my job performance. I still do some things on the Internet, at home, where I can control some of my environment and some of the circumstances. On my personal projects or ministries, if I need to write one paragraph, I am not under any pressure or obligation. I can even take a week to write one paragraph, if I feel that delay is necessary to protect myself from more strain than I can tolerate. And this does not even take into consideration the anxiety, etc.
So I say, "What IS it that I can actually do?" Throw away the rigid stereotypes and restrictions society imposes on us. They cast us aside if even one indication of nonconformity is detected. Yet, we can outperform most conforming people already employed there. But they can't be bothered with allowing flexibility, to take advantage of what we CAN do. They just want to throw us in the dumpster for what they perceive to be a disadvantage because of what we CANNOT do.
I realize I am exaggerating the situation from both the employer’s and the employee’s perspective. But the fact remains that people with mental illness are still discriminated against. I can understand from an employer’s perspective that they “have to get the job done”. But I don’t understand why something can’t be worked out, instead of flushing valuable people down the toilet. Why is it that in so many professions there is no such thing as a part-time position?
For myself, as an example, I can't take on a huge project that will require an extended effort to complete in a certain way, by a certain time. It is just too much. The up's and down's will cause me to lose hope that I can “keep at it" that long.
Say my goal is to learn the alphabet. I can't tell myself I will embark on an adventure to learn 26 letters. What a momentous task. Instead, I will take on learning "A". Upon mastering that, I will take on learning "B". Maybe after I learn "C" I will have a relapse and have to return to "B". But I keep at it, one letter at a time. Eventually, I WILL make it to "Z". Even if I have to do it "my way", in a manner others would think too unconventional to acknowledge my accomplishment.
I believe much of this is rooted in a better understanding of grace. When I am on an even keel, I have one set of moral values. But when I am manic, I think of things I would never otherwise.
Do I make excuses and say I am not guilty of sin because I have a chemical imbalance that drives me away from my normal standards? How much can I say is the disease, versus, well, I really wanted to anyway, the disease just gives me a way out? Did the disease just take away the inhibitions that hold back thoughts that were already there, just unexplored?
These are questions no one can answer. When I am high, it seems nothing is considered wrong. However, not only do the high’s put extra thoughts in my head, the high’s actually give me the courage to act on those thoughts. But when I come down, the guilt is horrendous, even if I had just thought about it without acting on it. And when I am down, I feel guilty for what seems like losing my faith and wanting to end it all.
So how can I ask for forgiveness when I am past the point of knowing what is right or wrong? Or perhaps sometimes being made numb to standards, so that I become unresponsive to warning signals?
Then I began to look at my up/down cycles as a sin. I sinned when too high. I sinned when too low due to lack of involvement. This sin had made me useless -- null and void.
God can forgive someone who has committed all sins, all crimes. Being bipolar seems to be a crime against society. My life is a sin against God. Can't God forgive me for being a human yo-yo? Even if some of it is beyond my control and you might say it is not my sin -- it is still a result of original sin. The plan for creation was disrupted. I am messed up because of the fall of man, as well as because of the sins of people who came before me, and the sins of people I have known. However, I still must assume responsibility for my sins. I don’t have a way to separate their sins from mine and then measure just mine. But I still must accept responsibility for mine
I can't fix any of this. But God doesn't withhold His love from me just because I am broken. Isn't everyone broken? It's not just me. But the cracks in their pots aren't as noticeable as the cracks in mine -- by the standards of America in the year 2004. In another culture, in another time, I might be King of the Hill.
If I equate failure to sin, I am a failure any way I look at it, since we are all sinners. Attributing the condition of my life to sin provides me with a way to redeem my life. We know that Christ forgives us for our sins. He forgives us of the regular sins, as people might categorize sin. He forgives us for the things we may have done that contributed to our disease-related sins. He can even forgive everyone who has affected our lives, putting us in a position to be tempted to sin. People from Adam right up to those in the 21th century.
I am trying to live my life more by our spiritual nature. Joy cannot be conditional upon whether my chemistry is up or down. It cannot be conditional upon whether I am meeting my goals, or the goals imposed on me by society. Joy is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as we realize our spiritual eyes are pointed to the future, not on this fleshy existence and its momentary fixations. Some day, a few up's and down's won't mean a thing. They will be long forgotten.
I am rather proud of being screwed up. I see it as an opportunity.
I want the world to see what a Christian can do, even with both hands tied behind his back.
P.S. Clinging to Mania
I have been reading about people clinging to mania because it makes them creative, productive, and just plain (fashionably at times) outrageous.
I was this way. But I found a secret. I am taking the pills. I am doing the talk stuff. And I allowed my freedom to express myself to be hidden under a wet blanket.
I no longer need to cling to mania to be creative, productive, or just plain (fashionably at times) outrageous. Some may consider medication to be a wet blanket, a damper on my ability to thrive, or simply a way to get all doped up. However, even in my medicated state (Wellbutrin, Lithium, Buspar, Lamictal, Seroquel), I have regained my freedom of expression.
How? Quite simply put... anything I can do when I am OUT of control, I can also do when I am IN control. I am still the same person with the same capabilities, feelings, and emotions.
So what is the secret? Don't concentrate so much on why you are "capable" when you are unstable (out-of-control). Instead, consider why you are "incapable" when you are stable (in-control). If you can gain enough self-confidence to give yourself permission to be reasonably open when you are stable, you will lose some of the need to go crazy to achieve whatever benefit it is you seek.
Don’t believe the lie that you have to give yourself permission to sin to achieve your goals. When you trust in God with all your heart, everything you need will follow you wherever your path may lead.
Read related articles at Bipolar & Mental Health Support.
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I welcome your feedback and questions. Contact Jeff.