It was less than one month after my diagnosis with bipolar disorder. I trudged the uphill path to the cemetery. The dogwoods lining my way were ready to bloom, and yet, I wondered if I fit better in the ground, like those around me, all of my life behind me.
It was all still fresh. How I stayed two weeks at Szent Imre Kórház in the mental ward. How my family and I left our life in Hungary one week later, everything radically turned upside down. How the knowledge of nothing ever being the same quaked through my consciousness. My trudge was like an elderly person. I shuffled my feet, unable to walk with a normal gait. It was one of the side effects of the first medicine I was treated with for bipolar disorder.
Those days were ones of great uncertainty. I longed for hope, yet I had to understand how to simply live. Did I have the capacity to care for my children? Could I remain stable and live a ‘normal’ life, one where I was in control of my mind? Or would the hyper-mania again find me and send me back to the hospital?
How can one mental illness wreak so much havoc in a life? At its worst, most raw self, bipolar disorder is a violent attack upon a person’s sanity. It polarizes a mind meant to be unified. It breaks apart the most beautiful inside you. In her book, Letters from a Bipolar Mother, Alyssa Reyans says:
“Bipolar robs you of that which is you. It can take from you the very core of your being and replace it with something that is completely opposite of who and what you truly are.”
In those first few weeks of my diagnosis, all I could think was “I am alive, therefore I can live with whatever comes.” During my time in the mental ward in Budapest, I spent three days in the ICU unable to breathe. Nobody knows for certain all that happened, given the language barrier. The most plausible theory is I reacted to a load of sedatives pumped into my leg. This happened the first day I was in the hospital when, twice, I went to stand on the ledge of a window because I thought, from there, Jesus was going to take me to heaven.
About a week before this day, I began having visions and delusions. I was in full-blown mania, unable to sleep with a mind zinging around like I was in the Daytona 500. Mine was a hyper-spiritual mania. I believed I was seeing visions of the end of the world, of hell and of heaven. Because of these symptoms, my form of mental illness is called ‘bipolar disorder with psychotic features.’
As I was restrained after my first attempt to be taken up into heaven, I so believed the delusion, I worked myself out of the restraints to go back to the window. I was then restrained more heavily and given strong doses of two kinds of sedatives. These were an attempt to stop the visions and delusions. However, even though I looked like I was sleeping, I continued with the same symptoms, and then, I started to be unable to breathe. When I woke up, after three days in the ICU, I had all sorts of tubes in me that I did not understand. I had become reduced to someone I couldn’t recognize.
In my right mind, I never would have gone against hospital protocol as a patient. It would be especially so if I were in a different country. But, I wasn’t in my right mind. And I wasn’t even in my left mind. My mind was being assaulted as with sharp artillery fire. I had no footing in the world of earth, time, or space. I began floating in pieces desperately searching for anything true in what I was experiencing.
In those days, as things began to settle, I felt bankrupt. I felt like a shell of all I had been all of my life. Although looking back in my life, I could see earlier signs of bipolar disorder. But because of the stigma and what I thought was sure knowledge of the disorder, I wouldn’t even consider this diagnosis. At times, I longingly peered into the woman who did not have the label—the one whose life wasn’t radically altered, and I wanted to go back to ‘before.’ I am not alone in the struggle with my label, my diagnosis and my symptoms, all of which can lead to despair.
Kay Redfield Jamison, in An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness says:
“If I can’t feel, if I can’t move, if I can’t think, and I can’t care, then what conceivable point is there in living?”
I don’t want to face the truth of bipolar disorder as ‘in’ me, a part of me. Sometimes it feels like the only way to deal with it is to numb myself to what is my life. And yet, the question comes persistently ‘If I am alive, which I am, what does it mean now to live?’
One of the things I have found so far is there are few Christian voices for mental illness. Often the church is silent. Worse, there is a sense of stigma. More than once, I have heard it implied if someone just ‘trusts God more’ there is no need for diagnosis or, most definitely, medicine.
This message and the misunderstanding which cloaks those with mental illness in many churches must change. There must be clear messages of hope for the approximately 1 in 5 adults who struggle with mental illness both inside and outside of the church. There must be a refuge in the heart of God’s people.
So much of the experience of those with mental illness is dehumanizing. It blankets, compartmentalizes, and gives pat answers for the why’s and how’s and what’s of each possible illness. And yet, in the end, those with mental illness just want to know they still matter in all their uniqueness and that they have something valuable to contribute to the world.
Even though I must still trust, still cling to hope, there is a reality I don’t want to deny. Some days my greatest enemy lurks around every corner seeking to devour me. There is an array of pills which I will need, most likely, for the rest of my life. There’s the knowledge of what my husband and children have gone through as they have seen me at my worst. There are all of the lies about what I am worth because of this struggle.
Yet, there is a journey toward hope which I have found. It has come in well-crafted, well-guided moments—understandings that have changed my own mentality. Three experiences have become a brilliant strand running through my story, reminding me God is still writing something beautiful and good.
The first experience came when I was still in Szent Imre Kórház in Budapest. I lay on my side, white walls surrounding me while my sanity was returning, and listened to my husband read the Psalms. I still knew little sleep through the nights, but in those sweet moments a restful slumber would tenderly touch my eyelids and glide over me. As I woke and looked into my husband’s eyes, I felt hope. I heard, “You are alive, and I, the Author of Hope, am not done with you or your story. I am only beginning to shine the light in and through it.”
The second thing God has used is the wisdom of a good therapist or counselor. Mine is an expert in bipolar disorder and, early on in our sessions, she encouraged me to see bipolar as a gift. This was not something I wanted to do. I saw it as a curse and one of which I needed to be rid. But, no, she saw it as something altogether different. She encouraged me to recognize, not only the damaging, assaulting sides of depression and mania, but also the vast range of emotions and understandings I can experience as someone with bipolar disorder. Furthermore, there is great creativity. Phenomenal artists, musicians, actors, and playwrights have all lived their art while having bipolar disorder.
The third thing I have learned is resilience. Unexpectedly, I entered the hospital last May, just 15 months after my stay in Hungary. It was another time of hyper-mania. It was grueling to once again find myself apart from my family while out of my mind. This underscored how I have one clear choice. Either I can go quietly into the night, overrun by my illness and its fallout, or I can experience hope and God as I live the life of an overcomer. Though not easy, I have chosen the latter.
Daily, even moment to moment, the choice to embrace hope comes. It asks me to trust again for the greater plan of God. It beckons me towards his arms instead of my own strength. It calls me to lay down my own plans for how my life will go. It emphatically says: believe your greatest pain can turn into the place where God shines a brilliant light, which goes out into the entire world.
And so, I take up the banner of hope. I speak it like love over my own life and the lives of others. I say, ‘you can, and will, overcome this, for you are more than your tragedies.’ I fight not only for me but everyone who struggles with mental illness. For isn’t this what we all need? To know there is a contagious, resilient hope which makes life worth fully living.