Living with bipolar disorder shapes my life in ways that many people define as “broken.” It often makes me an outsider. It can generate thoughts and behaviors that make other people anxious if I allow them entry to my world. It makes me subject to both stigma and discrimination in both subtle and not so subtle forms.
Still, I would say that my condition adds value to my life and to the Body of Christ. It allows me to serve in places where others are afraid to go and challenges me to seek God in ways others feel uncompelled. Here are 7 ways I’ve noticed that mental illness helps me to know God.
During the eight years I taught NAMI’s Family to Family course, the session that most powerfully impacted participants was the one near the program’s end where they got to meet a person who relies on mental health services.
They’d look around the room expectantly and I’d announce: “I know you’re expecting a special guest tonight, someone who lives with mental illness as your relatives do.” I’d pause a few beats, then say: “Hi. My name is Carlene and I live with bipolar disorder.”
Eyes would widen. Jaws would drop. Sometimes I could hear a sharp intake of breath. No one expected their teacher to have a diagnosis. No one imagined that an ordinary-shaped life could also include bipolar disorder.
Every September, we mark Suicide Loss Survivor Day, which makes it a great time to learn from all three kinds of people who live beyond suicide.
Most of the people we call “suicide survivors” are people who lost loved ones to suicide deaths. These are the people who will be gathering this weekend. A suicide death often leaves relatives and friends not just grief-stricken but guilt-plagued. They fear they should have recognized signs and prevented the death. After my friend “Katie” hung herself, my other roommate and I weren’t even able to talk about her for maybe a decade. It was just too hard.
A second kind of “suicide survivor” is the person who manages to live beyond a suicide attempt. Kevin Hines, who survived his jump off the Golden Gate Bridge in the year 2000, is one of the better known of these. He’s focused his life since then on encouraging others to #BeHereTomorrow.
Add a Third Kind of Suicide Survivor to the Rally
A third kind of “suicide survivor” doesn’t quite fit the mix, yet has reason to be counted in this difficult company. The third kind of survivor are people who survive chronic suicidal thinking. We are the people who survive our suicidal thoughts many times a year, many times a week … some of us many times a day. And still we choose to keep moving forward.
A few years back, I interviewed for a 20-hour job at a mental health nonprofit. The part-time, benefit-free position offered a paycheck comparable to what a hospital in the same city paid its part-time switchboard operators, but since everyone seemed to consider me overqualified to run a switchboard, I kept applying for positions in line with my experience.
I made it to the second interview and found the team quite concerned about whether I would be able to consistently represent their views about mental health at all times, in all places. Even though I was being considered for a part-time role outside the community where I lived.
This wasn’t the first time that an organization expected my paycheck to buy round-the-clock commitment. I started my career in news media at a time when they were expected to be politically “impartial” and so prohibited staff from any public engagement in causes. I later worked for a large civil engineering company that was often the presenting consultant at local meetings. I therefore could only participate as a citizen in public hearings when I agreed with the view the firm propounded.
In the case of the engineering firm, the paycheck was big enough to buy almost anything. In the case of the news operation, the honor of the profession (at that time) allowed me to walk proud even under constraints on my citizenship.
But the idea that I should never express a view about mental illness different from that of my part-time employer in exchange for less than $15,000 a year — I found that staggering. I didn’t think it would be a problem to present their program to potential funders, but it would definitely be a problem to limit myself to their perspectives during the remaining 7,696 hours per year.
You may have better mental health than you imagine! In fact, it’s possible “mental health” doesn’t actually describe what we’ve been measuring. Check out this totally macro level summary of recent statistics on mental health and mental health treatment and see what you think. Source links below.
Yes, that’s how it looks to me. Half of us are happier than the other half. Which sounds like math to me, not a mental health assessment. What do you think?