Mental illness is part of what it means to be me. It shapes my life in ways that many people define as “broken.” Living with bipolar disorder generally makes me an outsider. It often generates thoughts and behaviors that make other people anxious if I allow them entry to my world. Having a mental illness makes me subject to discrimination in many subtle and not so subtle forms.
Still, I would say that my illness 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.
1. Being mentally ill means I’m less afraid of the unusual.
Being unusual myself tends to segregate me to a community of other people who are also set aside as “unusual.” M friends over the years have included a wife struggling in her cross-cultural marriage, a single woman who (literally) fell out of her chair laughing during a dinner party, and a disabled vet who wanted an editor for his science fiction novel. (He later turned out to be wanted for murder). A regular guest at our church’s dinner for people in need bragged for weeks that I was “the onliest person to come” help when her kitchen table collapsed. (It was a simple repair, just like the fix I’d recently done to my own vintage dinette table.) When you aren’t afraid of people who are unusual, you are able to engage with people that others overlook. You can see opportunities to be God’s hands and feet in
When you aren’t afraid of people who are unusual, you are able to engage with people that others overlook. You can see opportunities to be God’s hands and feet in service, because you interact with people who are – like yourself – open about living in need.
2. Being mentally ill makes me less afraid to be different.
Reality is, I don’t have much choice about being different. No matter how carefully I try to mimic your behavior, your wardrobe, your activities, your interests, I know by experience that there will be a moment when my differences are publicly exposed. Maybe the boss will throw a curve by opening the team meeting with an ice breaker. “Who is your favorite movie actor?” And the question is so far from anything I ever think about that I stumble and mumble until she interrupts. “It’s not a hard question,” she says. Except for me it is.
Knowing that most people – Christian or not – will name me as “different” means I can’t let myself be concerned about it. If my worldview places me outside the American cultural norm, I can live with that. If my worldview places me outside the American Christian norm, I can live with that. I find it easier than many people to acknowledge that I am who I am – and sometimes even to know that I am who God made me to be – because I am largely without the option of molding myself into whatever is currently “socially acceptable.”
3. Being mentally ill makes me less afraid of differences.
A person like me doesn’t have an instinctive understanding of almost anyone. You see me as awkward during a Bible study or at coffee hour when I fail to behave as the middle-class American Christian that I, in fact, am. And because I find it difficult to navigate these “ordinary” circumstances, I don’t find it more difficult to address situations that involve greater differences.
I once worked with a brilliant computer guy who was a first-generation immigrant. When he answered my question about his accent with a hard-edged, “I grew up in the jungles of Barbados,” I didn’t think twice before responding, “There are no jungles in Barbados.” We had many conversations after that about his experiences of American racism, including being spread-eagled by police as he walked from the MIT libraries back to his apartment late one night.
I find it easy to listen to other people who also experience themselves as different from others and to speak into the ways they experience their lives. A couple years ago, I spent a couple of weeks driving an out-of-state friend and her wheelchair around town while she had her last visits with her dying mother. One night, as she called for a third Margarita at her hotel’s bar, she asked me to explain the Old Testament sacrificial system. I would never have been there if I were uncomfortable with asking how to collapse her chair so it fit into my Prius, or what assistance she needed to get from chair to car and back again.
4. Lacking some of your abilities, I have learned to take risks.
I’m not very good at reading social cues, and other people often find my reactions inappropriate – if not totally confounding. That means that there are very few settings where I feel secure.
But because I know from experience that I’m likely to put my foot in it every day, I’m less likely to worry about taking another opportunity to put my foot in it. Every day feels risky, which makes me paradoxically more willing to take risks: whether engaging a stranger in conversation about God or offering prayer to a colleague in distress. When very little feels safe, then very little feels relatively dangerous. You might keep your distance from a gay colleague who practices Kabbalah; I’m no more anxious with him than with you.
I cannot trust myself so I must trust God. That’s a good thing.
5. My illness has made me more practiced in resilience.
Bipolar disorder is an illness that can destroy careers and relationships. At its least damaging, it tends to create a person who runs in shame – over and over — from the embarrassments she has created. People with bipolar start over again, and again, and again.
Paradoxically, one word to describe this behavior is a positive one: “resilience.” Resilience is a popular topic right now. We use it to describe how people who have experienced adversity bounce back. We tend to believe resilience is the product of a stable and loving family, solid training in basic life skills, and a certain sense of life purpose. For me, resilience is a learned skill. When I experience a disaster or create a disaster, I have learned to bounce back – but only so far. As a person with bipolar disorder, my innate “bounce back” tends to vary from Superball zing during highs to uninflated ball flop during lows. My learned response is simply to stand … again. Instead of having the skills that keep you from falling, I have fabulous skill at getting off the floor. God calls this “perseverance” and reminds us that God provides what we need so that after we have done all we can do ourselves, we will stand (Eph. 5:13).
6. I’m more (consciously) practiced in discernment.
“Normals” often turn from something because at some subconscious level, schooled by church or culture, they “know” it’s out of line. I have fewer clear subconscious guides. My brain runs fast and full of ideas. Which idea is good? Which idea is helpful? Which idea is for me to carry out and which is for me to pray into existence through someone else’s activities?
Sometimes it’s easy to tell that an idea is not good. When my mind insists that life is without value, that I might as well be dead, that there is no one to whom I matter, some part of me knows that the ideas are “bad” but no part of me can turn them away on my own. Usually I try to find another person – often a crisis-line staffer – to help me remember how to survive that day or night. Once God interrupted directly: “If you don’t have a reason to live until spring, then plant bulbs.” I’m glad I knew to believe God’s voice. I’m glad I had been schooled in listening for God’s voice. And yes, I still plant bulbs.
7. Because I’m chronically ill, I focus more readily on God and the life beyond.
Many people who live with chronic illnesses live our faith in the prospect of God’s glory, not our own daily success. The victory we claim in Jesus is ultimate, not imminent. We know that God spoke truly when God told us that in this life we would experiences tests and temptation and pain … that we would only be liberated when we attain the new heaven and earth. There, the tears that have watered our lives will cease to exist, and our sorrows and suffering will vanish.
Having what we call a mental illness is a challenge. But it liberates me from some challenges that other Christians face. I am, perhaps, one of those unpresentable parts of the Body. And God assures me that those parts we consider least worthy of honor are still essential (I Cor. 12:22). My value in the Body of Christ is not measured by whether I have an important place or even am found acceptable in my church. It is God who determines my place and my value. With that, and with my own insufficiency, I must be content.