A Bipolar Christian: Part One

My brain hurts, though not physically; it’s rather that sort of existential fear that paralyzes and pains in its intensity. I’ll sit down in front of my keyboard with every intention of writing some snippet of witty prose, but all I usually achieve is nonsense. Mostly nonsense, because occasionally my mind spits out some bit of wisdom or sense. Now whether that’s because of my bipolar and anxiety medication, or my lack actual wit, I can’t judge. Though it does highlight perhaps my greatest fear, that my affliction, by way of my medication and the general nature of my illness, is slowly and inexorably depriving me of my sense of the world.

So how do I make sense of my mental illness? How do I make sense of a condition that seems show itself in the derangement of many “common” senses? I see it as the distortion and entanglement of what James K. A. Smith calls my practical sense by a loose affiliation with reality. It mistakes the meaning of things and brings about a way of being in the world that doesn’t comport with a generalized sense of the world. My way of embodiment doesn’t experience the world that makes sense.

For example, if I’m speaking to a friend and the conversation reaches an end, and he goes to speak to another friend who is out of earshot I immediately leap to the conclusion I am being talked about, perhaps even plotted against. In reality, though, I’m experiencing the limits of my hearing and the location of others. I lack the capacity to grasp the physical cues of social interaction. I struggle to know when people are joking, if I have offended someone, things of nature. What it shows, at least to me, is that I don’t have a feel for how people behave, leaving me with strict observation couched in paranoia. I have no feel for things; my sense of the world is a cobbled together collection of miscues and false positives. In essence, I lack intuition.

But that I lack essential intuitions doesn’t negate that it is how I perceive and inhabit the world. I am still culpable for my actions while lacking a certain common sense of the world. And it is my misguided sense of the world that brings about wrong and inappropriate deeds. I rectify this to some extent by attending the means of grace and embracing the liturgy of Word and Sacrament. It is the Word of God that structures (regulates) the Worship of God which brings about a way of acting on the world’s stage that brings glory to God and makes sense of Creation. In worship God speaks to us in a way that forms us into his people, compelling us to go out as His people. In our liturgies (worship) God is speaking in a way that is feeding and fashioning us into creatures of the Word. Our confessions themselves are intended to be practiced until the become part of the fabric of how we perceive the world and take part in it. This is all to say that I encounter the world as it should be in the right worship of God which I hope will lead to acting in a certain way in the world under the conditions in which I encounter the world.

The Need For Practical Sense

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Westminster Shorter Catechism

Practical sense is the sort of knowledge that doesn’t require recollection or deliberative enactment. It is knowing the road so well, through countless trips upon it that the body begins to anticipate each curve, each hill, every stop sign; I don’t have to think about my participation as a driver on the road, I AM a driver WHO knows the road. And that sense of the road is only acquired through practice; I cannot learn it from a page or a single lesson; it takes time and experience. When we embody a practice, we anticipate changes and steps. The practice ceases to be a practice and becomes a way of life. In the same way, the liturgy of Worship becomes the act of worship. Our lives become oriented around God, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, the chief end or greatest good of man is to glorify (worship) God and enjoy him forever. The liturgy of Word and Sacrament brings this to a state of second nature. It becomes natural in a way that covenant rebellion and radical autonomy have been.

And that practical sense or “know how” is where my skill set shows it’s missing pieces. Often I am a driver who isn’t completely cognizant of what it is that I am doing. I become a driver who doesn’t know the road and in the absence of that I have nothing to anticipate. Driving becomes a practice of fervent fear of the road and other drivers or a thing of blissful ignorance that takes no account of the conditions or hazards of (which I am one) the road. Thus, in lacking a practical sense, my actions and perceptions become an unquantifiable danger to myself and others traveling on the road.

One goal of worship (my behind the wheel training), at least as I understand it, is the re-habituation or re-orientation of the person under the noetic influence of sin. We move from the kingdom of man to the kingdom of God. That move is physically manifest through the rites and rituals of the liturgy. But that move is not a leaving and arriving from one point of geography to another. We live in both the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man with a simultaneity that often obscures the difference. And that is why the worship of God is not a weekly event that is sequestered to the Sabbath and left there. The benediction should give way to life as doxology, hopefully sending me back out as a member of God’s kingdom making a pilgrimage through the kingdom of man bringing with me, in my imperfect way, the kingdom of God.

The Need For Patterns

What I’m advocating, with myself as a guinea pig, is a sort of anti-cognitive therapy that moves the habit building behaviors from theory to pre-theory. It’s an intentional reordering of my practices that hopes to produce different cognitive processes. In short, I need to relearn how to drive because my old habits keep driving me off the road and the view is terrible from down here in the ditch.

But we can’t simply think our way out of a deranged sense of the world; thinking being part of the problem, we have to experience it in a new way. And the liturgical forms of worship (I’m thinking of confessionally reformed liturgies in particular) do just that. They begin by “calling us to worship”, an initiation into a particular practice that demands the externalizing of our focus. The call to worship reveals something intrinsic to my fallen state; I’m not inclined to nor authorized to fabricate my own manner of worshipping God. I must be called to it and instructed by His Word how I am to do it, and it begins with a particular call on a particular day, to be done in a particular way. It externalizes where I find meaning. It relieves me of the burden of being the center of the universe. Called out of the typical mindset of man that sees himself as the center and reason for action, our actions are no longer about meeting our own perceived needs but about answering His call. It is not without reason that the Westminster Shorter Catechism begins with a “call” to worship God as the greatest good of humanity. I discover my purpose outside of myself rather than in reflecting and feeding my egoism. Instead, I become an actor in a story greater than my own that yet tells me everything I need to know about myself. 

Perhaps this sounds like worship as therapy and to some extent that’s true. Worship engages the whole person, something that is, in my experience, not too dissimilar from various forms of cognitive and dialectical therapy. And I hope that the regular and active participation in the means of grace each week will reform the spiritual habits that have been deformed through the neglect of those means. I believe that the practices of confession and prayer can help to attenuate and redirect the inward focus that is part and parcel to mental illness. And to say that mental illness brings about an inward focus is not to indict the mentally ill but to showcase the disorientation that mental illness results in. 

By no means is this an exhaustive account, merely a beginning really, of how I am coming to see the interaction of my mental illness and my Christian faith; trying to make some sense of how my Christian faith and my mental illness “fit” in my life. This isn’t addressing the role of medication in my life, which it undoubtedly has. I’m also indebted to James K. A. Smith for providing me with the vocabulary and concepts that have been greatly helpful in gaining a better understanding of my own mental illness.

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I write what I want. Which might be a bad idea. Nonetheless...

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