Most Friday’s or Saturday’s (pre-pandemic) I would spend my daytime hours at a local cigar shop, reading, with perhaps a bit of writing tossed in; a weekly moments recovery. Ironically, I spent much of my days alone. I don’t work. I can’t. It’s not that I don’t want to, but mental illness and I can’t seem to get out of each other’s way. So, in my quiet corner, I made feeble, anemic attempts at sorting through my crowded, tired mind. But the ability to unravel from the trauma of life is just a mirage that flickers in the sun’s heat. What most people might reckon a typical day is itself the persistent connection of anguish, sensory overload, and disorientation that I contend with. That’s why when I hear people talk about learning to cope with mental illness, a macabre chuckle in the back my head reverberates. Coping is easier said than done. When you find yourself in a battle for a solid grasp of who you are amidst paranoia of differing degrees, mania and severe depression whip lashing your psyche at 180 mph before hitting the wall and various cocktails of psychotropics coursing through your veins that leave you with little sense of who you might have been before this journey into a realm of darkness and fire; coping is a myth, survival is the dream. Because the prize in this marathon is peace, a sense self; at least that’s what is at stake for me.
At this moment, I have no understanding of what it is to be without the influence of medication. It’s become an irreducible aspect of my physical and ethical existence to be medicated. I don’t have a category of normal by which to estimate the levels of stress that certain situations and people might bring into my corner of middle-earth. All I have are categories of calm and chaos that weave together in ways that make it difficult to distinguish one from the other; lurching in and out of mania and depression, often with no warning. And the high of the mania has such an allure to it that the temptation to trigger it through substances is very real. It’s a feeling of wellbeing that you never want to end. But while I may experience a slice of euphoria, to the rest of the world, most notably my wife, I show all the symptoms of a lunatic. I flit around in conversation and interest, rambling on about things that seem connected to me, repeating myself so many times I’m convinced that it’s physically hurting my wife’s brain. And the downside of this chaotic symphony is the brittleness of my emotions and the fragility of my ego. One wrong word or cross look, and my mood crashes with all the subtlety of a thunderclap. And I’m mean when I’m depressed, like an ornery drunk, having little patience or compassion for anyone; my thoughts are prone to anger and confrontation, even my language and tone of voice changes.
What I have learned is that bi-polar disorder can often feel like I’m in the presence of two people who tolerate each other but can’t seem to linger in the other’s presence for more than a moment without antagonizing the other. I am not implying, though, that bi-polar disorder is a condition of multiple personalities or a schizophrenia-lite, as if all mental illnesses are on a sliding scale of degrees. They are each a distinct condition, with their own symptoms and consequences. Rather, my life is more a Jackson Pollock; splatters created from PTSD, panic and bi-polar disorders. A mosaic of chaos and fire that burns and blinds in ways that are as far from art and beauty as might be.
Finding meaning becomes more important than being normal. Am I a Christian with mental illness, a mentally ill Christian? Am I bifurcated by mental illness in ways that mitigate the Church having anything meaningful to contribute to how I manage it? Mental illness dredges up the great questions of man, “who am I” “why am I here” and “where am I going” with an almost physical force. It softens the convictions of faith, strengthens the intensity of doubt, and stokes the fires of self-interest. And if you let it, it will lead you to displace God with your condition. Your life will orbit around the effects of whatever diagnosis you’ve been given, around the side effects of any medications you’ve been prescribed and any issues they have instructed you to process. It can make you feel special in all the wrong ways, a feeling of being set apart from the congregation by something they can’t understand—at least that is what you convince yourself—because they haven’t suffered with you. Your world becomes insular, at first in desperation, then as habituation. You don’t talk about your trials and spiritual needs with your siblings IN Christ. You don’t allow yourself to be a part of the prayers and concerns of the Church, of your true family. When James says that the “prayer of a righteous person has great power” (James 5:16), you tell lies and keep your frailties and needs to yourself. Regardless of your vows and the reality of your union with Christ, you don’t join the Church, you merely visit with some affection. And I think it’s a way that robs Christ of his glory, because I don’t cast my cares upon him fully. Sure, I may pray that I may be freed of and comforted in my afflictions in the privacy of my mind, but I ignore the promise of James 5:16, that we confess to one another so we can pray for one another because healing is promised when we do so. Instead, I hold it in.
However, it doesn’t work that way. I can’t allow it to. My life disallows any sequestration. I have a wife and children who deserve more than my empty presence and platitudes, who need my spiritual leadership. I have the church of which I am a member that needs my full engagement. Nevertheless, mental illness is part of the warp and woof of my life. I’m not me without it. That admission, though, is heart wrenching. The very thing that seems to chip away at my life and the lives and relationships that are most dear to me is inescapable, it is how my Father in heaven has blessedly burdened me. And it is a blessing, but not the type of blessing that sets me apart as someone special, but rather the Lord has given me a certain type of life experience in order to be of some comfort to those in a particular distress. But that doesn’t give me license to give up, nor is it a sign that it is how I am to content myself to remain. Because resignation is a terrible address to call home.