My Battle With Mental Illness
The word "crazy" on its own doesn't necessarily have a negative connotation. There's a little bit of foolish, of crazy, that's almost admired because being crazy can make us brilliant. Once we step out of the small box of socially acceptable crazy, though, there's a whole world of twisted and broken people who get ignored and avoided.
Whether by Hollywood's stereotype, a lack of general knowledge in society, or the fact that we just don't talk about such things, mental illness exists in two extremes: the homeless addict or the hopeless inmate. So when it was my turn to face a diagnosis, I couldn't help but wonder which of those scenarios I would fall into.
It was in my freshmen year of college when I realized something was very strange about my emotional patterns. There would be periods of time where I was filled with passion, energy, recklessness and zeal. I felt invincible. Most often, these episodes hung around for a few hours or days at a time, but I can remember a few of them that lasted for months. The longer the "high," the longer and more intensely I would experience a consequent time of depression. The roller coaster left me scared and confused.
Deciding to seek some answers, I sought a school psychologist for help. Once I was done explaining my symptoms, she stared blankly at me, sighed a few times, and handed me a card with the name of a psychiatrist on it. All she would tell me was that I was "most likely" bipolar and that it would be a good idea for me to just call the psychiatrist to get more information.
I never made the call.
Four years of coping and defense mechanisms later, I had built up so many walls and excuses for my "moodiness" that I had forgotten that visit to the psychologist. When friends would call out my complex emotions, I would either push the friendship away entirely or use clever manipulative phrases:
"If you really loved me the way Jesus calls us to love one another, you'd accept me like this." "This is who I was created to be." "God just made me more emotional than you."
But there are two things I know to be true about God:
- He never lets us get away with not learning a lesson He wants us to learn, and
- It always feels like the most inopportune timing when He chooses to teach us.
And so I found myself right in the middle of my commitment as a leader with my church's youth group. Week after week I felt myself raging out of control in the high-intensity environment, and I had no way of controlling it. But, it kept getting worse as I got more frustrated about the emotions and, it became more obvious to the other leaders around me. I remember my last night vividly. I was off on my own cleaning up, already deep in a low after the day's events, when another leader approached me. After snapping viciously, speaking rudely about her, some of the other leaders, and about the pastors who lead the ministry, I burst into tears and ran off.
I finally made the call.
Within two days, a well seasoned psychiatrist put his pen down to tell me: “This all is describing what is called bipolar II disorder with rapid cycling cyclothymia.”
And all I really wanted to know was, does this mean I'm crazy?
School, relationships, work...everything became a survival game in the weeks following the diagnosis. The medication I was prescribed caused a lot of side effects in the early days. My facial muscles would twitch constantly, my fingers would go numb randomly and even though I was sleeping 10 hours a night, I could barely get through my still busy days.
I was so angry.
I refused to allow my faith to be a comfort at all. In fact, I stopped going to church for the first time in 4 years.
I wanted nothing to do with my church community. The two pastors of the leadership teams I was involved in, worship and youth, had spent some time speaking with me and we decided it was best for me to take a break. Even though I knew I had no capacity to lead well, I was ashamed about leaving.
I wanted nothing to do with my friends. They couldn't understand what it was like to be at war with yourself.
And in this place that I had created for myself, isolated and alone, I decided I wanted nothing to do with my medication, too. The twitching, numbness and lack of sleep were annoying, yes. But more than that...I decided I was done being bipolar. Things were easier before I was diagnosed. I could just go back, start over somehow, to when no one knew, right?
I was off my medications barely a week when I slipped into one of the worst lows I have ever had, that lasted nearly two months. I could say it was luck that I was not put in harm's way during that time, but I absolutely know that God's protective hand was over me. It was not until a friend nearly begged me to return to my doctor that I realized it may be time to start taking my mental health seriously.
So, I turned a new leaf in my bipolar book.
Now, I'll be honest, it did not make the medications suck less to have a friend holding me accountable to taking them and it did not make my fear of social environments disappear to have a good psychiatrist. Those things are going to take time and something else I've never really been good at: consistency. I expected perfection from myself back in February when I first started taking the meds and working through the symptoms. I see now that just because I was on the path to healing did not mean I had to suddenly have it all figured out.
And I'm still in that place. Somewhere between consistent and overwhelmed.
There are days I wake up and even before I open my eyes I just know I'm going to be off. And all I want to do is keep my eyes shut tight against the sun and stay in my bubble where my bipolar can't affect anyone.
But what I've seen, what I'm starting to learn (though, I don't think I quite believe it yet) is that the more I engage with the world around me in the midst of my bipolar, the better at being bipolar I become. It gets just a little easier to manage, just a little easier to recognize when I'm off and just a little easier to cope and communicate.
I can't change the fact that I am a young woman who will have bipolar II disorder for the rest of her life. So what am I supposed to do: hide in shadows, always afraid and ashamed of the mess my bipolar causes? But what if there's another option?
"For anything that becomes visible is light. Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." -Ephesians 5:14
Jesus did not die so that we would experience half-lives where we hide our deepest places of hurt and brokenness, sweet sisters. He died so that we may walk in the light of His glorious grace, which reflects all the clearer through the broken vessels that we are.
Whatever your brokenness may be, Jesus desires for you to no longer be shackled by perfection, fear or shame.
My prayer for you is that you choose to walk boldly into the light. Every day. Over and over again. When the brokenness seems too much for you to handle and all you want to do is keep your eyes shut tight against the sun...choose to walk back into the light.