My Struggle with Bipolar Disorder
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CBN.com - About two months ago, I slowly came to the realization that I was getting sick again.
At first I wasn’t sure what was wrong. I felt very tired, lethargic, and generally sad. My body hurt, too; I ached like a man in his eighties, and I haven’t even turned fifty yet. My sleep was fitful, and I would wake exhausted. The work waiting for me each day, once igniting in me a deep passion, now felt burdensome and futile. Everyone around me commented on how awful I looked. “You really seem burned out,” they’d say sympathetically. “Are you getting enough rest?”
My wife also noticed. “You really should go see your doctor,” she said, more than once. Generally, I only go to doctors when I’m feeling the cold breath of the Grim Reaper on my neck. And, finally, this feeling had overtaken me. “I’ll go,” I mumbled.
My doctor knows me pretty well. Though I hadn’t been to see him for nearly three years, he and I are kindred spirits of a sort, both of us recovering from various addictions. Between the two of us, we share a compulsion-driven rap sheet half a mile long, including abuse of just about every substance and behavior imaginable. Knowing this about me, he had always been very careful about what type of drugs he prescribed; basically, he never gave me anything fun. He knew my history: Alcoholic, drug addict, and suffering from bipolar disease. He knew my mother had died from a combination of all these things many years ago, and he had helped me early on in my recovery to surrender to some of the biophysical realities of who and what I am. I hated it then, and though I took the recommended bipolar medications for a time, I swore all along I would beat the awful thing, beat it completely and get off the meds. Once I had accrued a few years of sobriety, I finally felt healthier and happier than I had for most of my life. I would get well! I would finally be cured!
Eventually, I decided I had accomplished this feat. I had not taken any bipolar medicine in over twelve years. By God’s great grace, in addition to having my songwriting career restored, I had also become an addiction counselor, and was now helping others like me find wholeness and freedom from their bondage. By George… I was cured!
AN OLD, FAMILIAR FEAR
This is, of course, the greatest and most tenacious desire of every addict—to finally have the freedom, as my counseling guru Mike O’Neil puts it, to “sit in the normal section.” We hold fast to this illusion, unable to accept fully the truth that we will never “graduate” from this class. But the truth is… we are what we are. Even though miraculous freedom comes, the chains no longer hold us, and the darkness no longer consumes and destroys, maintenance is required. As with any disease, God can offer us healing. But He usually expects us to take our medicine, too.
And so, I’m sitting in Dr. Lee’s office, half bent from the enormous weight I’ve been carrying for months, and he is looking at me over the top of his glasses.
“What do you think?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say, and I’m completely serious. “You’re the doctor. I ache all over. I can’t sleep.”
“Do you feel afraid?” he asks after a pause, and I know right away where he’s going. It seems as if I’m watching a movie I’ve seen before—Dr. Lee is saying the same thing he’s said to me before, and I’m watching his mouth move. Everything slows…I’m sitting on the edge of the table, my heart is thumping inside my chest, and it is the only sound in the room. I sense an old, faintly familiar sadness creeping across my soul.
“It’s not that,” I say. “This is in my body.”
“Yes. Your brain affects your body. But do you feel afraid?”
“I feel…” and I’m searching for something, some word. “I feel… guilty,” I half-whisper. A pause. Then: “And yes. I feel afraid. All the time.” My spirit is sinking.
“It’s your bipolar disease,” he said. And then, with a quizzical, half-laughing look in his eyes, he says: “Are you surprised?”
I was surprised. And angry. Angry that this old nemesis that had been slinking along behind me all this time had actually dared to show his ugly face again. And, at least a little bit, I felt something like a vague shame, an old shame, one shoved deep inside over the years but never fully hidden. Those of us who have this thing understand what I’m saying. It’s a part of it all, somehow.
For those who might have heard the term but never really understood its meaning, I’ll give the simplest of explanations. Bipolar disease (sometimes referred to as manic-depressive illness) is a mood disorder, which means that the symptoms are disturbances or abnormalities of mood. It is characterized by “cycling”—the affected person is caught on a runaway train of vacillating emotional highs and lows. The high cycles—characterized by over-the-top exuberance, irritability, hyperactivity, and a decreased resistance to inappropriate and/or compulsive behaviors—are known as “manic episodes.” The low cycles manifest as clinical depression: dangerous levels of lethargy, sadness, and hopelessness. Then, there are periods of more normal mood in between . There are all sorts of technical classifications and terminology regarding levels of severity, and wide variances regarding cycling patterns. We won’t go into all that in this limited space. But as with many kinds of emotional illness, there is a great deal of confusion and misconception regarding the true nature of the disease. I thought it important to encourage those who may suffer to reach out from within the prison of their shame for the healing that is available.
It’s necessary to point out that what I am describing is not at all the same thing as normal mood-states of happiness and sadness. Symptoms of manic-depressive illness can be severe and life threatening. While individuals from across the population spectrum can be affected, I believe an inordinate number of artists, musicians and writers have suffered from various forms of this illness. This has served in many ways to trivialize the destructive reality of bipolar disorder, being somehow regarded as beneficial for artistic creativity. Just this past December, Crystal Cathedral's Co-Minister of Music, Johnnie Carl, became a victim of his disease when he took his own life—on the church campus, no less. The loss was tragic. But I was touched as I read a quote by Linda Carl, Johnnie’s wife of twenty-seven years, as she emotionally expressed her gratitude for the long support of Dr. Robert Schuller and his wife Arvella: “I just want to thank you… for allowing him to be a part of this church and to work here, because I don't feel there are too many other places that would have accepted him, given the episodes that he had with his bipolar illness.” Even in the midst of this confusing and often misunderstood disease, Johnnie Carl had been surrounded by friends willing to help. His wife understood this. “And he and I… truly appreciate the gift that you've given both of us."
Many of us love someone who suffers from this illness, and feel confused and helpless. In Part 2, The Bipolar Express, we will explore in more detail the biophysical, genetic, and spiritual aspects of bipolar disorder. We’ll also discuss what to do about it.
Have courage. You are not alone.
THE BIPOLAR EXPRESS
Bipolar disorder is the third most common mood disorder after major depression and dysthymic disorder (morbid depression and anxiety with accompanying obsession). It affects about 1% of adults during their lifetime. Studies have indicated that bipolar depression is genetically inherited, occurring more commonly within families. Symptoms typically begin during adolescence or early adulthood, and continue to recur throughout life, with both men and women equally likely to suffer. Without effective intervention, bipolar illness leads to suicide in nearly 20% of cases.
There are treatment options. But because bipolar disorder is often not recognized by the patient, relatives, friends, or even some physicians, people with bipolar disorder may suffer needlessly for years... perhaps for their entire lives. Depression is not fully recognized by most health care insurance providers; most will pay only 50% of treatment costs for outpatient care, as well as limiting the number of visits.
I have come to believe that, at least to some extent, I have been experiencing this bipolar train ride for all of my life; I lived in a perceived world of surreal highs and devastating lows. Very early on, this created for me a feeling of separation from others and from the world, a phenomenon I would later try to numb with drugs and alcohol. This is, in fact, very common; an estimated 60% of all people with bipolar disorder have drug or alcohol dependence. It is my belief that fellowship-oriented substance abuse recovery groups are inhabited by an inordinate number of those who suffer not only from their very real addictions, but also varying levels of bipolar disease.
Sadly, shame also plays a factor with many of us who don’t want others to know about our secret suffering. Where does this irrational shame come from? My recently published book, Prodigal Song: A Memoir, tells the story of my own battle with addiction and depression. Early in the book, I write about the confusion and fear surrounding the progression of my mother’s own deterioration, lost in her private prison of fear and drugs.
I won’t try to explain what happened to our mother. I more often than not see only dusty, empty rooms when I go in search for her back there, to that place of my past where my mind sometimes wanders but rarely lingers. I believe in words like psychosis and bipolar disease and schizophrenia, and I believe in chemical imbalances and “bad wiring” of the brain. I can spout lots of technical jargon and use psychoanalytical language to describe some things science can understand and some things it does not. I’m supposed to have some understanding of neurotransmitters and receptor molecules, but all that cannot completely explain how people sometimes become lost to themselves and lost to the rest of us. And I believe in unseen darkness and demons, too, and I’m not at all sure where one set of beliefs leaves off and the other takes up. All I know for sure is that God exists, that there is a world beyond what we can see and touch and feel, and that within that world evil exists, too. And I believe that for some of us in obvious ways and probably all of us in more subtle ways the disease thrives and makes its home in more than just our flesh, and medicine alone rarely cures us.
And maybe the details don’t matter as much as we think. Because for whatever reason and perhaps for no reason at all, our mother became ill. Her life changed, and ours with it. I’m not sure when it started or how quickly it worsened. It was, in a way, like the slow closing of a morning glory at dusk. She began to lose her light, and we all watched her fold into a darkness that would eventually cause her to wither and never open again…
Not understanding my mother’s condition, and lost in the surrounding shame and fear of watching her decline into her private emptiness, my family hid rather than helped. Ultimately, the dark cloud would overwhelm my mother, and she committed suicide.
I suppose a part of me has always dreaded this same sort of fate, for many years recklessly trying to fulfill this false destiny with the most destructive of behaviors, and twice attempting to take my own life. But then… then something happened. I discovered that at the source of my aching emptiness there lay a soul dying of loneliness. And, crying out to the God I had spent my whole life running away from, I discovered He had been there all along.
RETURNING TO THE FLOCK
Why are we so afraid to open ourselves to others, to uncover our wounds and let them see, let them touch? Why do we so often succumb to this shame that keeps us in bondage? I believe it is because we allow the shame to isolate us, to cut us off from others and therefore perpetuate the illusion of our being alone. Only by culling us from the flock, so to speak, can the enemy kill us. And so, the lies draw us deeper into the deception of self-loathing. Christ—and those who truly share His nature—wait to welcome us Home. But lost in this darkest of places, on this seemingly unstoppable train barreling down the mountain, we simply have trouble believing we can ever jump to the safety of His arms.
How do we abandon ourselves to such trust? We must learn to reach out.
First, we need to seek professional help. The new generation of psychotropic drugs is far less dangerous and much more effective than those drugs used in my mother’s time. We look for doctors who understand the multiplicity of this disease dynamic. These professionals, if they fully understand that drugs alone are not the ultimate answer, can give those suffering from depression a fighting chance, a helping hand out of the pit, thus enabling them to do the physical, emotional, and spiritual work necessary for long term recovery. Ultimately, we who battle this thing can re-engage with the world, with life… with Christ.
Then, we need a support system, a fellowship, a safe place for connecting with those who have lived some part of their lives suffering from the pain of similar wounds. We move beyond our comfort zone and, one day at a time, seek the healing face of Christ, often in the faces of strangers who are seeking their own recovery. This is a biblically sound principal, yet one sometimes looked down on by those in the Christian church. These days, some of the people I work with both inside and outside the church walls have trouble with the whole “recovering” thing, as if true healing is somehow less miraculous when performed as a process rather than an event. But to me, nothing could be more beautiful or meaningful than a God who is willing to meet me on my knees every morning, and to walk with me one step at a time, this friend Jesus who seeks intimacy rather than waving a magic wand. And, by connecting with others suffering from similar hurts, we open ourselves to His deeply relational—and uniquely beautiful—healing.
This Bipolar Express is indeed like a runaway train. Often, it is little more than a far-away whistle, a faint rumbling through the wooded night. But sometimes the brakes fail, and the black machine lunges forward, out of control. It is then we learn we cannot face this thing alone. We need help.
For those who have a family member or friend suffering from depression and associated diseases, there are a number of resources available where we can connect with caring people who understand. My website is one. And here are some others: www.psychiatry24x7.com, www.dbsalliance.org, www.healthyplace.com. These are but a few of the places where you can find help regarding diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment.
I encourage you to reach out. The ride can be scary. But there is always hope in Jesus…there is always healing for the broken spirit. Jesus never tells us that the journey will be without suffering. But He promises that, should we but dare to fall into His arms, we need never again travel alone.
Come aboard. Together, we’re heading Home.
Copyright © 2005 by Jim Robinson. Used by permission.
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