I have Bipolar 2 Disorder. A blunt opener but I intend to be honest and bring perceptions and curiosities to the surface. Mental illness that once shaped my life is now subject to my shaping. Once discouraged by the limitations of outside help, I’m now able to press beyond limits. Questions that seemed like dead ends are now trailheads of opportunity. Unfortunately, the journey isn’t over. Fortunately, the journey isn’t over!
Where does my help come from?
Mental illness is hard to name, hard to tame. The church and world diagnose and treat mental health issues according to their unique understandings of cause and cure. Both help and heal many, but both have their failings. I’ve experienced the fullness and shortcomings of each.
God has healed and is healing me through the gospel and the riches of his grace. He has continued my healing through doctors, medicine and mental health professionals. I’ve been saved and changed, but time and again I’ve come up short of my hopes for wellness, not ungrateful but wanting more.
How did I get here?
I’ve lived a truly wonderful life. The worst times have not lacked love or light. It seems a shame to spend too much time on the worst, but that is where the questions began. My mental health testimony includes some ugliness, but each of us has a death-to-life testimony, and there are no bonus points for degree of difficulty.
Clinical depression surfaced when I was 15. I messed with alcohol and marijuana at a young age, but by my second year of college I turned to steady alcohol and drug use. I was self-medicating to escape reality, searching for relief from what had become intense, confusing depression. Excessive substance abuse led to prolonged periods of severe depression and eventually mental collapse. Ultimately, I tried to kill myself. I had no desire to die, I just didn’t want to live. I wanted to end suffering for myself and those around me. I used bourbon to wash down a mound of prescription and non-prescription pills and laid down to die.
Miraculously, God orchestrated my rescue, although at the time I didn’t consider it a rescue. I was disheartened that I hadn’t succeeded. Unfortunately, after several weeks of mental health hospitalization, I eventually returned to a cycle of self-medication and depression, with only passing thoughts of God. My increasing illness and addiction continued into marriage and fatherhood. Fifteen years after attempting suicide I was contemplating it again, but now as a husband and father. The first time, a physical miracle was necessary to save my life. This time, a spiritual miracle was necessary to change my life.
Fear and failure had all but extinguished my hope. Our sons were 1 and 4, I couldn’t hold a job and my wife, Elaine, was emotionally and physically exhausted from carrying the weight of our family. The strife I was causing wasn’t verbal or physical abuse. The toxic heaviness of my illness was sucking the life and joy out of everyone around me.
One especially miserable evening, Elaine reached her breaking point and left, taking the boys. She went to her parents’ house for relief and support, planning to stay there until something changed. My mom came to help, but I forced her out with threats and profanities. I was drunk and alone on the couch, an open Bible on one knee, an open bottle of wine on the other. I was afraid to kill myself and afraid to live.
Months prior, I’d purchased a King James Bible. I grew up in a church that I loved, but after high school it was clear that Jesus was not my Lord and Savior. I’d dismissed the notion of one “path to God” but was familiar enough with the Bible to believe it would help me heal myself. I thought the right verses would enlighten my mind and cure my misery. After months of searching, I was no closer to a cure.
Back to the couch. (The ironic mental health metaphor doesn’t escape me.) Defeated and empty, all that remained in me was God’s Word, which would not return to him void. In the surprising calm of emptiness, the last of me got a first glimpse of Jesus, and I gave up. In my own power, I had found no remedy. I’d read that I could be a new creation in Jesus and hoped healing was possible, but I’d convinced myself that the healing Jesus was offering wasn’t possible for me. Now, Jesus was asking if I wanted to be made whole, and I said yes.
I grieved all of the ways I’d rejected him and run my life into the ground, and I surrendered my life back to him. I spoke to Jesus: “I believe you are who you say you are, and I want what you want, but you’re going to have to do everything.” The life I wanted to end was not life at all. The life Jesus gave me was everything, and it was also just the beginning of everything.
What is this?
In the 20 years following that ultimate healing, my original burdens were gone, but I wrestled in a different way. Periods of high energy, confidence and focus alternated with periods of exhaustion, self-isolation, insecurity and depression of a new sort. Back and forth, high and low, with very little “normal” in between. I knew what it wasn’t, but I didn’t know what it was. Was it some sort of psychological residue that could be dissolved with spiritual disciplines, physical health, improved nutrition or counseling?
I was able to improve my overall health, but my declining mental health was again affecting my family, job and relationships, including my relationship with God. I was much more adept at hiding things after so many years, but at age 53 I was dreading the thought of another two or three decades of misery. I got a recommendation from a trusted friend and visited a psychiatrist for help.
The doctor quickly surmised that for most of my life I’d been living with undiagnosed Bipolar 2 Disorder, and that it could effectively be treated with medication. For me, the medication has decreased the severity and duration of the highs and lows, creating lengthy stretches of “normal” in between. The new stretches have allowed me the time and stability to focus on consistent, sustainable wellness. I’ve been taking medication for two years and have enjoyed mental health that once seemed impossible.
What can I do?
Over the past few decades I’ve developed mental health best practices for myself. I root my heart and mind in prayer and biblical truth, trusting the Holy Spirit for discernment and guidance, while drawing upon years of professional help. My new cycle alternates between resting and testing. In my new rhythms, retreat and engagement each have purpose. Questions, answered or unanswered, lead me toward taking part in my own progress. These are some of the questions I ask myself.
Is it an anvil or an anchor? Metaphorically, when I’m in deep water my reflex is to tread hard to stay above the surface. My tendency, though, is to react to the slightest sense of tethering, thrashing as if I were chained to a heavy weight. It’s then that I ask if it’s an anvil dragging me under or an anchor keeping from drifting into more dangerous waters. If an anvil, I try to identify and release the weight. If an anchor, I rest in gratitude and relief, conserving precious energy.
Can I swim? I can convince myself that I’m unable to do life without assistance. My assists of choice have included true and false information, healthy and unhealthy relationships, prescription and non-prescription drugs, good and bad habits and more. Even now, I include medication, relationships, music, spiritual disciplines, food and even coffee…lots and lots of coffee! When my mind is right, I want to try life without unnecessary help. But I’m not always sure which ones still help, and which have become hindrances.
I imagine my assists are floatation devices. I’m belly up in a swimming pool, covered head to toe in floaties, wearing a life jacket and an inner tube, clinging to a life preserver and straddling a pool noodle for good measure. The view through my swim goggles is a small patch of sky. I’m not drowning, but I can barely move. I couldn’t swim if I wanted to, but that’s exactly what I want to do—swim.
Swimming is possible only through a patient process of elimination. One at a time I remove a piece of flotation. If I began to sink, I put it right back on. If I’m still floating, I toss it to the small children next to me (who toss it back because they’re in the middle of a floatie-free water ballet routine in the deep end). If it turns out that I need the extra buoyancy, I can just paddle to the shallow end and stand up. And without the goggles, the view is filled with new possibilities and possibilities forgotten.
What do I have to give? The unhealthy survival techniques of my past have been self-centered by my own design. When illness peaks, the mental and physical resources for day-to-day living can be in short supply, so I horde them for myself. Just as hypothermia sacrifices extremities to protect the vital organs, I prioritize myself. I won’t share because I’m convinced I need everything in order to function. Selflessness seems unrealistic.
However, although selflessness may be the opposite of selfishness, it is also a remedy for it. In giving to someone else, we’re both lifted and there are always enough resources for both of us. The thought of extra effort can be overwhelming during stretches of illness, but simple gestures carry heavy blessing. Even when I’m not able to get out of bed, I can pray for someone. COVID-19 separation has taught me that a quick text or email can deliver love or encouragement. As a bonus, texts and emails can be sent from my phone, while I’m in bed! When I am unable to face anyone, I wait until the house is empty and do a load of laundry or dishes—small contributions drenched in hope.
Who are my others? Loving one another is the overarching command of Jesus, but there are dozens of “one another” commands. I can honor, forgive, bear burdens, build up, confess faults, submit, serve, admonish, be kind and compassionate and teach others, to name a few. God’s expectation is that we learn love from him and live it out in relationships.
Specific to my mental health, who are my others? Who knows that I struggle with illness? Have I told anyone at all? How many people are in my circle of support?
The answers to these questions can lead to connection with others. Others in the plural because too often the weight of support rests upon one person who knows me best and who I’m expecting to be all things. I need to diversify my support portfolio.
I need friends, teachers, mentors, counselors, group support, health experts and accountability partners. Instead of expecting all of that from one person, I’ve gradually added people to my “portfolio.” Adding just one person increases the possibilities for my wellness. Adding a person or group over time has also opened up opportunities for me to love and support others. As importantly, I can be their other!
Who am I? Am I a patient or a person? Is my illness my identity? I’m a father and husband. I’m a musician and pastor. I’m bipolar. I shepherd a church family and guide leaders. I write and speak. I’m medicated for mental illness. I withdraw from people when I should engage. I engage when others withdraw. I comfort, counsel and care for others during their struggles while I too am also struggling. I love people deeply and am loved. I am imperfect but being perfected. I am who God says I am.
Far from being flimsy self-help affirmations, listing or verbalizing the truths of who I am can ground me in a facts-over-feelings confidence of identity. Who I am overshadows who I am not and reminds me that I’m necessary in this life. I am reminded that I have purpose to fulfill.
A work in progress
I don’t enjoy sharing my weakness, and I know that this article isn’t sufficient to heal anyone. There are many other questions and practices that work. I share these things if only to quicken hope in someone whose hope is dying. Mental illness can be thought of as a dark side or alter-ego. Or maybe like a crimson stain on a white garment.
I prefer to imagine my illness as one color among many others on a palette. Each color blends with neighboring tones, stretching further and creating even more shades. An artist sees the possibilities and brushes them into something beautiful. I know my Artist. I’m a work in progress but am something beautiful nonetheless.
“Beautiful Things” by the musical duo Gungor has been an especially meaningful song of worship for me. “You make beautiful things out of us,” speaks the certainty of my testimony. “You make me new; you are making me new,” tells of my confidence and questions. But I’m not afraid of the questions. Questions are possibilities. Possibilities are hope.
Chad Stoner is pastor of Stony Brook Church in Omaha, Nebraska. A professional musician for 30 years, Stoner’s 15 years of vocational ministry have included parachurch ministry, chaplaincy, campus pastoring and church planting. August 2020 marked the 10-year anniversary of Stony Brook Church.