Shame and Antipsychotics


I am starting on an antipsychotic to help treat my bipolar.The Antiphycotic Drug Line Up

There is a hole in my brain that I am trying to heal. It’s a hole serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine should fill, but I guess my head just doesn’t want to produce enough to make a difference. I have too many highs and too many lows. I have good days and bad days. I am mentally ill.

That’s some hard shit to say right there. I know the stigmas that come with my diagnosis. I know the judgment, the “helpful” suggestions about what I should do to get better. I know that some of my family members may not even think that I have a real condition, that somehow I have been over diagnosed and am now playing with dangerous drugs. I know that some Christians are convinced that all I need is Jesus, not some fucking antipsychotic.

I’m not well. I am not stable. I am ill and off-balance. The dips into reticulating thoughts of meaninglessness, the drops into the cold void of lifeless depression, the decent down the well of inability: these are bad; these are unhealthy. These are also only half my problem. As a proud member of club bipolar, I get to deal with the straight up crazy feelings and thoughts that come with mania. My mind races, jumping from topic to a new subject. I am irritable and agitated, so talkative and animated you would never know I truly am an introvert. My energy levels elevate, my need for sleep decreased, and over all I will tell you that I feel fucking fantastic. The stupid choices I make with my money and my relationships will betray me though. I’m still not well; I am so far away from balanced.

The life of a bipolar is in the swing: the swing of mood from depressed to manic and back. The media always gets it wrong though. This isn’t a simple oscillation from happy to sad to happy in the course of a day or three. The transitions take weeks to happen, and even then I’m never sure where I’m going to end up. My major depressive episodes can last for months. My manic moods may spike for a couple of days, but the symptoms, the agitation, restlessness, racing thoughts, overstimulation, the sleeplessness… these things hang around in the in-between. Most of the time, especially these days, I feel like I am living in a manic depression. Or is it a depressed mania? Either way, the off-balance of my moods, the illness of my neural transmitters and brain chemistry is never an easy, clear-cut line between well and unwell. This is simply how I live.

Like I said, I am bipolar.

So why do I feel so uneasy at telling people about starting this new treatment?

I know how unwell I am. I know how much I *need * to find stability. Even with this reality known from my recent experiences, I feel some sort of shame for starting an antipsychotic. It’s not like this is out of the ordinary for my treatment or anything. It is a fairly standard step in the long-term treatment of manic-depressive mood disorders, aka bipolar. Antipsychotics aren’t just for institutionalized, clinically insane people. Yet, I feel like I have to defend my decision to agree with my medical doctor’s suggestion to use them to help treat my illness. I can hear the voices of people assuming I am part of some sort of over medicated generation who just need to nut up and deal with life. Or perhaps people will admit that there are times when some brain may get off kilter and a medication is a useful tool to help someone find balance again, with the expectation that you will stop taking the drugs once you are better. Or maybe I do need long-term medication, but antipsychotics? Really? Things like that are expected to screw your brain chemistry all up. Images of the Jack Nicholson at the end of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or Brad Pitt in “12 Monkeys” begin entering the imagination at the utterance of  “antipsychotic”. All of my fears of public reaction to living bipolar and taking antipsychotics are amplified when I think about the way church people are going to react to my treatment.

There have been words upon words spilled over the church’s reaction to mental illness. Now more than ever, it is much more acceptable for someone to be taking a medicine to help with depression or anxiety. We applaud people’s honesty and vulnerability for admitting that they have a prescription to help with a condition… well as long as it’s not too severe. It’s ok to deal with a few depressive episodes or socially crippling anxiety, but someone living with the possibility of a psychotic break, the chance to see hallucinations and lose touch with reality, that is too much, too real. That kind of issue needs to be locked away, shut up, hidden from our Sunday mornings and home groups. My mental illness needs to be manageable, understandable, treatable with one medication that has a socially acceptable name. I may wrestle with depression, but dealing with the ongoing cycles of depression and mania must be something I do in secret, away from the communion table, away from the pulpit, away from your sight.

At least, that’s how church culture has made me feel.

Jesus hasn’t, but Church Culture Has.

I was recently asked if I’ve had someone pray for me and my bipolar condition. I’ve been told to never forget where my real help comes from, and that God will deliver me. I’ve been told that my mood swings are attacks from the devil, and I need to not accept them as the ultimate truth of myself.

Jesus didn’t say these things to me. People who love and care about me did. People who mean well, but simply reinforce the shame I feel for having to treat my mood disorder with an antipsychotic. People who want me to be healthy, but refuse to accept my diagnosis as something they don’t really know anything about. People who want me to grow in faith and health, who are proud of me and believe in me, who love my family and I. They said these things to me.

Sacred Heart

Jesus didn’t.

Jesus didn’t ask me what I am doing to try to get better. Jesus didn’t ask if my faith is good enough to be healed. Jesus didn’t doubt my condition or my understanding of what I go through. Jesus didn’t try to give me some pie-in-the-sky hope about being healed if I hold on to a bible verse as my promise from him.

Jesus sits with me in the anxiety of starting a new medication.

Jesus is proud of me for treating my illness, even with an antipsychotic.

When Jesus says “grace”, he means real live, in the mess and the crazy, no matter what grace. It’s not some sly jab to imply that I need to try harder, do the right things, get better so that the current struggle with my condition will somehow pay off.

Christians are supposed to be like Jesus. So why isn’t the church a safer place for us mentally ill and our freaky ass treatments?

Look, I get it. Being around someone who is unstable is uncomfortable. The idea that you may be sitting in the pew next to someone on an antipsychotic might weird you out. I understand that you may not know how to talk to or act around someone you know has a mental illness. You may even sincerely believe that we mentally ill are all just afflicted with some demonic plague and need an exorcism to “be normal.”

My illness isn’t about you, though.

When you don’t act like Jesus, when you let your un-comfort and your prejudice shape how you interact with me, with the mentally ill in your life, you are telling us all that our problems are not acceptable. You are telling us nothing but shame.

Jesus doesn’t do that, so why should you?

When I tell you about my illness, my treatments, my struggles, my successes, and my relapses, if you love me, if you value me as a human being, if you want to embody Jesus to me, please let my story of mental health be my story. When I share it with you, sit in it with me. Don’t tell me how to fix it. You are not my doctor, my therapist, or my God. My broken humanity is manifest in a way that you don’t understand, but is that a reason to reiterate shame based upon the discomfort or misunderstanding you feel? Especially when I am seeking treatment. Even if that treatment is an antipsychotic.

  • Nancy Janisch

    I don’t understand how some churches can be so, shall we say “unhelpful”, with regard to persons with mental illnesses. But we can just add that to the list of things I don’t understand. Please keep telling your story, the honesty and courage of people like you will make a difference.
    And oh, how do I talk to persons with a mental illness, pretty much just like I talk to any other human being- looking to see Christ in them.

  • It’s really sad to hear how well-meaning Christians can act. It’s tougher when you know they mean well, but it doesn’t change the fact it’s unhelpful. This may sound corny (and I apologise for that), but Jesus loves you as you are, mental illness or no mental illness, and He’s with you where you are. Keep sharing your story, because people need to hear it, and it’s true. However uncomfortable it makes others, it’s your story. Thanks for being so honest.

    For me, I’ve had my own struggles and also some close to me. It makes no difference – I try to treat everyone the same. My view of you never changes – I respect you and admire you, and I mean that. Never stop being as courageous as you were in this post.

  • Jack Edward Heald

    That’s the kind of writing I’m looking for – real, honest, bleeding. Way to go, my friend. That is some good stuff there.

  • kevinshoop

    I’m with you, Aaron. It’s so awesome that you are agressively advocating for your own health and well being. Thanks for being agressively open about all of it, too. There’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed about mental illness or the ways that you are seeking to treat the illness.

  • Deb

    Wow, that is a really rare dose of brutal honesty. It is a blessing there is a medication that might smooth some of the extremes you deal with that are so hard for most of us non-bipolar people to understand. May your honest sharing help both those who love and care for loved ones with bipolar as well as others who struggle with this illness. I have shared your post with my daughter, who is a psychologist in a facility for the severely mentally ill. She deals with this disease every day and appreciates any insight into what this disease creates in those who struggle with it. May your honesty and openness somehow help in whatever healing and wholeness God has for you.

  • harrisco

    I am sorry there are folks in your life who are peddling shame. You deserve better. I hope you appreciate how vital, honest and meaningful your words are here. I am glad you were willing to share them. It takes a lot of guts to disclose that you are taking an antipsychotic med in a world where stigma, shame, and misunderstanding abound. I am sorry that stigma has reached you in the way you describe. To balance the scales just a tiny bit, I will say: There is no shame in Jesus’s love for you. In the father’s house there are many mansions, but none of them will be found on Shame Street.

    I am thankful for what you have shared. I pray Jesus will hold you close as you experience the anxiety of starting the new medication. May you also be surrounded by friends who will sit with you in this moment, who will be present for you, in exactly the way you need.

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  • You are not alone.

    My wife is on several medications which treat her bipolar disorder. And it’s okay! (Not easy all the time, but okay.)

  • samcarter44

    I know exactly where you are coming from. My brother-in-law is bipolar, and I take medication for depression myself. Good for you in sharing your story. Keep it up!

  • Craig Comerford

    I’m with you 100%; God loves us BOTH as we are, and as we will be. HIS timescale for change is NOT ours. For the most part, I live in the “how I am bit”. I have the feeling that the “how I will be bit” will sneak up on me, one day at a time, or less. The “how I am” bit applies to everyone, and is where the rubber hits the road; if you really HAVE confidence in GOD, improvement, or no improvement are both more than OK. WHY? God LOVES us as we are, and will at least transform us, and maybe heal us, IN HIS TIME. Thnk you for speaking out so lucidly, and may God continue to bless you.

  • Lisa Girard

    Hello. My name is Lisa Girard. I have been different for my whole, entire life due to my father molesting me from the ages of 3 to 13 (of which I had no memories of until I was 40). My mom has been known to say “I was searching for a diagnosis for you from the age of 5…they all said you just needed an extra amount of attention and you ‘should be fine’. My first addiction was food, then drugs, alcohol and having violent sex happen to me through it all until I was almost 22 and got clean and sober. I was then told I “had to find god” if I wanted to stay clean and sober…I was diagnosed at 41 years of age (4 years after becoming a “born again Christian”) with Borderline Personality Disorder. I have never been given any meds…but let me tell you something…i have no words to thank you…every single other part of your story above is exactly what i go through in church, around friends everywhere and when i try to explain to “loved ones” about how my disorder works I get told “you’ll get over it”. Thank you so very, very much for sharing you. It is beyond words to know I am not alone. PEACE!

  • Adrienne Jones

    I hear you. I feel you right in my guts. I have mental illness myself, but it’s the “acceptable” kind. My son has the really severe stuff, with the extreme mania and psychosis and the radically different behavior that comes with that, and thank God our faith community wants to understand and never judges us. Others, though. Oh, others. From TV to my friends, I hear how it’s all bad. I’ve been snookered by psychiatry, or I’m a lazy parent who wants an easy out (snort; come to my HOUSE and call my life easy), or my kid needs an exorcism (at least one email or blog comment per week with that one). Friends from my childhood church have said the things you described a thousand times. More Jesus, less drugs! How do they know Jesus doesn’t like drugs? Maybe Jesus guided the hand of the person who developed Haldol. We weren’t there, were we? My son is sick. He’s unwell and he needs treatment, just as if he had a disease in his heart or his liver.

    “When Jesus says “grace”, he means real live, in the mess and the crazy, no matter what grace. It’s not some sly jab to imply that I need to try harder, do the right things, get better so that the current struggle with my condition will somehow pay off.”

    That’s the heart of the thing, right there. Jesus never gets tired of pouring grace out over us, and we get to be the people we are, with the struggles we have, and Jesus is still going to keep showing up. Hell, if he never lost patience with David, he’s not going to give up on boring old folks like us who take pills to make our brains function closer to “normal.”

    So glad you wrote this, and I do hope the APs help, and fast.

  • troy mc laughlin

    Thanks Aaron. I can not imagine how hard it is to pen these words. Your life is poured out on this page. Thanks friend.

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