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 spilt 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 my self.
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 me and my family. They said these things to me.
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.