Two years ago I was diagnosed with Type II Bipolar Disorder. At first, I tried to argue my psychiatrist out of it. That conversation went something like this:
Dr: You’ve had consistent periods of depression for about 10 years, and you said you’ve just recently come out of a long depression. Have you ever had a manic episode?
Me: Nope, definitely not.
Dr: Manic episodes are characterized by decreased need for sleep, racing thoughts and ideas, talking more than usual/more quickly than usual, and having boundless energy. Sometimes they involve an increase in reckless behavior, taking physical risks, or going on spending sprees.
Me: Well, I mean, yes, sometimes, maybe, for a few days or a week or whatever. Usually when I come out of a depression. But that’s just because I feel so much better, right? And then I have lots of energy. And lots of ideas. But, I mean, that’s only natural, right? And yeah, sure, a few days ago I went out and bought all new bedding and curtains and completely redecorated my bedroom in one day. But I was INSPIRED!
Dr: Have you noticed a sudden increase in goal-oriented activity?
Me: I mean, does this sticker chart I just made for myself where I give myself stickers for things like “showering” count? (Produces sticker chart)
Dr: I’m going to say yes.
Me: I’m in a manic episode right now, aren’t I?
Dr: It’s a distinct possibility.
Me: Right. Cool, cool, cool.
Eventually I gave in, and she explained to me that my particular bipolar disorder is a form of depression. Type 2 Bipolar Disorder is characterized by regular periods of depression with at least one hypomanic episode in your lifetime. (Hypomania, which I experience from time to time, is a milder form of mania that usually does not include delusions, paranoia, or the extremes of reckless behavior that can be present with mania.)
In some ways, my diagnosis came as a relief. For nearly 10 years, I had believed that everyone else experienced the same intensity of feelings that I did but that, for some reason, I was incapable of dealing with ordinary life the way everyone else seemed able to.
The assurance that what I feel and experience is not “normal” was somewhat comforting. It turns out I’m not just bad at adulting. There are real reasons for my struggles that are beyond my control.
At the same time, I also felt a huge amount of shame.
I was ashamed to have this label fixed to me publicly. While I have been open about anxiety, panic, and even depression for a long time, something about the specific words “bipolar disorder” felt different.
Anxiety and depression are feelings that most people experience to some degree within their lifetime, even if it’s never a chronic struggle or doesn’t manifest in panic. But “bipolar” is something else entirely. There is a stigma associated with this word that I was not prepared to take on. I didn’t know how I felt about having that label, what it said about me, and how it would change the way other people viewed me. I only ever heard “bipolar” thrown around as the punch line of a joke about mood swings, or as a terrifying condition suffered by the villains of psychological thrillers and real life serial killers.
To be honest, the people I was most afraid of finding out were my family and the evangelical Christian community I had been surrounded by for most of my life. I was afraid that neither group would really listen or understand.
I have been a Christian since I was a child. To the best of my memory, none of the churches I have attended in my life ever denounced mental illness as fake or as a spiritual sin. They simply marginalized it by failing to address it at all.
But sometimes silence carries its own weight.
A sermon about joy that doesn’t acknowledge clinical depression sounds like this, “You’re depressed? You wouldn’t be if you just let the joy of the Lord be your strength.” A message about peace that doesn’t also address the reality of visceral, physical anxiety reactions, brings shame instead of comfort. (“You’re anxious? Remember Jesus said, ‘Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.’”)
One of the reasons it took me 10 years to seek and receive proper mental health care is that I believed my mental health issues were a sign of spiritual weakness or a simple lack of grit.
I’m not denying that there is a spiritual aspect to our health. We are holistic beings. Being unwell in one area can cause us to suffer in others. But the logical response to this reality is not to ignore some areas at the expense of others, or to treat everything as a spiritual condition. Instead, we should seek more holistic solutions. And this will never happen if we continue to stay silent about mental health.
If it seems like I’m pointing a finger, I’m honestly not. Or I am, but I am implicating myself as equally culpable. I was afraid of my diagnosis, because I was also uneducated about mental illness — especially bipolar disorder. And for quite a while, I perpetuated the problem by not speaking about it.
Now I am speaking. Christians are not immune to mental illness any more than they are immune to cancer or to car accidents. People with mental illness can look entirely “normal” on the outside. They can be successful and responsible. They can maintain deep relationships and smile often. All the while, they can be waging a war you know nothing about.
Members of our faith communities are suffering in silence because we have, in our own ignorance, made them feel isolated or given them the sense that their struggles are primarily a spiritual failing.
We have to do better. We must educate ourselves. We must ask questions. We must never dismiss someone else’s experience based on what we think mental illness should look like. We must resist the temptation to give a neat answer to a messy problem. We must talk about mental illness as a real and valid struggle that some Christians face, even if we ourselves haven’t experienced it. This is how we love one another. This is how we build the kingdom.
In the deepest core of my being, I believe that courage is the antidote to fear and that bringing things into the light is the only way to live wholeheartedly. I have no desire to be the poster child for bipolar disorder, but I do want to be part of that light.