Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Where is the Balm in Gilead?

Can I just come clean here? My mother has bipolar disorder. It's a huge, complicated and twisted affair. And just to be honest, none of her kids really understands what she goes through. None of us. But what's worse is that since she moved from Chicago to the Bible Belt, she's had a hard time trying to find a church that would accept her for all of her eccentricities and quirks and tough times, and times when she would scream profanities and her pill-popping and the imaginary people and demons and her flights of fancy and her struggles with forgiveness and all that her bipolar disorder entails.

And it's scary. But the one thing that you need in such circumstances is some stability. And as much as we Christians like to talk about God being our Rock (and he is), his love and stability and presence is demonstrated and felt through the actions of his people. Oftentimes, this is a wonderful thing. Sometimes, some big times, it falls way short.

In the online version of Relevant Magazine, there is an article by a Karen Bowlby on her experiences as a church-goer with bipolar disorder. Excerpts from the article are in Trebuchet font. Reader responses for the article are disbursed throughout and in blue font. Hold your applause (or breath) till the end, please.

Bipolar in a World of Healers

“Do you want to be healed?”

The question cut through the pregnant silence that followed my plea for guidance, and a lump formed in the pit of my stomach–a reaction to the metaphorical kick I’d just received. The young couple positioned themselves around me–I’d been in churches long enough to know what was coming.

OJ wrote:

"Pregnant silence?" Please. This is a very dramatic piece of writing. But then I see you majored in Theater.

Since my first encounter with this small band of Christians, I had waited expectantly for the stones I felt were always just around the corner...

[A]s ugly as stigma can be, there is nothing uglier than stigma in the Church. It is the opposite of grace in that it judges, condemns and carries out the sentence in the blink of an eye. We live in a rapidly changing culture that embraces differences in sexuality, race, class and religion. Yet, as fast as our society rids itself of its stigmas, the Church stagnates, holding on to them tighter than ever, tiptoeing around issues like mental and emotional illnesses and disorders, medication, and addictions to drugs, alcohol sex and pornography.

As a result, the Church is currently filled with Christians ... who suffer and struggle in silence to avoid being stigmatized–leading lives that are rarely joyful–using dysfunctional survival techniques to deal with feelings of loneliness, guilt and shame. Is it any wonder then, that both substance abuse and self-mutilation are on the rise in not only our society, but our churches, too?...

Justin wrote:

But on the other hand, lets not demonize the church.

I was diagnosed with rapid-cycling Bipolar Disorder at the age of 22–in the midst of self-medicating via alcohol abuse and prescription drugs. I fought my diagnosis for three years through alcoholic binges, a blackout-related car accident, a suicide attempt and severe depression. In fits of euphoria, I would declare God had healed me, the ups and downs were just a part of my creative personality and I didn’t really need my medications. In the doldrums of depression, I would fight suicidal thoughts, feel indefinitely disconnected from God, end friendships and retreat into whatever un-reality I created in my mind. I prayed unceasingly for God to take the symptoms away...

Kendall wrote:

I think all comes down to the personal relationship with God. If you have total trust in His plan, you would be off medication because of His healing. Healing isn't just lip-service; if you don't doubt His ability, you will ultimately be healed. I have experienced this not just on my own, but with others too.

If that young couple had only taken the time to know me first, before praying physical healing over me God might have shown them it was not my body that was broken and in need of healing, but my trust in an unconditionally loving God as illustrated through His people. Instead, I went off my meds in response to unsolicited pressure, and spent three months feeling as though I lacked the faith to make my symptoms disappear, before finally beginning to seek and accept what God had intended for me to find all along: Peace.

Now, back on my meds, and two years sober, I have discovered that in my own story, giving up control of my health and trusting God is trusting that He has provided and blessed me with the doctors and medicine necessary to live a stable, joy-filled life...

Eric wrote:

So you believe He is a healer, but you are content with pills and symptoms and telling others how they may cope?? Yes Jesus is far more concerned with the healing of the soul, but every affliction is spiritual in nature (Eph. 6:12).

Eric wrote:

We might as well hand out Bibles at a Triple A meeting and inform them that they are going to have to cope with their sickness.

I thank God for this woman's story. Unfortunately, the fools (and well-meaning but blinded individuals) that responded above are fairly representative of the misguided, misanthropic and maladjusted xenophobia of many within the Church. Of course, they are part of the Church and it's the crazy cousins and uncles locked up in the attics that we have to live and deal with that make the Church feel like a tangible, broken, messed-up family. I would also like to point out a few other commentators. They are beautiful and broken people as well. And they also represent the Church.

kaylee wrote:

wow, great article, thanks for talking this. Been there too, I'm hypoglycemic, was "healed" of it
once. a few years later, on the edge of a fullscale breakdown, mentally and physically, I had to
admit that I was still hypoglycemic. But I've learned to love GOd through the quesitons, and stay away from those who don't accept all parts of me.

Melody wrote:

I just spent an entire day at conference about how each Christians shows God in a unique way and how He didn't create us to all reflect Him exactly the same...and yet, I walked away knowing I'll never tell anyone at that church about my depression/self-injury, I'm too afraid of how they'll react, if they'll ban me from leadership or patronize me...

Dave wrote:

I was diagnosed with Bipolar about 10 years ago, and went through some of the same things. I've been prayed over plenty of times and I know God could heal me if He wanted to, but God can't be put in a box. I've felt ashamed of myself for not "having enough faith". Yet, perhaps what needed more attention is the unrest in my soul by other factors.

Susanna wrote:

I've just recently wondered if I have a mild case of the same disorder....struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide for 8 years now, but always feeling "unchristian" because of it. hearing many christians say, "how can a christian be depressed?" and having been one all my life, I've struggled with that shame as well. good to not be alone!

God help us all.


  1. I just had a huge ball of emotional reaction-build-up (not unlike a wad of phlegm when I have bronchitis or a bad cold) which I just swallowed back down after reading all of that. It is astounding to me that people can be so glib in response to someone's openness and pain . . . and yet I know I've been (and can still be) glib, too.

    I'm sorry your mother's having a tough time of it. Thanks for sharing this . . .

  2. This idea that kept popping up in the reader responses - that if you believe in God enough (or in the right way), then you won't need proven medical solutions - is a putrid, festering bunch of something I wouldn't want to touch with a ten foot pole... These folks might as well take the plunge and become Scientologists!

    I firmly believe that God heals. But God heals in many different ways. And God, in God's infinite wisdom, has endowed humankind with agents to accomplish that healing. Some of those agents (whether they know it or not) are traditional medical professionals.

    I pray for your mom's peace and healing and that she will find a faith community that will accept and support her without judgement in this struggle!

  3. thanks, guys.

    yeah, i think it's just easier to want to believe that someone can be healed instantly. if only they'd repent and believe.

    and it makes me sick, too, jenn. but another part of me wants to tighten its grip.


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