“I have Bipolar disorder:”
I can’t say that I know exactly what coming out feels like. I would never presume to think I know all the feelings that go along with something like that, though I do think it incredibly brave.
But I bet it feels vulnerable, which is what I think I can relate to.
For a long time, I’ve kept the bipolar piece of me close to my chest. I told close friends, family of course. But it’s not something I wanted advertised.
Once, a friend and I were in a business meeting and she let it slip that I had a mental illness. I sat quiet the rest of the meeting, fuming. Afterwards, I pulled her aside and yelled at her.
“How dare you say that in front of people we don’t know!”
“That’s my secret to share!”
She couldn’t understand why I was so upset. Knowing that I had a mental illness didn’t change the way she viewed me, so why, she thought, would it affect anyone else’s opinion of me? Why did it bother me so much?
I had trouble articulating why I was angry. How could I explain the sense of shame that overwhelmed me?
My husband, Rob, and I started attending a new church about a year after we started our married life in Denver. We liked the church a lot: the way the congregation sat in a circle, the way we took communion every week, the liturgy, the unassuming pastor’s down-to-earth sermons. At that time in my life, a few months after a mental breakdown, I wasn’t even sure if I believed in God anymore. So the church impacted me in a big way at an important time.
We wanted to get “plugged in” to the community, (That’s Christianese for making friends) so we joined a small group (That’s Christianese for a gathering of church people). The small group included a few couples in their thirties and a couple in their fifties. We were the youngest there, so we felt a little like the odd-man-out, but we wanted to give it time before we bailed.
Rob and I aren’t your typical socialites. Especially Rob. If you google “introvert,” you’ll find his name. Going to small group—with people we didn’t know— on a Saturday morning wasn’t his favorite thing to do, to say the least. But we forced ourselves to go because we knew making friends would be worth it…eventually.
It was okay, for a while. The people were nice and they seemed to know a lot about God. The pastor was actually one of the attendees, and it was cool to get to know him a little.
But one morning in December, the group started talking about white elephant gifts. One gift, they thought, was extremely funny: a book about Bipolar people.
They couldn’t stop laughing about it.
Rob and I just sat there quietly until the joke died down. In the car ride home, Rob declared that we wouldn’t be going to the small group anymore. I didn’t disagree.
Rob felt compelled to write the pastor an email about the group’s funny joke, but I begged him not to. I felt too embarrassed.
“That’s why we need to write him a letter,” Rob insisted.
The pastor’s response was short and dismissive, and it only added to my humiliation.
We left the church a few months after that. We told our families that it was because we just didn’t “click” with it, but, really, it was because of the joke. Because of my shame.
A place that was supposed to be safe, a place filled with Christians, wasn’t safe.
Nowadays, people speak more easily about depression. It used to be a hushed topic, something hidden behind closed doors. But now it’s more socially acceptable—people have opened up about their struggles and it’s talked about often, even in the church.
Of course, there is still a failing within the church: “Pray more” and “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle” and “Are you trusting God enough?” are trite sayings that are still whispered to those struggling with depression. (I’ll save that for another post. Stay tuned.) But the attitude towards depression is changing in the faith community, despite the slow progress. I think we need to give a lot of credit to the millennial generation—those fed up with pat answers—for these changes.
But there is still so much stigma around Bipolar Disorder, in and out of the church. I think it’s because it sounds a little scary and unpredictable. Up, down, up, down: what does that even mean?
Mania, especially, sounds really weird. It’s not as common as depression, so it’s less talked about. And “mixed episodes?” People don’t even know those exist. (Again, that’s for another post.) Mania is the part of Bipolar Disorder that is usually made fun of.
“Why are you acting so crazy? Are you Bipolar?” someone says, laughing.
“You’re so hyper—you’re Bipolar!” another person jokes to a friend.
When I’m depressed, I receive support from those around me. When I’m in the middle of mania? Not so much. I think there just isn’t a lot of information about mania out there, so people don’t really don’t know what to do or how to support me.
So where does the stigma come from? Is it because Bipolar Disorder is more than just depression? I think so.
This stigma causes those with Bipolar Disorder a lot of shame that isn’t fair.
It isn’t fair that we get made fun of.
It isn’t fair that the word “Bipolar” is so carelessly tossed around.
Shame is embarrassing. Shame is hurtful.
I think it’s important that those with Bipolar Disorder find a safe place. And that safe place, hopefully, can be a church.
A faith community should be a place where a mental illness—of any kind—is not shamed. A faith community should be a place where illnesses like Bipolar Disorder are talked about and shared, supported and spoken about with care.
Rob and I eventually found a church where we could be open about mental illness. It took a while to find one, but we did. We began to trust Christians again, to believe that not all church-goers were insensitive.
It’s my hope that all faith communities can become like the church we attend. I trust that God is working in the hearts of Christians and that, one day, shame can be completely wiped away.
*This was originally posted as a guest post at https://jamesedgarskye.com/2018/05/12/annas-guest-blog/