Bipolar Disorder and the Church
Two things were always in my life: church and bipolar disorder. My parents led various ministries in a Southern Baptist church and required me to attend church every Sunday. Most of the time, I didn’t mind going to church because the congregation supported me; however, they were unaware of what happened behind closed doors. If my church leaders were advocates of the mental health care system, I would have suffered less.
Although bipolar disorder always afflicted me, I received the official diagnose at nineteen, only a year ago. My family credited my mood swings to part of my “melancholic personality” and joked “happy Abby or crabby Abby? Which one are we going to get today?” To this day, the name “Abby” makes me cringe because it is a reminder of my former emotional instability.
When I was nine, it seemed like I went to hell; I began going psychotic, having visual and auditory hallucinations on a regular basis, but I kept it a secret from everyone including my own family. I couldn’t bear to live with myself anymore. The hallucinations convinced me to attempt suicide at the age of eleven because dying seemed better than living. A so-called demon sat on the edge of my bed and encouraged my suicide. The demon said that I should strangle myself, but I felt a hand grasp my arm. Then a voice told me, “no.” I called it my angel, my savior, who rescued me from self-destruction. I saw the seemingly supernatural experience, which I now know was a hallucination, as God’s sign that He loved me; I dropped to my knees and made a profession of faith. Even though I was psychotic at the time of my conversion, I don’t regret my decision. God was there with me through my darkest times. I thought that God’s love would simply heal my broken mind, but it didn’t. I continued to see demons and didn’t understand why.
The severity of my bipolar disorder worsened, and I realized that I needed someone’s help. After telling my parents that I saw demons, I turned to a pastor. As a scared little fourteen year-old, I seemed too young to have such frightening experiences. The pastor told me that I should pray to ask for forgiveness and repent from my depression, outbursts of anger, anxiety, and irrational impulses (all symptoms of bipolar disorder). As for my hallucinations, I should rebuke the demons by saying something like, “I command you to leave in Jesus’ name!” I did this procedure for several years and lived in such guilt and shame because of it. I thought that I was the lowliest of sinners because no matter how hard I tried, my repenting and rebuking did not take care of my issues. The hallucinations continued to plague my mind, and I started to think I was crazy.
Later, I met other Christians like me. I finally had people who I could relate to! Church leaders told these girls to implement the same coping tactics that I had, and similarly their tactics did not eliminate their problems. Instead it created a sense of self-reproach.
Because of my shame, church became a trigger; the very thought of church generated my hallucinations. I would get a splitting headache every Saturday and Sunday and knew hallucinations would follow. I liken my headaches before hallucinations to an elderly person whose bones ache before a storm. While other people my age looked forward to weekends, I dreaded them. My hallucinatory experiences go to be so out-of-hand that my parents had to drive me to church because I could no longer drive safely by myself.
If I would see hallucinations during church, I would excuse myself and retreat to the bathroom. I would lean against the wall of a stall and rock back and forth. Psychosis had taken its toll on me. I would put on more makeup and dress nicer to hide my weariness, but I could not hide the unrest that would haunt me. I started losing my memory, and my eyes would dart back and forth looking for an imaginary predator. Some people at church would notice my disorientation and place a hand on my arm saying, “I’m praying for you.” This would anger me because I had prayed for years that the same God would take away my problems, but He had never answered me.
I investigated the source of my sin and discovered bipolar disorder in my research making me realize that I fit the prototype. Then I begged my parents to send me to a psychiatrist. After several months of pleading, my parents sent me to one, and she officially diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. I wasn’t afraid of my diagnosis. Instead I found it exciting that I had the possibility of living a “normal life.” I went on mood stabilizers and anti-psychotics, and the sin that I repented of for years vanished. The medication liberated me from the guilt and shame that I harbored for far too long.
My experience of having bipolar in the church reminds me of a Bible story. The disciples asked Jesus about a man, who had been blind all of his life. Whose sin was responsible for the man’s blindness, his own or his parents’? Neither. Jesus said, “This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him” (Jn. 9:3 HCSB). The man’s blindness strengthened his character.
I don’t blame church leaders for my suffering, but they should bear the responsibility for being informed about mental health conditions. The Christians, who I know experiencing hallucinations, are still relying upon church leaders’ care and haven’t sought medical help. Well-being isn’t based solely upon the spiritual aspect but rather the mind, body, and soul. Churches and the mental health care system don’t have to be at odds. If they just begin working together, more people can find freedom and strength like I have found.