This is not something I want to write. It’s something I feel compelled to write.
First, an explanation. Mental illness is a serious problem, both for those of us who have it and for our loved ones impacted by it. It is a also a major societal issue. How we care for those who are most vulnerable is a reflection of who we are and what we believe. If we let “the least of these” fall through the cracks, we will be judged by our consciences and by our faith convictions. God does not look lightly at those abusing His children.
Mental illness is a medical condition stemming from faulty brain chemistry which current medical science can treat, but not cure. My own bipolar disorder is considered a serious mental illness (SMI). SMIs are disabling conditions that are chronic. You can’t just take a pill and make them go away. They require life-long intervention, including psychotropic medication and psychotherapy.
Some people with SMIs manage life relatively well. These “high-functioning” folks are more the exception that proves the rule. Most of us with an SMI require a lot of assistance. When I am cycling, I can’t think clearly. Inner voices create chaos in my brain. There are times in my life I need someone to tell me to eat, to drive me places, to remind me to take my medicine. I have come to the realization that I will most likely not live independently again.
This is what I’ve learned from experience, from my doctors, and from medical research. This explains my limitations. But,…
Have I used my mental illness as an excuse when I’ve not done my best?
Has my bipolar served me as the stated reason for me to become irritable or erratic?
Do I hide behind my diagnosis when I just don’t want to do something?
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.
As much as I appreciate no longer having to hide my mental illness, there was a distinct advantage for me when I didn’t disclose. People held me to higher standards. So, I adopted those standards for myself. Looking back, it amazes me that I could have served in full-time pastoral ministry while battling a debilitating condition. But, by the grace of God, I did.
But that isn’t the whole story. I was not a super-achiever in all aspects of life. Sure, I was able to function reasonably well in my career, but at what cost…?
When I served as a pastor, I devoted nearly all I had to give to relationships in church and I neglected relationships at home. I excused myself by appealing to my mental illness. My family will understand, I reasoned. They will accept me and my limitations. I can be who I am around them. Weaknesses and all.
The trouble is, over time, all I showed them were my weaknesses. I became an invalid at home. Was this caused by my mental illness? In a way, but it was primarily a gross misjudgment on my part as to how I would spend my time and focus my attention.
I have been mean and verbally aggressive toward those close to me and it is more than just having a mental illness. It is just as much about not having cultivated a character of patience through a grace-filled life.
When I am depressed, I don’t want to get out of bed. It’s more than just “don’t want” exactly. It’s somewhere between “can’t” and “don’t want.” I’ve mentioned to people that telling a clinically depressed person to get out of bed is like saying, “Go run a 3-minute mile.” I’ve now come to see it as, “Go, run a marathon.” It can be done, but it requires intensive training, one step at a time.
When I was a pastor, Christmas Eve was perhaps the peak night of the church year. It took weeks for us to plan. I felt I really had to nail the message, because people who had not been in the pews all year were there that night. We would have an early 5 p.m. service for young families; a 7 p.m. service for the regular crowd; and a midnight service for the die-hards. When the night was over, I was exhausted. But I couldn’t sleep. I lay in bed with images and voices swirling through my head.
On Christmas Day, I felt like a drunk hungover from a week’s bender. Often, I lay on the couch, wanting to be there for my children, but being emotionally disengaged. One Christmas, I didn’t get out of bed. Could I? Probably. Would it have been difficult? Certainly. Should I, even though I was emotionally exhausted? What do you think?
Mental illness is a serious condition that should never be taken lightly. It explains many behaviors that could not otherwise be explained. But it is not to be used as an excuse to not do the best we can do. Be the best we can be.