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Intersection of Life and Faith

The Bipolar Express: Finding God on the Emotion Locomotive

  • Jim Robinson Contributing Writer
  • 2005 3 Mar
  • COMMENTS
The Bipolar Express: Finding God on the Emotion Locomotive

About two months ago, I slowly came to the realization that I was getting sick again.

At first I wasn't sure what was wrong. I felt very tired, lethargic, and generally sad. My body hurt, too; I ached like a man in his eighties, and I haven't even turned fifty yet. My sleep was fitful, and I would wake exhausted. The work waiting for me each day, once igniting in me a deep passion, now felt burdensome and futile. Everyone around me commented on how awful I looked. "You really seem burned out," they'd say sympathetically. "Are you getting enough rest?"

My wife also noticed. "You really should go see your doctor," she said, more than once. Generally, I only go to doctors when I'm feeling the cold breath of the Grim Reaper on my neck. And, finally, this feeling had overtaken me. "I'll go," I mumbled.

My doctor knows me pretty well. Though I hadn't been to see him for nearly three years, he and I are kindred spirits of a sort, both of us recovering from various addictions. Between the two of us, we share a compulsion-driven rap sheet half a mile long, including abuse of just about every substance and behavior imaginable.

Knowing this about me, he had always been very careful about what type of drugs he prescribed; basically, he never gave me anything fun. He knew my history: Alcoholic, drug addict, and suffering from bipolar disease. He knew my mother had died from a combination of all these things many years ago, and he had helped me early on in my recovery to surrender to some of the biophysical realities of who and what I am. I hated it then, and though I took the recommended bipolar medications for a time, I swore all along I would beat the awful thing, beat it completely and get off the meds. Once I had accrued a few years of sobriety, I finally felt healthier and happier than I had for most of my life. I would get well! I would finally be cured!

Eventually, I decided I had accomplished this feat. I had not taken any bipolar medicine in over twelve years. By God's great grace, in addition to having my songwriting career restored, I had also become an addiction counselor, and was now helping others like me find wholeness and freedom from their bondage. By George... I was cured!

An Old, Familiar Fear

This is, of course, the greatest and most tenacious desire of every addict - to finally have the freedom, as my counseling guru Mike O'Neil puts it, to "sit in the normal section." We hold fast to this illusion, unable to accept fully the truth that we will never "graduate" from this class. But the truth is... we are what we are. Even though miraculous freedom comes, the chains no longer hold us, and the darkness no longer consumes and destroys, maintenance is required. As with any disease, God can offer us healing. But He usually expects us to take our medicine, too.

And so, I'm sitting in Dr. Lee's office, half bent from the enormous weight I've been carrying for months, and he is looking at me over the top of his glasses.

"What do you think?" he asks.

"I don't know," I say, and I'm completely serious. "You're the doctor. I ache all over. I can't sleep."

"Do you feel afraid?" he asks after a pause, and I know right away where he's going. It seems as if I'm watching a movie I've seen before - Dr. Lee is saying the same thing he's said to me before, and I'm watching his mouth move. Everything slows...I'm sitting on the edge of the table, my heart is thumping inside my chest, and it is the only sound in the room. I sense an old, faintly familiar sadness creeping across my soul.

"It's not that," I say. "This is in my body."

"Yes. Your brain affects your body. But do you feel afraid?"

"I feel..." and I'm searching for something, some word. "I feel... guilty," I half-whisper. A pause. Then: "And yes. I feel afraid. All the time." My spirit is sinking.

"It's your bipolar disease," he said. And then, with a quizzical, half-laughing look in his eyes, he says: "Are you surprised?"

I was surprised. And angry. Angry that this old nemesis that had been slinking along behind me all this time had actually dared to show his ugly face again. And, at least a little bit, I felt something like a vague shame, an old shame, one shoved deep inside over the years but never fully hidden. Those of us who have this thing understand what I'm saying. It's a part of it all, somehow.

Runaway Train

For those who might have heard the term but never really understood its meaning, I'll give the simplest of explanations. Bipolar disease (sometimes referred to as manic-depressive illness) is a mood disorder, which means that the symptoms are disturbances or abnormalities of mood. It is characterized by "cycling" - the affected person is caught on a runaway train of vacillating emotional highs and lows. The high cycles - characterized by over-the-top exuberance, irritability, hyperactivity, and a decreased resistance to inappropriate and/or compulsive behaviors - are known as "manic episodes."

The low cycles manifest as clinical depression: dangerous levels of lethargy, sadness, and hopelessness. Then, there are periods of more normal mood in between . There are all sorts of technical classifications and terminology regarding levels of severity, and wide variances regarding cycling patterns. We won't go into all that in this limited space. But as with many kinds of emotional illness, there is a great deal of confusion and misconception regarding the true nature of the disease. I thought it important to encourage those who may suffer to reach out from within the prison of their shame for the healing that is available.
 
It's necessary to point out that what I am describing is not at all the same thing as normal mood-states of happiness and sadness. Symptoms of manic-depressive illness can be severe and life threatening. While individuals from across the population spectrum can be affected, I believe an inordinate number of artists, musicians and writers have suffered from various forms of this illness.

This has served in many ways to trivialize the destructive reality of bipolar disorder, being somehow regarded as beneficial for artistic creativity. Just this past December, Crystal Cathedral's Co-Minister of Music, Johnnie Carl, became a victim of his disease when he took his own life - on the church campus, no less. The loss was tragic.

But I was touched as I read a quote by Linda Carl, Johnnie's wife of 27 years, as she emotionally expressed her gratitude for the long support of Dr. Robert Schuller and his wife Arvella:  "I just want to thank you... for allowing him to be a part of this church and to work here, because I don't feel there are too many other places that would have accepted him, given the episodes that he had with his bipolar illness." Even in the midst of this confusing and often misunderstood disease, Johnnie Carl had been surrounded by friends willing to help. His wife understood this. "And he and I... truly appreciate the gift that you've given both of us."

Many of us love someone who suffers from this illness, and feel confused and helpless. In Part 2 of this article, we will explore in more detail the biophysical, genetic, and spiritual aspects of bipolar disorder. We'll also discuss what to do about it.

Have courage. You are not alone.

Jim Robinson is a successful songwriter, musician, speaker, author, and recovery counselor. A graduate of Christ Center School of Counseling and Addiction Studies, Robinson is founder of ProdigalSong, a Christian ministry utilizing music, speaking, counseling and teaching to convey healing for the broken spirit. For information about his ministry, music, or his book, also called Prodigal Song, visit www.ProdigalSong.com or contact Jim via e-mail: prodigalsong@juno.com
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