Thursday, March 03, 2011

Finding meaning...revisited

“Mental illness is not all bad.” That’s how I began an article about finding meaning in a life with bipolar disorder several years ago. How I regret having written those words today! I know the message I was trying to convey with the piece, but using those words tend to make it look like I was making light of disorders that I know from experience are serious and cause unbearable pain.

Mental illnesses ARE bad, as some of the comments on this article pointed out. But I also know that we need to adopt a positive and hopeful view.

At the time I wrote the piece I was thinking of what the apostle Paul said in Romans 8:28: “…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” I truly believe that and have experienced it in my life.

Yet we need to recognize the honest truth. Mental illness can be devastating. As many as 20% of people with manic depression (as bipolar used to be called) take their own lives. It causes break-downs of relationships. Many lose the ability to support themselves. And then there’s trying to deal with people’s misunderstanding…the stigma…!

I have found meaning in life. Abundant meaning. But that doesn’t take away the suffering mental illness causes me and so many others.

Last year was very unstable for me, with much rapid cycling – periods when my moods shifted rapidly from low to high. Many times these shifts would happen within hours; sometimes within days. I never knew how I was going to be. There were sleepless nights and almost total loss of appetite. Eventually the rapid cycling gave way to solid depression and anxiety. Often I felt riddled with feelings of shame and guilt. I didn’t like the needy person I had become. I had to cancel out of commitments, feeling terrible to have let people down. I became suicidal at times, at one point asking my pastor to please remind me why I should live. Such is the loss of reality and perspective depression can bring on.

But I continued spending time with God daily and in between the bad times found much joy and comfort as well. At sunrise one morning I made one of the most meaningful photographs I’ve ever done. I considered it a gift from God, revealing to me His awesome nature. Yet I continued to be unstable. The effects of bipolar disorder are not easy to shake.

At times my husband didn’t trust leaving me on my own, giving up two or three fishing trips he needed for his own enjoyment and emotional well-being. His usual patient and laid back attitude gave way to emotional struggles of his own. Our relationship suffered. For the first time in our 42 years of marriage we needed counselling. Thank God, the counsellor was a good one who helped us learn how to weather the storm together.

In early December I had an idea to gather all our favourite recipes from our life together. These will become a little book to share with friends and family. This project helped me focus on cooking and made what had become a difficult chore into a hobby again – a source of enjoyment. This healthy activity did much to stabilize me. I can now see how such inspiration did not come from me alone. It was very much a gift from God.

I don’t think I would have appreciated such a gift without having gone through some tough times. I don’t think I would have as great reason to be thankful. I, along with the psalmist David, can sing “…and yet I will praise him!”

In New Light on Depression, (Zondervan, 2004) the book David B. Biebel, D.Min. wrote along with Harold G. Koenig, M.D., he said, “Having one's capacity for serenity and joy restored is little compensation for the agony of despair, much less the 'despair beyond despair.' The only true compensation for depression has to do with the sense of purpose and fulfillment that comes from redemptive involvement with others in distress, sharing the comfort we've experienced. This is the true route to joy." [emphasis mine]

How true that is! I’m now able to give support to others who live with mental illness through my faith-based Living Room support ministry for people with mood disorders. I can share with others what I’ve learned about God’s unfathomable love. I can offer heart-felt compassion because I understand the pain of depression. How good that makes me feel! That’s my compensation.

Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 1:4 hold true for me as I work with my ministry. I praise God “who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received.”

This is how I found meaning…and joy.


Anonymous said...

Good to admit ones mistakes- demonstrates a higher level of sanity. I love the comfort bit. So true and one of the mysteries of our great God.

Steve from Australia

marja said...

Hi Steve,

Thank you for telling me I sound sane :)) That I like to be, whenever possible.

I appreciate your comment, Steve.


Spin said...

LOVE the verse at the end. I find myself in that exact place right now. I needed to hear that verse, Marja. Thanks for sharing.



marja said...

Hi Spin,

Yes, that verse really gives meaning to what we go through, doesn't it? If we could only remember that when things are dark!