Saturday, June 23, 2007

An article published

I just wanted to alert you that my article, Mental Disorders: The Result of Sin? has just been published on Please have a look. The exciting thing is that there is a place for comments. Another place for dialog on the issues I'm so passionate about.

Gone fishin'

...literally - my husband, at least. In the meantime I will relax in quiet and peace on the shore. I'll be gone till next Saturday. Make sure you don't miss reading my previous post.

Friday, June 22, 2007

A soul at peace

Things have come together. I no longer feel so dizzy and stressed. And I'm sure it's all because we had a Living Room meeting this afternoon. How therapeutic that group is for me, even if I am the leader - probably because I am the leader! I get so much out of doing this work. The feeling of joy and peace I have after meetings never ceases to amaze me.

In my small sharing group today the members talked about a lot of pain. It was intense. We felt for each other; there were tears. But at the end of the meeting we prayed and gave it all to God. I went home feeling at peace. I hope the others sensed that peace as well.

That's the beauty of faith-based support. Not only do we support each other, God is there with us. God is part of the picture. We talk about our faith and we talk about our doubts, but we all accept each other - wherever we are. No one judges. At Living Room we can be real with each other and express our joys and pains. This open sharing is healing.

I am excited about having finished the manual to help other Living Rooms get started. I know it will be a powerful tool, helping other churches see the value of such a group and showing them how to set one up. Forming a Living Room group gives churches an opportunity to respond to Christ's call to love and help people in need, people who are all too often shunned in the community. Having such a group in the church is a good way to help build understanding within its congregation. It will help make mental illness a more acceptable topic of conversation, reducing the stigma that exists.

If you are reading this and feel moved to consider such a group for your church, please let me know. For a very reasonable cost (haven't figured it out yet, but it would be under $10, just covering cost for mailing) I could forward you a copy of this twelve-page manual. It will explain all you need to know. The manual includes a letter from my pastor, testifying to the importance of Living Room in our own church's ministry. If interested, you can email me at

My next job will be to write a manual on how to be a Living Room facilitator. And after that, a booklet of sample devotionals to use at meetings.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Is this a bipolar thing? Uggh!!

In my journal this morning I made a list of all the things I'm trying to do and am overwhelmed. What I'm trying to do should be the work of an organization, not a single person!

How did I get into all this? Is this mountain the product of a bipolar mind? I haven't been hypomanic lately. Yet I'm always ambitious; I always have dreams. These things don't change. They're part of my personality.

But I can now see I have built a very high tower - brick by brick, not realizing how high it might become or how I would manage it or how I could keep it from toppling.

The good thing is that if I can't do some of the things I've personally committed myself to no one will be hurt...too much. I can let things go. Yet it's hard not to take advantage of opportunities. Letting go of some of the ones that have come along lately would be a shame. So I'm feeling pressured.

I have finished the manual that will serve as a tool to help other Living Room groups get started. And I've been hearing that people in other communities are now showing interest in starting them up. I would like to be able to support these new groups - to be there for them. I will also have to work at writing another manual for facilitators and another with sample devotional material. With those projects and writing for the website I mentioned in my last post, I have a lot of writing to do.

It's time to make a list. Time to set priorities.

God, please let me stay well. There's too much good work to do.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A dizzy soul

I'll be going to Bible study in a little while and I know that one question our facilitator told us she will be asking us to answer is, "How is your soul?" I would have to answer that it's rather dizzy right now, though it is improving. I'm beginning to settle down - more able to focus on the jobs at hand.

For such a long time my main goal in life has been to reduce the stigma toward mentally ill people within the church. For so long I have been striving to educate Christians by writing articles, promoting a pastor's mental health workshop and writing a book. But now things are coming together. has asked me to contribute regularly on the topic of mental health and the church. The more I think about it, the more I realize this is a wonderful opportunity. This is exactly where I need to be. God is good.

In May this website published my testimony. Soon they will be publishing an article I wrote a couple of years ago, Mental Illness: The Result of Sin?

Other questions we will have to be prepared to answer at Bible study this morning is, "How have you seen God at work in and through your life since we last met?" and "What God-given dream are you nurturing?" My answers to these will be easy. God has been at work leading me to fulfill my dream and it's becoming a reality - bit by bit.

And that isn't all. Another great thing is happening. Someone in Abbotsford, a town 45 minutes from here, is working to start a Living Room group in her church. This could be the beginning of my dream to see Living Room groups in many churches.

It's amazing where God leads us when we let him!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Depression: a disease or a state of mind?

Mel Avila Alarilla left an interesting comment on my last post - something that prompts me to discuss this further.

Yes, depression is a state of mind, but this state of mind is caused by a disease - or a disorder.

I think there's an unfortunate misunderstanding of what mental illness is. In my opinion keeping "physical" and "mental" illnesses as separate entities is a mistake. I believe that mental illness is just as much a physical problem as heart disease, asthma, or diabetis. In mental illness the organ that's affected is the brain. Physiological malfunction of this organ affects a person's thinking, emotions, and behavior. This occurs through no fault of the person who is ill. I feel the time must come that mental illness be no longer put in a separate category. It IS just another illness.

Can faith conquer depression? Faith will help us cope, as it does with other illnesses. But once a person has a disease like bipolar, depression and mania are inevitable, no matter how much faith he has. We can cling to scripture all we want and it will often help, but the depression and negative thinking and feeling that comes with it cannot be avoided. Neither can our highs with the elated feelings be avoided. This is the nature of the disease.

Mel says how his life changed when he began following Jesus. I can enthusiastically say mine did too. It's quite amazing where God has brought me and I'm very grateful. I'm sure I wouldn't be doing as well as I am now if it weren't for Jesus in my life. The church I belong to has been very supportive. Through my friends there, I've come to understand how great God's love is. The knowledge and assurance of that love does much to keep me well, secure, and with less fear than I would otherwise have. Sharing that love with others has taken me out of the victim role and made me strong.

...Yet I still get hopelessly depressed at times. It just happens. I went through two months of it only a while ago. I struggled, I prayed, and my friends prayed with me. But it had to run its course.

I must say, though, that experiencing these moods is not all bad. The suffering is misery - yes. But going through this suffering is what helps me understand others who suffer. I know a language that those who have it easy cannot understand. This language helps me connect with many people. If I didn't go through depression once in a while I might forget. I would perhaps lose the ability to have compassion.

I'm not sorry that God made me the way he did - bipolar and all. I know he did it for a reason. He has given me work to do that I can do precisely because I have this disease. And I love this work. Facilitating Living Room, the faith-based support group for people with mood disorders, is pure joy. I like to refer to the way I feel after meetings as "holy joy." There's nothing else like it. Hard to believe, I know, but true.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Feeling better

Yesterday and today have been much better days since I last wrote. I've been keeping busy, though I didn't get around to cleaning up the HUGE mess is the workshop. In fact, since I wrote about it in my last post I haven't given it another thought. I'm not good at cleaning or tidying. Would much rather make messes and be creative. If I were to die, would our son ever have a job sorting through all our stuff! One day I will have to think about cleaning up in a serious way. But will I ever find the time?

Yesterday I wrote a little piece for BC Christian News about the mental health service our church had several weeks ago. I also included something about Living Room. Another little effort to hopefully make a wee bit of difference. If other churches were to read it, they might become motivated to try the same thing we are doing. Submitting that to the paper last night has motivated me to carry on working for "the cause".

My next project is to write an article about how Christians can give support to friends suffering from depression. You may think, "Wouldn't the kind of support Christians give be the same as support given by anyone else?" The answer is, of course, yes. But the truth is that many still believe in depression having a spiritual basis. Also, there are spiritual ways of supporting people by praying with them or by letting them know you're praying. There's also the story of Job and his friends. Too many forget that story when they're trying to help depressed friends. It's a story that has lessons for us.

My neighbor has been telling me about her depressed friend who she is trying to give support to. "I don't know what to tell her to do anymore," she said. "I don't know how to help her." But that tends to be the trouble with a lot of people who are trying to help. They think that giving advice is going to fix the depression. The truth is they just need to be there to listen - to be available - to be compassionate - to be patient - to continue loving. For most people that's a hard thing to do. Everyone wants to fix things for others, when that is an impossible thing to do. It is so easy to make a depressed person feel worse.

I'm going to have to write about what it's like to be depressed as well. Supporters need to understand, though of course this would not be fully possible if they haven't been there themselves. Yet I'd like to try to describe it. This project will be a challenge, but a worthwhile challenge.

Just for fun, I've included a little picture I did here: a street in Havana. Please don't laugh too much at the car. It's the best I could do.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What a difference...

...a couple of days can make when you're dealing with bipolar. In my last post I sounded so strong, yet over the last couple of days I've started to feel an inexplicable anxiety, bordering on depression. Inexplicable, because I don't feel fearful. Explicable perhaps, because my husband is away and I have been spending long periods of time alone.

I should be happy. I should be grateful. Actually, I AM grateful for the way things are going in my life and the way doors are opening to building awareness about mental health issues amongst church people. Yet the anxiety and slight taste of depression remain.

This being early in a new day, I will have to take myself in hand and plan some things to fight this thing off. Yesterday I found that cleaning up the dirty dishes in the kitchen, accompanied by some of my favorite music, helped me feel better. There's something about work of a physical nature that is healing. Could I get myself up to do a big project - cleaning up our workshop - a HUGE mess? I could play my music loud while I work. How good it would make me feel if I could accomplish that big job! Then I could reward myself with something fun like painting. After energizing myself with the work, I might welcome the play.

I must write a little as well. That is the most significant way to use my time today. I am happy to have been asked to write some things on mental health topics by a Christian publication and I mustn't let those jobs sit in the wings for too long.

And, of course, I should try to get together with a friend today.

I want to thank Howard Freeman of Surfcountry (author of the new book, Lullabye) whose comment on my last post was the first thing I read this morning. Today I will hold close the verse he has found helpful from 2 Timothy 1:7. In fact, I found I already had that underlined in my own Bible as well:

For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Faith and mental well-being

Studies have been done about the benefits of faith to our health, including our mental health. Most of them have found that religious people have a greater ability to cope than people without a faith. One of the top researchers in this field is Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University Medical Center. An interview with him by Lisa Schneider brings to light some of his findings. Dr. Koenig has a number of books out on the subject.

The reason I bring this up now is because yesterday a friend asked me, "What does your belief in God mean to you and your ability to cope with bipolar disorder?" When I started listing for her what my faith meant to me, I found I couldn't stop. Once more - as always happens when I take the time to stop and think about it - I was overwhelmed at how far I have come since I first began believing in God nineteen years ago. My life has become rich and full of purpose. I was transformed and I continue to be transformed. It is an exciting journey.

I want to share here some of the things I'm doing that I'm quite sure I wouldn't be doing if I hadn't been studying the Bible, learning about Jesus, spending time in prayer, and belonging to a community of friends who share my beliefs. When I became a follower of Christ:
  1. I learned to fear less and trust more.
  2. I gained the courage to speak openly about my disorder by writing about it, realizing that it's only by talking about mental illness that we can reduce the stigma. This is what God would want for the world.
  3. I learned that I don't have to be ashamed of having a mental illness. I am God's child.
  4. I sensed God's love for me and learned to share that love with others.
  5. I gained the support of wonderful friends who love me with a godly love, no matter what I go through or what I do or say.
  6. I discovered a purpose that is greater than me, work that I find exciting and of significant value.
  7. I discovered gifts I never knew I had. I became a leader and activist. (not bad for someone who was for so many years a shy person, afraid to speak up)
  8. I learned to persevere and never give up hope.
  9. I learned that when I help others, I become strong. I am no longer a victim.
  10. I learned that I can, in a very special way, understand those who struggle like me. Listening to other people's problems connects us. A meaningful bond develops. There is richness in that.
  11. I learned that God made us to be creative - in his image. When I have the urge to make something happen I try to obey. What an exciting life that creativity has brought me!
  12. Though depression is still a hellish experience, I have come to look on it as something to use. By trying out different coping techniques and writing about them, I can make good come out of bad. I've learned that each episode helps me learn more about life. The Bible talks about trials as a "refining fire." We become better - stronger. Being reminded of what depression is once in a while helps me have compassion for others who go through it.
  13. Though I often feel too small to carry out the work I've taken on, I now realize it's okay to be small. I better realize how big God is, and how I need to allow him to work through me. I only have to be his hands; he will do the rest.
  14. I learned to appreciate the way the great potter molded me, one step at a time. And I know he's not through with me yet.
I am grateful for all God has given me. I like who he made me to be - bipolar and all. Life is good.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Chica, in a recent post quoted Phyllis from The Young and the Restless as saying, "I'm holding on so tight that my knuckles are white." This reminded me of the way I used to feel. I wrote about it in my new yet-to-be-published book, A Firm Place to Stand, and thought I would share it here. This also happens to be a theme we will discuss at Living Room this Friday.

I dedicate this post to Chica.

I Don’t Believe in If Anymore
©marja bergen

With the greatest determination, I used to cling to what was left of my mind’s composure. I felt as though I were hanging from the edge of a high rooftop, white-knuckled, panicky with fear. How long can I hold on like this? Can I maintain my strength? What will happen if I let go? Exhaustion overwhelmed me. Far below was the hard ground and no one to catch me if I fell.

But I did fall – quite often. These experiences were devastating and difficult to recover from. The support I received from family, friends and my doctor was helpful, but I was alone in the battle.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem If was like a bible to me during many years of my illness. I described in Riding the Roller Coaster how meaningful this poem became, how I patterned my life after its good counsel, how I carried it with me for many years. It encouraged me to become a productive and responsible person. I still think highly of the poem and try to go along with most of its advice. I follow through on my dreams, don’t worry about what others say and try as much as possible to “…fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.” But I no longer listen to the challenge Kipling leaves us with these words:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will, which says to them, “Hold on!”

For twenty-three years, I tried to live out those lines when I was in crisis. I tried with my best willpower to survive the mental turmoil that overtook me. I was determined to be strong, hanging on to whatever I could, but not finding much of substance. Those were times of anxiety and fear.

Coping with crisis finally changed for the better when I could no longer deny that God is real. I realized I didn’t have to depend on myself alone. I could relax my grip and trust in someone much stronger than me.

The faith I learned to have in a God who loves me too much to let me go helps me cope better with stress. Extreme difficulties no longer develop as often. Sometimes I still have a fear of falling, and for good reason. But today I have a Bible that tells me, “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10, NLT) Remembering this gives me comfort when I need it. I am not as afraid anymore.

Challenging periods will always be part of my life. There will be times when I’ll have trouble. I may even fall. But I know that when I do, there will be someone there to catch me and stay with me as I recover. I’ll never be alone again.

Hanging on the wall across from my bed is a photograph of a child’s small hand resting comfortably on her father’s big hand. Underneath are the words from Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” During tough times, I look at that photograph and feel a sense of peace. No longer is there a need for white-knuckled fists, no longer a need to rely on my own inadequate strength.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Play as comfort for the soul

I thank everyone who commented on my last post. You are encouraging me to keep on with my new painting hobby.

Over the last few days I've been thinking of how comforting creative activity can be. I remember times in my life when it was very much soul food for me.

When I was seven years old I was sent away from my home in Amsterdam to stay at a place we called a "colony." This was an institution in the countryside for city children who were unhealthy. Here we stayed for six weeks while the nurses tried to fatten us up by feeding us lots of starchy foods - lots of bread. Parents were only allowed to visit half way through this six week period. I stayed in one of these places two years in a row.

It was a traumatic time for me, a shy little girl who found it hard to be away from home. I remember the nurse's harsh command to us at bedtime to lie facing the same direction, a ploy to keep us from talking. I remember the shrill yelling at me to get into the shower in the steamy institutional bathroom where we had all lined up naked. "Get in there! Now!" I was terribly frightened, since I had only taken baths in our zinc washtub at home. I was afraid of the hot water splashing all over my face.

One day I got locked into the bathroom by accident while everyone else went out for a walk. I panicked. Here I was, all alone, with no one to hear me. I cried and screamed. Finally, someone did come and let me out. This nurse was kind and compassionate. She got me settled at a table by a window with some coloring pencils and paper. Here, with the warm sunshine pouring down on me, I enjoyed a peaceful hour by myself, looked after by someone who cared about my feelings. That was one of the few enjoyable times I had in that place.

Throughout my adult life, ever since I first got sick at the age of nineteen, I have turned to creative activity to help me through depressions and to keep depression at bay. The solace of quiet playing with paints, photoshop, or embroidery thread restores me. Making something beautiful with my heart and hands is powerful medicine. It feeds my soul.