Monday, April 28, 2008

The pain of stigma in the church

I haven't thought for a while about stigma within the church. My life has been pretty insulated. I don't feel the effects of such stigma. But every once in a while I hear a story that gets my blood boiling. It's not simple anger I feel, though. It's more like pain.

Someone who used to come to Living Room but can't anymore, told me how much the group had meant to her. Our support group had helped make her well. She is so enthusiastic about Living Room that she had decided to start a group of her own in another part of town. But what has been holding her back is that she finds it hard to get established or feel good in a church. And Living Room needs a church to sponsor the program.

This friend has painful memories of how her husband, who suffers from severe anxiety, was treated in the past at a church he attended with her. Members of the church tried exorcising his "demons" and told him he had no faith. I sense the pain she feels about not feeling she can get involved in a regular church. She has been hurt so much! So many have experienced similar rejection and judgement. The people who most need a place to experience God's love are all too often shunned.

At our Living Room meeting on Friday a lady told us about being at church with her daughter. When she explained to someone that her daughter had schizophrenia, the person replied, "It's a demon that causes that, you know." He said that with the daughter standing right beside them.

This ignorance causes such a lot of pain! When are people going to understand the medical truth about mental disorders? When will this attitude change? People who struggle with mental health issues need to be embraced by the church and given full support and love, following Christ's example.

There's nothing as painful to people who love God to be told they have a demon or that it's their lack of faith that's making them sick. This is a tragic situation that we simply can't allow to continue. This is an attitude we need to fight with everything we've got. We need to write and speak about this in such a way that people will listen.

This is what started me writing my latest book, A Firm Place to Stand. It will be published in two months or so and I pray that it will help educate Christians and help them to be compassionate rather than judgemental. Please, God, let it make a difference.

Friday, April 25, 2008

What makes you strong?

I listened to a talk given by John Stumpo to a group of pastors at a conference. One thing he said that impressed me was this:

"Your strength is not in what you do well but in what makes you strong - in what feeds you."

That's so true. A couple of years ago I would never have dreamed I could be doing the things I'm doing now. I was like some of the biblical figures, saying to God, "but I can't do that. I'm too small. I'm too weak." Yet I did end up doing it, listening to the call. And I'm becoming stronger as a result - emotionally and spiritually. I'm a different person than I was two years ago, because I'm doing something that feeds me, something I was cut out to do. Thing is, I never imagined I was cut out to do this. I am leading a life that I would never have thought possible for me.

It's amazing how God works! Amazing the journey He can take us on!

When I think back to 43 years ago...many months in a mental hospital...staff not holding out much hope for worker talking me out of going back to school, suggesting it was beyond me...many periods of psychosis...afraid to talk in front of groups...low self esteem...not able to work at even a part time job.

Thank you, God, for where you've taken me. Thank you for helping me become a strong person. Thank you for helping me out of the victim role and into the role of supporter. You are an awesome God!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

One track mind

I've been feeling kind of bad lately that all I seem to have to talk about or want to talk about is Living Room. My mind has been on a single track. Everyone must be getting very tired of this.

Yet my work is Living Room. It's so very important to me. But I know there's more to life than this.

At times I think I'm living like a nun, cloistered. I don't read the newspapers, don't listen to the news on the radio, don't watch any TV, hardly ever rent a movie. The only books I read - and I do read a fair amount - are the Bible and Christian non-fiction. I've quit photography because I feared it would distract me from my mental health work.

I do work out. I do play games with my husband when we have free evenings. And I'm going through the process of getting my book published, but that's mental health related as well.

My purpose in life is to help erase the stigma attached to mental illness, especially the stigma in the church. In the process I want to support people with mental health issues and help churches learn how to give support. This is the work God has given me to do. I feel comfortable doing these things. Living this kind of life makes me feel strong and well.

And yet...

I was reading a book yesterday about how to live the Christian life and found, deep in the middle of the book, a paragraph where the author mentioned she was bipolar. Just one little mention - nothing else. Wish I could focus away from my illness a little more than I do - more like this author did. Maybe one day.

In the meantime, I do think God wants me to be an activist. I feel moved to speak out as much as I can. I feel I need to help Christians learn how to support those who struggle with mental health issues.

Just hope people don't get tired of me.

Monday, April 21, 2008

An all-embracing place

First of all I want to thank all of you who commented on my last post. I'm sorry I haven't been more prompt about responding to you all. Just haven't had a lot of time or energy for blogging - so many other things to do.

Our discussion about alienation made me think of Living Room and how that's one place where I don't think anyone feels out of place or on the outside looking in. In searching the web on this topic I found out that self-help groups are excellent places to overcome feelings of alienation. I can see how that is true.

At Living Room each person is warmly welcomed. No matter what their emotional condition, they are fully accepted. Our open sharing of things that are usually kept secret from people on the outside is healing. Because of this transparency with each other, we come to love and appreciate each other for who we are. And with God at the center and Jesus as our example, how could we go wrong? The result is a very special place where everyone feels he/she belongs.

My prayer is that members of Living Room will take this sense of belonging with them to the world outside as well. I pray that they will gain confidence, knowing that they're not so different from others in that they're each special before God.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Like an alien

My pastor has been speaking lately about how Christians are like aliens in the world. We're different in many ways from those who don't follow Christ - in the ways we think and act.

I don't know if I've talked about this before (couldn't find it in recent posts, though I felt I had talked about this not long ago), but often I feel like an alien in the world, and even at church. As a teen I had social phobia, and it crops up again every now and then. In searching the internet I found that often social phobia is linked with mood disorders.

Research published by Cambridge University Press found that "Strong associations exist between lifetime social phobia and major depressive disorder (odds ratio 2·9), dysthymia (2·7) and bipolar disorder (5·9). Odds ratios increase in magnitude with number of social fears. Reported age of onset is earlier for social phobia than mood disorders in the vast majority of co-morbid cases. Temporally-primary social phobia predicts subsequent onset of mood disorders, with population attributable risk proportions of 10–15%. Social phobia is also associated with severity and persistence of co-morbid mood disorders."

I guess it's natural that having a mood disorder is going to make you feel different from others, like you don't fit in, like you're on the outside looking in. We are different in many respects. But those are such very uncomfortable feelings to have.

On the blogs I've heard many say how they don't feel comfortable at church. They don't feel accepted; they feel judged. It's one reason many stop going to church. But maybe these are false perceptions caused by social phobia. I know that my feelings of not fitting in are usually due to my own perceptions - not the perceptions of others.

When I reach out to others, not thinking about myself but thinking about the people around me, these feeling disappear. This, I believe is the solution to the problem. If we can stop thinking about our own needs but turn our thoughts to the needs of the people around us, our social phobia can stop being an issue.

I guess the biblical teachings to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is something we need to live by if we're to overcome feelings of alienation. If we can think of others, have the courage to reach out to others and show our love for them we will soon feel more like we fit in. Others will then reach out to us and we will feel that we belong. The old adage: "to have a friend you need to be a friend" is a valuable lesson we should not forget.

I know all this, and yet...every once in a while I still feel like an alien in a foreign land.

And...reaching out takes courage, especially when - perhaps - you're not feeling very confident or good about yourself.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Our life: a gift from God

When I was a teen I read a story in a magazine about someone who had done something to help disadvantaged people. I don't remember the details of the story but I clearly remember thinking to myself how I would like to do something to make a difference. Here I was, a shy (or depressed) young girl with social phobia, afraid to speak up in class, but wanting one day to do something really special to help others.

On Sunday Pastor Don talked about how this was true for many of us when we were in our teens and early twenties, before we became consumed with responsibilities. We wanted to make the world a better place. Yet so many of us get distracted as we get older. We need to make an income - and we work to make the best income we can so that we can afford the many things we need. ...And then we work a little harder so that we can afford luxuries as well. Earning money is a good thing, yet - in Pastor Don's words: "What most squeezes us into the world's mold is materialism. Our materialistic drive is really what keeps us from being serviceable to God....we serve ourselves; we serve a materialistic God."

"Live with an attitude of reverence and awe for the life that's been given to you. Every day is a gift from God. God has placed a value on our life. Jesus paid for our lives by his work on the cross." Every once in a while we need to stand back and look at this life God gave us and placed so much value on. How much of what we do really matters in the final analysis? We need to set the course of our lives with the final destination in mind. Is it going to be what will earn us most money? Or are we going to live our lives so that we can make a difference?

In closing Pastor Don said, "The most significant thing you can do is to build into the lives of others." This is something every one of us can do. Peter echoes Jesus' call to love each other: " one another deeply, from the heart." (1Peter 1:22) This is a love that will feel others' joys as well as their pain. We can make a difference in this world and it doesn't always have to be anything grand. We can make a difference in the lives of the individuals whose lives we person at a time.

And if we do so we will find ourselves blessed.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

And by the way...

The Living Room meeting on Friday was awesome once more. Another big turnout of 22 people and a great discussion on the topic: "No one is indispensable."

Many members took part in the discussion. One person said that Jesus is the only one who is indispensable. Pastor Don said that it's the act the person does that is indispensable, not the person himself. One man disagreed with that, saying he would not be where he is today without someone who helped him find God and turn his life around. He felt that no other person but that one could have done that. ...and could another person have contributed what Einstein did?

In my own life, I know there would not have been a Living Room if it weren't for a number of people who came into my life - people who showed me how great God's love is - and a person who mentored me, encouraged me, and was just the kind of friend I needed. This friend is irreplaceable.

I brought along the comments some of you made on my post on this topic. They helped fill out the discussion very well. I think everyone appreciated your "presence" with us.

Bubbling over

Yesterday I took a day off. I took a day for myself - just resting and reading. It was a beautiful feeling. I felt like I was on holidays. My husband was working all day so I was alone. No one interfered with the quiet solitude I had been craving for a while.

But I was a little high too. I often feel that way after a Living Room meeting. And the more alone I was with my thoughts, the more they started bubbling over. I didn't know what to do with myself. I needed to talk to someone. I so needed to share my feelings and thoughts with someone. How I longed to talk to my best friend who has been away for such a long time now! I tried to call my second best friend, another very important person to me, and she was out. Finally I called my pastor's wife, also a good friend, and was able to let some of those bubbles flow over her. I felt better after that.

I always feel such a need to share my thoughts and feelings with others. I'm sometimes embarrassed about how many emails I send to my pastor, though he has assured me he doesn't mind. (am so happy about that) Don't know if that's a bipolar thing or if it's just my personality. I guess that's what makes me a writer. It's important to me to communicate with others. Can't keep anything to myself. Guess that's an okay thing, isn't it?

If you're reading this and you're bipolar, do you feel that way as well? Do you also have a great need to express your thoughts to others? Do you also bubble over?

Friday, April 11, 2008


I feel so very grateful for where God has brought me. Somewhat overwhelmed when I let myself truly think about it.

I was talking to a friend yesterday about how I had never been able to have a regular job because of my bipolar disorder. I had truly wanted to work and to be "something" and to help contribute to our family income. Many times I tried, but even part time jobs proved to be too stressful. I did work for a couple of years as a freelance photographer, but eventually had to give that up as well.

This friend told me, "But you're working now." And I realized that - although what I do now is not a paid job - I am working pretty steadily at keeping Living Room going and trying to help others set up. As part of that work I give support to individuals within the group when they need it, acting as somewhat of a counselor - a peer counselor - but mostly just being a friend. And then there's my writing and publishing my second book that I will - hopefully - have ready to distribute in a few months.

I'm feeling so very blessed to know that I am now able to work at something worthwhile and that it's not too hard or too stressful for me. In fact, I'm finding great joy in this work and would not think of giving it up.

When I think back to where I was 43 years ago...a young person in a mental hospital, behind locked doors and with bars on the windows.... I was psychotic for so long, paranoid, thinking there were men trying to kill me because I knew of their secret plan to destroy the world. During the day I marched up and down the hospital hallway, away from the windows where my enemies would see me, singing Onward Christian Soldiers in an effort to make them think I was not afraid. I have read my hospital records from that time. Doctors did not hold out much hope for me.

But twenty years later I found God and he has made a big difference in my life. Gradually he has been transforming me until I've become the person I am today - a leader. I still have frequent trouble with symptoms, but I'm able to live with confidence, able to weather the storms when they come.

In the past few years, during times of struggle, I've gone to Jeremiah 29:11 and found encouragement and inspiration there:

"For I know the plans I have for you,"declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

God has a plan for each of us. We just need to learn to let God lead. It's amazing what God can do in our lives when we truly trust him.

I'm so very thankful for where God has brought me.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Susan, of the Bipolar Wellness blog, wrote recently about the search for meaning, quoting some things Viktor Frankl said in his book, Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl said the following: "Everyone has his (or her) own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated."

That made me think of the statement so often quoted: "No one is indispensable." This may be somewhat true in the big picture - in terms of the world - but not completely true at all. Each of us is indispensable as persons of value and worth to the people whose lives we touch and we are of great importance to God. No one can replace us because each of us is unique in who we are and in what we have to offer.

A friend of mine is away on an extended holiday. Her work her is suffering. People who love her and depend on her are suffering because of her absence. She has left a hole. She is irreplaceable. She is indispensable.

Robert Louis Stevenson says something neat on this topic: "So long as we love, we serve. So long as we are loved by others I would almost say we are indispensable; and no man is useless while he has a friend."

Friday, April 04, 2008

Please pass this along

Message for church leaders, people with mood disorders and supporters:

You can give faith-based support to people with mood disorders.
The first Living Room support group, with its home at Brentwood Park Alliance Church in Burnaby, BC, is now nineteen months old. This outreach ministry, in partnership with the Mood Disorders Association of BC, offers Christian support to people with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorders. The group is strong. It has over forty members and draws an attendance of up to twenty per meeting.
On January 30th, 100 Huntley Street aired a story about Living Room. Sherien Barsoum did an excellent job of producing the sixteen minute segment. I am very grateful to her for the work she did. If you didn't catch the broadcast, the interview can now be seen on the homepage of the Living Room website,
Ten years ago, as I was writing my book, Riding the Roller Coaster, I thought constantly of the people I wanted to encourage - people who live with mood disorders as I do. But, although I knew many existed, I didn't know them personally. My audience did not have a face that I could see. Today, at Living Room, I can again support people with mood disorders, but the beautiful thing is that now I can see them, eat with them, and talk with them. Through our devotional times I can encourage them in their journey with their disorder and with God. Together we can share our troubles - as well as our joys - and bring them to God in prayer. For a person in need, looking after others' needs can be healing. At Living Room we all join in looking after each other's needs; we all benefit.
Living Room has become a very special place for me. I love welcoming the people as they come. I love facilitating the meetings. The work brings me joy and helps me feel stronger and cope better with my bipolar disorder. Living Room is now at the heart of what I do in my effort to reduce stigma and to encourage Christian support.
Today, in addition to the group at Brentwood Park Alliance Church, there are two other groups. They meet at:
Another two groups are forming at:
  • Highland Community Church in Abbotsford, BC
  • Glencairn Mennonite Brethren Church in Kitchener, ON
Up to twenty percent of people will, at some time in their life, suffer from a form of mood disorder. Depression is rampant. Christians who suffer in this way very much need the compassionate, non-judgmental support that a group like Living Room can provide. If you know people who might be interested in knowing about Living Room, please forward this email to them, perhaps with a personal note from you. Support for helping new groups set up is available. Please check the website here.

A 26-page collection of sample Living Room devotionals is now available for a small donation by sending your name and address to
In Christ,
marja bergen

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


It's weird. I'm not depressed at all, yet I'm finding it so hard to get moving on the many things I need to do. I've had emails that need to be read and that need responses sitting here for days and I'm not getting to them. It just feels like too much. So many things I need to do, yet all I seem to want to do is retreat and read and read....and I'm not even getting around to doing much of that.

I haven't been visiting all your blogs either. Not that I don't want to. It's just that I have so much on my plate...and I'm having trouble picking up my fork and digging in. Don't know what it is. I'm frozen.

Guess it's time to make a list. Maybe I should buy some good chocolate and reward myself for each little thing I do. That would be a good plan, don't you think?...some good, healthy, dark chocolate. Yes!!!