Jim’s Personal Bipolar Journey
Do you know that countless others have gotten well and are staying well from their mental illnesses? There are plenty of success stories. In spite of occasional struggles, they’ve rebuilt stable, meaningful, productive lives. So don’t just survive, thrive! Here’s how I did it.
In 1989, next to me on my motel bed, I laid lethal dosages of two medications and a fifth of rum. Beside the pills lay a .357 Magnum revolver. Despair had set in—suicide was my next move.
My death would be painless—either a drug overdose or a lethal shot to the head—and I debated which to use. Either way, my lifelong inner hurt and current unbearable torture would soon be over.
I had Outward Success but Inner Pain
Most people saw me as a successful pastor. Yet in the fall of 1988, I lost my desire to live. A long history of childhood emotional and sexual abuse had finally caught up with me. In addition, I struggled with other stresses and was exhausted from nonstop organizing, counseling, and meetings.
In three of the five churches I had served, I’d been ravaged by people who’d broken financial promises and stung me with ruthless, unwarranted criticisms.
At one church, I’d even received death threats toward me, my wife, and our two young sons because my preaching focused on Bible-centered theology rather than the current denominational policies and programs.
But it’s difficult for a pastor to defend himself. If he were to strike back at his critics, or sue his church for having violated their contract with him, he would be removed from his post.
In 1986, I accepted a call to a large church in California. Every program I started there exceeded my expectations—I tingled with excitement! But mixed with my joy were severe depressions. They immobilized me for days at a time. Yet no one ever noticed the inner desperation hiding behind my outward accomplishments. I echoed the prophet Jeremiah and cried out to God, “Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails?”
Outwardly I acted pleasant, but inside I was numb and angry and miserable. I had everything to live for, yet inwardly I despaired.
Thoughts of ending my life soon blackened my mind, and I couldn’t shake them off. Although my wife and two sons had always been precious to me, and I found my work rewarding, I just didn’t care anymore—about anything or anyone.
I had to escape the pain of this all-engulfing depression. When I considered the effects my “exit” would have on my family and others, I could only focus on frightening, inexpressibly lonely thoughts, which only made me feel worse.
Even Successful People Can Have a Mental Illness
Before this crisis, when I was in college, I played football and wrestled at varsity level. I also boxed, winning Golden Gloves heavyweight championships in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
For two college summers, I did social work and coached football with teenage gangs in New York City.
While in seminary, I worked in a college ministry of a large downtown Boston church with Harvard, MIT, and Boston University students. In addition, I served for six months as the student chaplain to the men’s violent ward at Danvers State Mental Hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts.
Through nine years of hard work, I earned my Master’s of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees. I was well-read on psychological issues, and for years had taught Bible studies on numerous life-crises topics.
Nearly every month during my first twenty years of ministry, I counseled at least four to six men who were depressed or suicidal.
I spoke at chapels for professional football and baseball teams, and was listed in two Who’s Who books.
I mention these things about my background to show that anyone is vulnerable to getting a mental illness like clinical depression, bipolar disorder (manic depression), or schizophrenia—no matter what a person’s abilities, intelligence, accomplishments, or degree of spirituality.
Why would a devoted husband and father, athlete, scholar, and senior pastor of three large churches want to commit suicide?
Starting in 1984, I began to realize I’d been seriously emotionally injured from childhood and adult traumas and was badly depressed. I thought I could handle my depression and anger outbursts on my own—but I couldn’t. In spite of all that I had going for me—my terrific family, my ministry, and my effective track record of people I’d saved from taking their own lives—I couldn’t pull out of my own emotional nosedive.
Finally, yet suddenly, my life fell apart in November of 1988 while I was working as a pastor at a 3,500-member church.
A series of minor stressful events, and caustic criticisms by several people, pushed me into a deep, depressive spiral. My thoughts simmered in self-pity, anger, and despair.
When I first began thinking about ending my life, I realized I was in a risky condition and needed help quickly. That day, I made an appointment with a psychologist. He agreed that it was essential for me to have professional help in a hospital setting.
I voluntarily entered the psychiatric unit of a local hospital and ended up spending five long, agonizing months there. About three weeks after being discharged, I felt I was still unstable and I entered another mental hospital, where I stayed for nearly a month. There I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness.
During my hospitalizations, I discovered that bipolar disorder runs in my family. But my depressive episodes did not simply come out of the blue, nor were they triggered solely by my genes. Some of the key causes were:
- emotional abuse by my mother, father, grandmother, and uncle;
- sexual molestation by my mother and grandmother;
- vicious treatment by three churches I’d served as senior pastor; and
- my long-held, macho spiritual belief that I could solve my own problems by forcing myself to pray and read the Bible more.
What’s Happened since My Six Months of Hospitalization?
After my lengthy hospitalization, I flew blindly in the dark for several years, trying to survive and cope with my perilous moods. I felt like a novice pilot flying on a moonless night, caught in a terrible thunderstorm without any maps, radio, or navigation instruments.
I desperately wanted to rebuild my life, but other than obediently swallow psychiatric medications—and endure their awful side effects—I didn’t have a clue how to get better. As a result, I continually beat myself up for not being able to control my moods.
Those years of ignorance about the recovery process meant that I merely “existed.” I constantly had to adjust to a roller coaster existence of extreme and often-dangerous mood swings that, at the time, seemed absolutely unpredictable. I didn’t know about recovery tools or the role that stress plays in erupting mood flare-ups.
During my first few years out of the hospital, I could only find a few books on bipolar disorder. I read these and whatever else I could find about mental illness recovery, sexual abuse, and family dysfunction.
Despite this new knowledge, the agony of severe depression and the torment of mania’s cruel agitations and sleep deprivations, were, at times, almost too hard to bear. My volatile mood shifts forced my family and me to live continually on edge.
Oppressive bouts of painful hopefulness and suicidal depression lasted for days, and sometimes as long as six months. During those terrible seasons, I answered few phone calls and avoided people as much as possible.
At night, during depressed “down” times, it was almost impossible to fall asleep quickly or to experience sound, peaceful sleep. Current stresses and memory flashbacks tormented my thoughts with constant replays.
In manic periods, I suffered episodes that lasted up to three months, with weeks of only two or three hours of sleep a night, and some weeks with none. During those times, I vibrated with energy, optimism, and extensive plan making, but also suffered from extreme irritability and irrational judgment.
These mood swings took their toll: for the first few years out of the hospital, I cancelled half my appointments due to depressive isolations, manic over-scheduling, or exhaustion.
Because of my illness, I couldn’t return to full-time work as a pastor and was able to work only as a volunteer in part-time church-related positions. On top of this, I had ongoing conflicts with my church denomination’s insurance company over my psychiatric coverage. This stress worsened my already radical mood changes.
I knew I needed professional help. Since 1988, I’ve seen my psychiatrist and psychologist regularly. To date, I have tried over fifty different psychiatric medications, with most causing intolerable side effects and only a few being helpful.
In 1997, my psychiatrist finally found an effective medication that caused minimal side effects. In addition to educating myself about recovery methods and tools, this drug has greatly stabilized me. Episodes of depression or mania, which used to last from one to six months, now only last a few hours, days, or a week at most.
Now, for the most part, I am at peace. I function well and experience only occasional, short setbacks. I am also productive in helping others with my writing, speaking, teaching, counseling, and consulting. That I am alive, happy, active, and productive is truly a miracle from God!
Things I Lost Due to My Bipolar Disorder
My illness has cost me a lot of things, some large and some small. The loss of each one hurt me, but these are the ones that impacted me the most:
I lost my career as a full-time pastor. Full-time pastoring can be demanding, hectic, and nerve-wracking. The long hours, stresses, and conflicts set off too much pain. It was too risky for me to re-enter that stressful full-time “pastor arena.”
I lost friends and colleagues. Many completely avoided me. Some condemned me for being possessed by demons, or for not confessing all my sins.
Because I took medications and saw therapists, others scolded me for being “unspiritual,” claiming I had a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal my illness.
At times, I lost the support of my wife and sons. Sometimes my family had to avoid or withdraw from me, afraid they’d activate my anger, depression, or mania. They endured the aggravations of my memory lapses, silent isolations, frequent refusals to answer the phone, periodic temper flashes, shirking of my fair share of chores, sleeping all day or staying up all night, and countless other irritations.
In his book When Even the Devil Deserts You, Ed Cooper describes how he feels about the pain of being distanced from his loved ones:
Do you know the hurt I feel when I look into my family’s faces and see their fear? Fear of me and what I have become. I try to tell them I will not hurt them and to explain it is not their fault. I try to reach out to them to ease their sorrow, but I fail to be a comfort because I cannot hide the agony of my soul.
Oh, how I identify with Cooper, because, so often, my family, friends, and relatives evaded discussing or even learning about my mental illness.
I lost my emotional resilience. I became more easily hurt by critical comments and actions of others. I grew far more sensitive to phony “love” and had a hard time being around judgmental people, both religious and non-religious.
I lost my sense of peace. During the worst times, I could find no solace in God. I often raged at him for my losses and then felt guilty for not trusting him with my circumstances.
I lost the support of the Christian community. For several years, I attended few worship services, church events, or clergy meetings. I avoided them because interacting with church people and pastors was emotionally draining.
At church or clergy-related activities, someone would inevitably make a stinging remark. Early in my recovery, it only took one negative comment to knock me into a depressive episode. It hurt to be slammed by insensitive, unloving comments from people who should have been safe.
In addition, I was turned off by some of the unbiblical theology (about mental illness, suffering, and healing) that came from clergy, laypersons, worship services, and denominational meetings.
However, I’ve processed most of these wounds and have found peace again and I am actively worshiping in a local church—and my relationship with God is the best it has ever been.
How I Recovered
What did I do to heal and reconstruct from the effects of my brain-soul disorder? The process of rebuilding my life meant starting over and over after depressive or manic episodes and never giving up when my efforts failed—I just tried something else. These are the strategies that worked for me:
I worked hard to repair and enhance my marriage. This meant getting marriage counseling, reading books on marriage, and changing my attitudes and communication habits.
In spite of her own inner wounds, my awesome wife Leah has risen above them to be an anchor for me in countless storms. Time and again, she listened to me, comforted me, prayed for me, and offered helpful advice. This has enriched our trust, security, and intimacy.
I often initiated candid, one-on-one conversations with my wife and sons. These clarified current and potential future misunderstandings. Fortunately, they were willing to process the hurts I’d caused them. This, I believe, helped them overcome the negative changes they’d seen in me.
This open discussion was immensely helpful for all of us. It strengthened our closeness, added to our sense of security, and provided many opportunities to laugh at ourselves.
I made it a priority to create positive relationships with safe people. It took enormous courage to reach out to others and initiate get-togethers, but my efforts certainly paid off and made a big difference with my family and friends.
They knew of my ongoing struggles and failures yet continued to believe in me and never gave up on me. Their support and input kept me afloat in countless storms.
I played never-ending practical jokes and shared countless gags with friends and strangers. This often produced outrageous fun and gave fresh outlook that somehow distanced me from a lot of my pain, anxiety, and agitation.
I scheduled regular breakfasts and lunches with encouraging friends. These times provided safe opportunities to vent and receive acceptance, affirmation, and guidance. These get-togethers forced me to de-isolate myself and pulled me out of many tailspins. Plus, they gave me opportunities to share new jokes.
I regularly attended 12-step groups for support, healing, and guidance. These gave me practical ways of handling problems and great insights into myself and others.
I read the Bible, recovery literature, and other inspirational, psychological, and self-help books. I spent considerable time and money devouring more than 350 books and articles. I researched the causes, treatment, and recovery from bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder, stress, and family dysfunction. I also learned about methods to recover from emotional, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.
I obviously benefitted from applying this information to my own life, but, amazingly, my attempts at passing on these “tricks of the trade” have saved and enhanced the lives of many others.
I prayed when stressed. I mentally applied the complete Serenity Prayer (attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr) to my specific circumstances:
God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference; living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that you will make all things right if I surrender to your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with you forever in the next. Amen.
Additionally, I disciplined myself to thank God every morning for at least three blessings of the previous day. This simple exercise created a positive shift in my outlook that strengthened my inner resolve.
I attended conferences, seminars, and lectures on mental disorders. These gave me greater knowledge of mental illness, and gave me recovery strategies to live with my “new normal.” I also gained the benefit of making friends with fellow strugglers.
I participated in a “ladies-only” YMCA water aerobics class for eight years as their token male. They warmly welcomed me, laughed at my awful jokes, listened to my manic chatter, and didn’t judge my illness-caused absences. This class provided helpful exercise, fun, and an improved perspective of my situation.
I started Comfort Zone, a free support group for people who are mentally injured. After twenty years, it still meets weekly, and has added to my development as a “wounded healer.” Also, its meetings have introduced me to many new friends.
I presented to numerous men’s and women’s groups, church groups, and psychiatric hospital patients and staffs. I taught at mental illness conferences, workshops, and seminars, as well as college and seminary classes. These events gave me new purpose and were, for the most part, positive healing experiences.
I authored books and self-help articles for emotionally damaged people, their families, and their friends. I wrote these out of gratitude for the aid I received, and as an attempt to share my experiences.
Among my writing projects was a much-praised and award-winning autobiographical self-help book titled Bipolar Disorder: Rebuilding Your Life. For me, writing is therapeutic, energizing, and satisfying.
If I Can Do It, You Can Too
Let’s face it—if you’ve got mental health issues, you will suffer setbacks: your doctors will fail you, your medications won’t work, or people will let you down. But disappointments need not be defeats—there are countless success stories about people who, in spite of occasional struggles, now live stable, meaningful, and productive lives. An important part of this healing process is to implement practical recovery steps, but it is also critical to connect (or reconnect) with God.
Here are some practical suggestions for managing ups and downs that have worked for me and countless others:
- Accept the reality that for anyone, especially emotionally injured persons, living well means coping with and overcoming obstacles and setbacks.
- Never give up. Recovery is all about forcing yourself to get up again and again.
- Realize that there may be new, more effective ways to deal with your problems than what you’ve tried so far.
- Continue the lifelong process of educating yourself and others about your illness, its treatments, and recovery strategies. This can involve 12-step or recovery materials, as well as psychology books and articles. Search the Internet. Listen to CDs. Attend mental illness seminars and conferences. Keep asking questions. Never stop learning.
- Use a professional team that includes a therapist, doctor, and/or psychiatrist.
- Build a personal, non-professional team of safe, good-listening, hope-building friends and family members, as well as finding an organized support group.
- Work at keeping a positive attitude about yourself, life, others, and God (or your higher power).
- Seek to improve your conscious contact with God (or your higher power) through prayer, meditation, and other spiritual techniques.
- Laugh a lot. Try to read a cartoon or joke several times each week.
- Exercise regularly and eat healthy foods in balanced amounts.
- Find fun and fulfillment doing hobbies and other activities.
- Reinvent yourself. In spite of your losses, find your special purpose in life. Use your unique skills and experiences (the good, bad, and ugly ones) to make the world a better place.
- Regularly reach out to help others, especially those suffering from a mental disorder.
- Set realistic, measurable goals.
Consider implementing these recovery tactics and tools to stabilize yourself, and experiment to find what works best for you.