I honestly thought I would never in my life write that there are any benefits to being bipolar. The very worst times of my life have been when I have been unwell, and my life has been forever changed because of my illness.
Now, some ten years since diagnosis, I have come to a position of wellness. I can’t claim to be cured, although my hope is that I don’t get ill again, obviously. I still have bipolar disorder, but it is currently in a period of remission, and I feel as well now as I did back before I got the condition.
Difficult though it is I can see some “benefit” to being bipolar. The main one being that I appreciate, I love my life now that I am feeling well far more than I ever did before I became ill. I feel joyful knowing I am well, that my mind is my own again, precisely because I have experienced the reverse. It may seem to be a poor benefit, and I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t swap this life for one free from illness, but it is a silver lining in the dark cloud that is my illness.
There are other benefits, that I have mentioned before, other reasons why I am able to look at my life and my mental health and still say “God is good”. I believe that I would not have the compassion for others, especially others with mental health problems, that drives my life today if I had never experienced mental distress myself. My ambition in life now is to work as a chaplain to a mental hospital, and my particular interest really lies in people like myself, as I think is natural, that is people who have bipolar/depression and particularly self-harmers. A very secret hope of mine is that someday I will have the chance to speak to a young person about self injury, about my experience and give some hope – and also say not just that it does get better, but that God doesn’t condemn them, doesn’t hate them, that they are not possessed or especially sinful, that Jesus understands their pain and understands what it is to live a life scarred and misunderstood.
Unfortunately I don’t know any young people, and am very shy. Although that too is better than it was – when I was a teenager I was so painfully shy I only spoke in whispers and tried my hardest to show no emotion on my face. I still walk with a slight stoop from years of trying to make myself as small as possible so that no one would notice me. Years of effort have slowly helped me with the shyness (although frankly it would have helped if someone had done something when I was a teenager) and I am much better at talking to people now. In fact I’d say most people are unaware that I feel anxious when talking to new people, as I mostly keep it under control and rarely collapse into the shaking, stammering and hyperventilating wreck that I used to. Again, I appreciate and love talking to people now, I love the easy way I can communicate and I love being able to smile, and seeing people smile back.
This weird benefit, this weird way that I appreciate good things because I have experienced the opposite is something I can see in other areas. I love reading exciting testimonies, stories of murderers, drug dealers, gang members who come to Christ, and are changed. I partly love this because their world (as it was) is so very different to my own, but also because you can see the difference in their lives so much clearer than in my own (I admit to feeling a little envious!).
In my last church there was a man who, in his youth, had killed a man in a sectarian struggle in Northern Ireland. When he told me I could not believe it – this was the man who I first saw absolutely covered in children who were sticking stars to his head! He babysits for many of the parents in the church and is a genuinely lovely guy. When he told me of his past I thought, what a wonderful witness to Jesus this man really is. To become the man I know he must have been changed. He is now a man of tolerance and peace and works to bring others to Christ – something I am sure he is good at, because he comes from the sort of background that other people – other men – from similar backgrounds would respect.
I have to admit that stories like his sometimes make me feel inadequate. I cannot show a massive difference in my life and behaviour pre- and post-conversion. While I fully understand that I was and am a sinner in need of grace, my sins were not so massive as the man I knew, or others. Of course I realise that:
There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22a-24)
But somehow it would feel more satisfying if I had sinned more than I did. With my theological hat on I say that there is no difference between the smallest flash of greed or pride or jealousy and full-blown murder in terms of needing the grace of God to escape the due punishment, but my human (carnal?) mind sees a difference. Paul talks about something similar when he says:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:1-2)
Sometimes it feels as though if only I had sinned more then I would feel and understand the grace of God more - of course I know this is not a good thing! I cannot, now, sin deliberately – as Paul says in Romans – I must learn to appreciate that while I cannot say I committed a huge sin and was forgiven, I can say that I deserved death and was given life, regardless of the “seriousness” of my sin, God was still far from me, and for me he still came near.
This has gone a little off-tangent but I think it is important. While I appreciate my life more because my condition has caused problems, and I can understand why Christians who have been saved from a life of heinous crime and sin appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice that much more, I sometimes struggle. Or at least, I struggle when well, because when I am depressed I tend to think I am a much worse sinner than others anyway! Sometimes I think that I am a bit like the Prodigal’s brother, who was jealous of the feasting and partying for his brother when he repented and returned to his Father. He asked why he was never given a feast, when he had not sinned, had been a “better” son than his brother. His Father responded:
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:31-2)
I know that the context of this parable is that the prodigal brother is us and the other brother is representative of the scribes and the Pharisees, those who kept the Law but did not repent before God, and were jealous of these sinners who Jesus assured were forgiven, thinking that they did not deserve this grace. I must guard against a tendency to resent those who experience “greater” grace through their salvation from sin, and against a tendency to be like a Pharisee as this quote from the Believers’ Bible Commentary shows:
The older son is an eloquent picture of the scribes and Pharisees. They resented God’s showing mercy to outrageous sinners. To their way of thinking, if not to God’s, they had served Him faithfully, had never transgressed His commandments, and yet had never been properly rewarded for all of this. The truth of the matter was that they were religious hypocrites and guilty sinners. Their pride blinded them to their distance from God, and to the fact that He had lavished blessing after blessing upon them. If they had only been willing to repent and to acknowledge their sins, then the Father’s heart would have been gladdened and they too would have been the cause of great celebration.
Lord, make me aware of all You have done for me, and let me rejoice in my salvation, in Your sacrifice for my sins. Let me not think I am more worthy than another, but see myself as a child who was as in need of grace as the chief of sinners. And see myself as someone lucky enough to receive that grace, by Your will. Let me appreciate You, and in this time free from illness may I learn to love You more, and serve You better, and to reach out to those who are suffering as I once was.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.