What did you want to be when you grew up? My earliest ambition was to be an acrobat – which made my mum laugh, as I was an abnormally clumsy child! Later, I dreamt of writing a novel, of being a politician (!), of finding a fulfilling and intellectually stimulating career where I would be well-known, respected and make lots of money. I quite fancied being a lawyer, actually!
Mental illness changes things. I gained my degree (through the providence of God alone I’m sure) and went out into the big wide world still recovering from the first major bout of bipolar disorder. I applied for the graduate jobs – but wasn’t really in a good state in the interviews, and none of them would take me. I discovered that my degree (divinity) made employers blink and look at me strangely, and that I apparently didn’t have the experience for a graduate job – but had too much education for a normal one. Eventually I took a job as a waitress in a hotel.
Onward and upward, and I managed to get that elusive graduate job, in an IT firm. It was interesting and varied work, and everything was fine until…it wasn’t. It set off my anxiety, and I ended up with a particularly horrible bout of depression, exacerbated by my boss’ reaction when I told him that I had bipolar (resign or be sacked) and which left me in hospital. Another year or so of recovery, and this time I tried being a healthcare assistant. Ill again, and I asked for redeployment, which I managed (just escaping medical retirement) into an administrative job. Ill again. Now, I haven’t been working for two and a half years after being told to just stop, at least for a while, and there are few jobs and those that there are, ask about that gap on my CV.
Being mentally ill has changed my ambitions – by force. The pursuit of riches, power and fame are not important to me. Partly, this is because it is highly unlikely I will achieve them, but my illness has also changed who I am and what I want from life. I want to work for others, for the benefit of others and not for a corporation, not for profit but to genuinely improve others’ lives. As I have been hurt, so I want to help heal, as I have suffered, so I want to ease the suffering of others. More than anything, I want to serve God through others, because it was the fire of illness that brought me to God, and trust in him that has sustained me.
I had not thought before, but followed along with what I learned from others at my school. Money is good, rule over others is good, being famous is something to be desired. Being “successful” was important – success defined in terms of money, in terms of worldly power and fame. I am embarrassed to admit that I cannot go to reunions, nor join the guild which I am entitled to, because I am ashamed to say what sort of job I am looking for, what sort of job I am now qualified to do. I have not exorcised the demons of worldly success yet!
Yet, although there is a part of me which longs for people to say that I have an impressive job, to enjoy the trappings of worldly success, there is another part which no longer wants that. I want instead to feel like I have made a difference, even if it is only a small difference, to someone’s life. I hated the fact that the healthcare assistant job I did made me ill – because I knew I was doing something important there, that with every bum I washed, every plate of food I gave, it was something worthwhile, something that helped others. I had more job satisfaction (as well as, sadly, extensive worry about the patients) in that job than in the one graduate job I managed to get.
Everyone serves God in their own way, of course. Just because you are rich, because you have that worldly success, does not mean you are less Christian, are serving God less than others. It gives me pain, sometimes, to see how my ambition has “fallen” – that somehow I “deserve” those great jobs. That I have “too much education” to be, say, a cleaner, is something I have heard. Sometimes it seems that others, certainly, think that there is a scale of employment with some being better than others – yet while the pay may be different, every job is useful.
Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.
(1 Corinthians 12:15-26)
I have mentioned before that my feelings of wanting to do something useful have coalesced. I want to serve others and, more than that, feel that that is what God wants from me. I think that he has and will use my experience of illness to help others – and what I would like is to be a chaplain to a hospital, and hopefully a mental hospital. I remember all that our chaplain did for me – and those services in the church I attended in London which were so geared to the mentally ill, and so accepting of difference and the different needs of the congregation. I would, in other words, like to go into the ministry. Sometimes I wonder why, but I have had for years the conviction that it is the Anglican church that I should be in – confusing though I find it – and so when we moved up here I started going to the local Anglican church. I am finding it hard, because my only church background is a rather unorthodox Baptist church, so getting to grips with liturgy and so on is difficult for me. I have spoken to the vicar of my church about exploring a sense of calling, and he is trying to get me on a course to understand more of the Church of England, as he obviously realises I know nothing! I haven’t, though, told him about the bipolar. I am frightened to, in case he turns around and says that there is no place for me, that I am not mentally robust enough to serve, that my long history of workplace illness culminating in my being told not work, means that I cannot be considered. I don’t know him very well, and I’m hoping that if he gets to know me better – to see me rather than my illness – that I can tell him, and it will be ok. I think at present he finds me rather strange, but many people do, so that is not a new thing for me!
It is a worry – and last week I managed to over-worry about it, and have a little wobble. There are, now, people in my church who know about my illness – it just sort of came out. I may talk to them. It would be nice to be so open here as I was in London, where everyone from the folk at the pub to the people in my church knew about my illness, my scars, and I didn’t need to hide anything. I hate hiding.
I don’t really know how to conclude this – my ambitions have changed massively since school, as a direct result of my illness. While I sometimes feel a pang when I see on Facebook that this friend and that friend are off to exotic locations for work, that so-and-so has been promoted, that so-and-so is off to a fancy corporate do, I don’t really know that I could live in that world. I don’t think it could manage me, either. Illness has focussed my attention on the human aspects of life – not money, not power, but happiness, contentment, love. In dealing with and acknowledging pain and suffering and trying to help it, in trying to bring comfort to others. I do worry, though, that I might overdo things, over-spend myself, over-worry about others, and make myself ill. I know that is something I would have to deal with, and manage. I worry, too, whether God actually is calling me or whether I am just thinking that that is something I would like to do – and actually he wants me to do something else. But then, I worry a lot.
I’ll leave you with a prayer from St Ignatius of Loyola, which I obtained from Catholic Online (there are lots of other prayers there too):
O Christ Jesus,
when all is darkness
and we feel our weakness and helplessness,
give us the sense of Your presence,
Your love, and Your strength.
Help us to have perfect trust
in Your protecting love
and strengthening power,
so that nothing may frighten or worry us,
for, living close to You,
we shall see Your hand,
Your purpose, Your will through all things.
- Mental Illness and my Faith (believersbrain.com)
- 6 Reasons Why Being Mentally Ill Is Good For Me (therealsupermumblog.com)
- Mental illness, like cancer, is not a lifestyle choice (itv.com)