The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Connecting to God's love

My journey through mental illness to faith

The front pew was comfortable enough, but I decided to move to the very back of the sanctuary. Then I reconsidered and moved to the middle. Why? One word in the worship bulletin: “communion.”

If served from the front, my ignorance of the process would show after a 30-year hiatus from church. They might also begin in the rear. But the middle was safe: I could observe and mimic without embarrassment. 

Five years earlier at age 42, I’d had a joyous revelation that changed the rest of my life. I was diagnosed with rapid cycling Type 1 bipolar disorder. Joy came not from being bipolar, but from having a name for that which had made me a prisoner of my mind. My struggles over the past few decades were no longer personal failures. They had a name, and I had options. 

Inward chaos 

On the surface, my life could seem ideal. I graduated early from high school and college, got married, served as an Army officer in Europe in my 20s, earned a doctorate by 30 and traveled to about 25 countries. Currently I serve as a senior epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, am financially sound, and have wonderful relationships with friends and family. 

Yet until age 42, my outward success was a thin veneer over inward chaos. I graduated early because, unable to connect with family, I left home. My marriage lasted only 71 days. My military service was plagued with mental health problems resulting in a mandatory psychiatric evaluation. I couldn’t stay in any job more than two or three years. Virtually all of my friendships were permanently marred.

Most of all, I was spiritually numb. 

Thoughts of suicide were almost a daily event as I wondered when my mind would betray me again and how bad the next episode would be. Previously I had been misdiagnosed with depression — quite different from bipolar disorder.

While working for a medical examiner’s office in New Mexico where I saw death every day, I decided how to take my own life. In that job, I failed to see any evidence of God in death. But there was peace in the faces of those who were gone — a peace I wanted.

In January 2006, I took 120 Valium pills. I have no memory of the next four days. Waking up in the hospital, I was angry to learn I had survived.

 Fast forward to a few weeks after my diagnosis: driving home from work, I thought, “So this is what regular people feel like.” Medication quickly created a fragile stability, but my bipolar mind wasn’t suddenly well just because the chemicals were better balanced. I needed time and care to cultivate the will to live and develop capacities most people take for granted: the ability to love and forgive, to feel empathy, develop mutually supportive relationships, find joy in serving others and understand that I was a part of something bigger than myself.

I bought a Bible and struggled alone to decipher God’s word and discover God’s plans for me. Soon I realized that I needed a church and people who understood Scripture to help guide me.

My first guide was Bob Mitchell, the pastor who gave me communion that first Sunday at Christ the Lord Lutheran Church in Lawrenceville, Ga. This congregation places great value on service to the community. So I reasoned that even if I failed to make a connection with God, at least I would have served the community well. 

That first Sunday, when Mitchell said to the congregation, “Your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” the lump in my throat and tears in my eyes took me completely by surprise. Still I fought the concept for months: How could forgiveness possibly come that easily?

Reinforcement came over the radio through “Redeemed,” a song by Big Daddy Weave, that told me I was “fighting a fight that’s already been won.” I already had the gift of God’s grace. Here was a loving God who sacrificed a son for my sins (of which there were many), who loves and forgives me in a way I had not been able to love or forgive myself. 

Scripture & growth 

Much of my spiritual growth came from joining an incredible Bible study group at the congregation. For 36 weeks we focused on becoming disciples of Jesus Christ.

The first few evenings while we were getting to know each other, two members shared their frustrations with bipolar relatives. I understood, but wondered if I could ever share my struggles with the group — even as we studied portions of the Bible that focused on individual struggles, healing the sick and compassion for the afflicted. I feared losing the closest thing I had to new friends. 

But if a Bible study full of faithful women wasn’t a safe place to share, no place would be safe. I took the risk, and the purely academic exercise to which I had committed myself became a circle of sisters in Christ.

Previously I had spent a lot of time silently crying out to previous friends whom I had tested to their limits: “Don’t you give up on me!” The evening of my disclosure, nobody gave up. Despite their struggles with bipolar family members, I was loved and supported. 

In watching the group respond to everyday challenges, I learned how to truly care for others. Before I hadn’t understood praying for people because they felt ill, had an argument with a spouse or were dreading another day of difficulties at work. In the life of someone with untreated bipolar disorder, that’s just what happens before breakfast. A challenge worthy of prayer? That would be waking up after a suicide attempt or realizing you had permanently alienated your last friend.

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