Wait for the Lord: be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.
After many years of living with bipolar disorder, I have come to see that my ability to cope with this chronic mental illness correlates with my knowledge of the nature and character of God. When I was first diagnosed, I felt such confusion and despair—the prospect of living with a mental illness shattered my self-image and hope for the future. In desperation and with nowhere else to go, I turned to my latent childhood Christianity in search of a lifeline. My quest has resulted in a strong faith, forged through recurring times of adversity. My faith is not just “nice to have” or a Sunday morning church habit. The stigma, the mood swings, the emotional triggers, the fragility, the exhaustion, and the frustrations would probably have done me in were it not for knowing God.
After a long period of being silent about my mental illness within various church settings for fear of being judged or misunderstood, I was blessed with pastors who had experience with mental health challenges of their own and had a heart for this area of ministry. They were comfortable, compassionate, and knowledgeable in talking to me about my lived experience. They, too, were dismayed by the lack of support within congregations for people living with mental illnesses and had an interest in changing that.
Together, we established a faith-based peer support group for people living with mental illnesses. We met together in the church for a couple of hours on a monthly basis for a devotional and discussion, a time of personal sharing, and prayer. Most of the time we were a faithful few, but our mere existence had a ripple effect throughout the church community. We raised awareness even just by a mention of the peer support group in the bulletin, and the church started to feel like a safe and inclusive space.
I was also invited to talk about my lived experience a couple of times at Sunday morning church services. Once was in the context of a study of Lamentations and how we come to grips with hardships. Another time I was invited to simply share my testimony. The response was unexpected and almost overwhelming—appreciation and admiration for my openness, and compassion and encouragement for my journey. My example also helped embolden others to talk about their own mental health issues.
The stigma of mental illness is pervasive; it can be internalized, social, and institutional. For me, the most foundational words for combating stigma are that we are beloved children of God—that familiar refrain from Sunday School: “Jesus loves me, this I know.” When I am depressed, I do not feel either worthy or loved. After an experience of psychosis, I feel ashamed and humiliated. But knowing that I am an image-bearer and fearfully and wonderfully made helps me to reframe my mindset. What I am feeling is not reality. And it is certainly not God’s perspective. Living with a mental illness does not take anything away from who I am in Christ.
Another fundamental element of faith that has helped me is knowing God as a source of comfort and compassion—our refuge and strength. One of my refrains is Isaiah 40:31 and the assurance that those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. Whenever I see a sparrow I am reminded of Jesus’ words about them and the praise song “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Another comforting verse is from one of Paul’s letters: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). I used to say the verse to myself as I trudged into work in the morning. It encouraged me to press on and continue to put one foot in front of the other.
Finally, I have had to really focus on and cultivate hope and trust. I have learned to wait upon the Lord and press in with the confident expectation that God is there, that he hears me, and that he will move in his perfect timing. Reading the Psalms reinforces the importance of waiting upon the Lord. And on my darkest days, I listen to a recording of a song called “Yet I Will Praise” by Andy Park to help bolster my resolve. The following verse really resonates with me:
And I can’t understand
All that You allow
I just can’t see the reason
But my life is in Your hands
And though I cannot see You
I choose to trust You
The lyrics at the end are spot on:
And when my world is shattered
And it seems all hope is gone
Yet I will praise You Lord
Despite feeling lost, lonely, and isolated, I choose to believe that a loving, compassionate, almighty God is right there with me. I hang on by trusting that he is watching over me and is an ever present help in times of trouble. And sure enough, over time, he proves his faithfulness again and again. I have experienced God’s presence and care in the form of an unmistakable sensation of oil being poured over my head; in a phone call from a friend who said God told her to come to my rescue; and in numerous “God winks,” clear direction or nudges, divine appointments, opportunities, and answers to prayer.
I try to remind myself each day of God’s presence and what Jesus taught us about our Heavenly Father. I listen to praise and worship music to help me stay focused on him and thankful for his love and mercy. I try to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). And I like to learn about new scientific discoveries because they renew my sense of wonder about God and his creation. New photos from the James Webb telescope are evidence enough of his glory and our limited grasp of who God is and the vastness of His works.
Living with bipolar disorder is challenging, but I have been able to survive, and even thrive, because I pressed into God—to know him and his steadfast care for me. My faith has grown and strengthened as a result of my journey with God and my church community. It may wobble a bit from time to time as a result of mood swings but I am able to hold on to reason and to what I know.
My sincere hope is that the Church can help others to come to a place where they truly believe, from their own personal experience, these words of the Psalmist:
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
“You hear, O lord, the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry.”
Helen is a grandmother and retired lawyer/career civil servant. She has a passion for spirituality and mental health advocacy, particularly stigma-busting and encouraging others through a faith-based lens. She feels called to sacrificial service to family. Helen loves music, playing with colour in creative pursuits, writing, reading, and film. And is trying to age backwards with exercise classes, walking, Wordle, and crosswords. Goals for this year include picking up pre-pandemic travel plans and learning to number her post-pandemic days aright.
Cover Photo by Freestocks on Unsplash