I’m going to guess that you’re like me and at some point in your life, you have found yourself saying, “If only I’d known then what I know now!” I can say that about being diagnosed with mental illness.
Receiving a mental health diagnosis can be devastating -- at least it was for me. I grew up in the days of mental illness being portrayed in movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When my primary care doctor said she wanted me to see her friend in the mental health department, I remember thinking, "I’m not crazy, I’m not like those people!" Little did I know the long journey that lay ahead of me as I tried to get back on my feet and back to “normal.”
I received the diagnosis of bipolar in 1995 and came to realize that I’d been depressed since at least the age of 14 when I made my first suicide attempt. The next eight years after my diagnosis were full of turmoil, strife and hospitalizations. I went on and off a plethora of medications and saw several therapists. To better understand my depression and help others understand, I wrote poems and drew pictures. Being visual, I needed to portray what my depression felt like.
To me, depression felt like being locked in a black box, void of any light, with no way out and no way in. Clearly, I felt helpless, completely alone and forever stuck.
In 2003, after eight years of medication and therapy, I found myself back in the psych hospital, hopeless and defeated. It seemed as though nothing had really changed and the change I did experience, I referred to as “rubber band change” -- I would change and change back, change and change back -- nothing seemed to stick.
Unlike previous hospitalizations, my treatment team would not release me back to work upon discharge this time and instead put me in an Outpatient Program. I felt at an all-time low, certain that there would never be a way back to a “normal” life.
For the first couple of weeks, I was angry and determined to get out of the program as quickly as possible. Outpatient programs were for people who were really sick, and, in my mind, that didn’t include me! Pretty quickly, it became apparent that there was not going to be an early exit for me.
"IT WAS AS THOUGH GOD WHISPERED IN MY EAR THAT MY BEING THERE MAY NOT BE JUST FOR MY OWN GOOD, BUT EVENTUALLY, THE GOOD OF OTHERS."
With that, my attitude changed completely, and I became an eager student at every group session, seeking some morsel of wisdom and hope to apply to my life and circumstances. The words of the nurse who did my intake echoed in my mind: “There’s a root to your depression….” And I truly wanted to find that root and yank it out.
The six months I spent in the Outpatient Program forever changed my life. It set me on a path for a mental health recovery that has exceeded my wildest imaginations! I see it now as a fulfillment of God’s promise in Ephesians 3:20 (KJV):
"Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations for ever and ever! Amen."
Years later when I came across the picture of me in the black box, I realized that the picture had morphed over time. It turns out that in the box with me was a well-supplied tool box with all the tools needed to get my way out of the box. And I wasn’t alone after all.
Here are seven tools that I have discovered and used along the way:
Outside of the box were family, friends and my treatment team -- they were explaining each tool to me and telling me how to use it. As much as they wanted to break their way into the box and rescue me, the only way out was for me to use the tools to get out.
My passive participation and misplaced expectations that meds and talk therapy alone would make me well had, in fact, kept me in the revolving door of the psych hospital and hopelessly stuck for eight years. Therapy requires much more than just showing up. It only works when you’re fully engaged, honest, vulnerable and do the homework your therapist asks of you.
Withholding information is like giving your therapist a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and keeping back 200 pieces, all the while expecting them to figure it all out. Medications only work when you take them consistently and don’t play around with them or combine them with substance abuse.
It turns out that life-changing therapy is hard work! At times it is unpleasant, painful, enraging and even embarrassing. It wasn’t enough for me to learn I had “stinkin’ thinkin’.” In order to get well, I had to challenge that thinking and make the choice to change it. When I read my journals today, I’m amused at the love/hate relationship I had with my (final) therapist -- I was often angry with her and at other times vowing never to see her again! So often I wrote that it all seemed pointless and nothing would ever really change. How thankful I am to God that she chose not to give up on me! (Thank you, Terry!)
After years of fighting medications, I made peace with my lifelong need to treat the bipolar disorder. At one time my med cocktail included multiple anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds, anti-psychotics, mood stabilizers and sleeping aids. The more successful work I did with my therapist, the safer it was for my psychiatrist to begin weaning me down to only the most necessary meds for stability.
God has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember and so much more so on this journey! I’d been so wrong to believe that God was disgusted by me and sorry He had ever created me. Getting to know God at a deeper level and understand His true character was essential for my recovery and has opened the door to greater mercy, grace, blessings and hope.
Being a Christian who was depressed felt like such an offense to God and made me feel ungrateful and hypocritical. But all along God had a vision and purpose for what I was going through and was leading me to a ministry to help others going through the same thing -- to give them the assurance that they are not a disappointment to Him and they are not “bad” Christians because they’re depressed.
As soon as I was strong enough, I went back to school to get a degree in psychology. I wanted to understand everything I could about depression, medication, treatment modalities and other mental illnesses. I was a voracious reader of self-help, psycho-babble books. I was like a sponge trying to absorb everything I could to help myself and to help others.
I took a field psychology class which led me to start volunteering at a local psychiatric hospital. It was there that I learned about NAMI. I became involved with NAMI as a speaker and trainer. My life was taking a new course in a direction I never planned!
The tools in my tool box included community, compliance, therapy, medication, faith, education and advocacy. Your tool box will include many of the same tools but may look different than mine.
"ONE THING IS SURE -- THE TOOLS WILL ONLY WORK WHEN YOU USE THEM."
No one can do that work for you -- people who love you may wish they could do the work for you but the recovery you long for will only happen when you choose to do the hard work!
Today, I still take medication, seek counsel when needed, continue in advocacy and education and have been symptom-free for the last 10 years. I am passionate about helping others living with mental illness, especially in the faith community. My husband Tracy and I recently moved to Nevada and God’s promise of doing more than I could ever think or ask for continues to play out in my life as we serve together in a mental health ministry at our new church!
While I might chastise myself for not knowing things sooner, I have a measure of peace knowing that everything has happened in God’s good timing. In Isaiah 40:31, we are offered this encouragement:
"They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint."
God heard my every desperate plea for healing from the dark abyss of depression and he is hearing your prayers too. When things don’t turn out the way you think they should, when you think they should, don’t be misled into believing God does not hear you!
TRUST GOD. WAIT ON GOD. BE AMAZED!