THE INTRICACIES OF “COMING OUT” TO A CHURCH
Thomas Covenant walks down the street feeling the stares and witnessing mothers grabbing their children before he passes by. Is he a child abuser? A criminal of another sort? Perhaps, evil incarnate? Thomas is the lead character in Stephen R. Donaldson’s series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and he is a twentieth century leper. When I read the series many years ago I remember thinking, “People don’t react that way anymore. The world is not that archaic.” But, perhaps it is. Have we learned nothing from the Bible lessons about lepers?
The reaction to all kinds of emotional disorders and mental disesases can be interesting, especially in my line of work. While you would think that church folk would investigate before coming to conclusions, that is really a quite rare occurance – church folk are no less prone to believing myths than any other groups. I have found this out firsthand recently. I announced to my Committee on Ministry and my church that I had been diagnosed with Bipolar II disease and, after twenty years of misdiagnoses, I am now on a much lower regimen of pills than I previously took for depression. The reaction has been – well, shall we say, interesting.
Now, it seems, no-one had too much difficulty with my previous addictive behavior or my depressions as such, since they were known issues that were discussed before being called by the church. But being diagnosed Bipolar II, now that’s a different story. Perhaps people assume that a new diagnosis is the equivalent of a new “condition” that changes who I am. Perhaps the reaction may be understandable, at least when we take into account that so little is known by the general public, with the exception of the few movies about famous Bipolar people. As an antidote to this ignorance of knowledge, I will offer some facts towards the end of this article.
Anyway, as I am sure you have figured out, I don’t keep secrets. I was advised by my medical professionals to keep my diagnosis “close to the chest, being a minister.” That seemed so incongruous to me as there is nothing quite so common in Christian lore as the wounded healer. Secrets have a way of coming up behind you and exposing themselves at the most infortuitous times, which is why I don’t like keeping them. I had forgotten, however, my friend and fellow pastor David’s frequent saying, “The church, as an army of prepared believers, is the only army which crucifies their wounded.” Harsh, perhaps, but unfortunately all too often true. It may explain why some in my church have said they are concerned about my “mental health issues” since revealing I am “now” bipolar.
The fact is that I have been Bipolar II for 10 to 20 years, by the doctors’ estimation, but incorrectly medicated during that entire period. This left me susceptible to elevated and more severe mood swings, and potentially prone to erratic behavior. If there was anytime I was in danger of being reckless or too erratic, that was it. Despite that, I have functioned well as a business person running a multi-million dollar company and directly overseeing 200+ employees, a church administrator serving three different churches, and a pastor – although the jury is now out as to how I perform as a pastor. One of the primary differences between Bipolar II and Bipolar I is that, in the first, there is no mania or psychosis to deal with – just long periods of either elevated or depressed mood with little in the “normal” range. Many, my self included, learn to negotiate and navigate these periods, often times using the creativity and energy that comes with “hypomania” constructively.
On my new meds, I am considerably more stable and experience far fewer drastic mood swings than I can ever remember. My depression is all but gone, although it could return – it’s just less likely to be as intense as it has been in the past. I have gotten much 0f my creativity back – initiative and creativity tend to be the first rats to leave the ship during depressive episodes of any kind. Given the potentially difficult times that face the church ahead, I feel much better equipped to handle them than I can remember ever being. Even poorly medicated, as I have been in the past, I had little difficulty functioning through the different cycles.
Now, my level of functioning should be even better – as long as I take my meds. That is the critical condition. Just like other conditions that are physiological and result from a genetic predisposition, regulating meds is crucial. I see this as no different than taking my blood pressure cocktail and cholesterol lowering pills. It’s health maintenance and, just like BP and cholesterol, I know there are few “signs” or specific symptoms that signal an advancing problem. The only appropriate and healthy choice is to stay on a preventative regimen.
To help with the apparent lack of knowledge surrounding Bipolar II disease, I will share some facts that should be kept in mind:
It is not “manic depression” – that is only one form of Bipolar I.
Over 6 million Americans have Bipolar diesease – 2.6% of the population. It breaks down to approximately 1.6% having Bipolar I and 1.0% suffering Bipolar II. Even that classification is simplistic, as there is what’s called a Bipolar spectrum. Diagnoses have increased drastically, but that is a result of better diagnostics, not a huge increase in occurance. In years past, it has been misdiagnosed and mis-treated as either depression at the more minor end and schizophrenia at the severe end of the spectrum.
Many famous artistic, creative and scientific people have been Bipolar II (such as Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill, to name but two from the grand old age of psychological denial), whose day-to-day functioning was entirely manageable. Bipolar II is sometimes nicknamed the “creativity” illness.
Bipolar II is more easily manageable with meds than many other physiological disorders, once the appropriate regimen is determined. Even without meds, in between episodes of hypomania and depression, many people with bipolar II disease live normal lives. On meds, the incidents of both extremes are reduced and, sometimes, almost totally eliminated.
During a hypomanic episode, elevated mood can manifest itself as either euphoria (feeling “high”) or as irritability, but falls well short of manic or truly erratic. This is the time when many are highly energized and very creative.
Symptoms during improperly medicated hypomanic episodes include flying suddenly from one idea to the next; rapid, “pressured” speech; increased energy with hyperactivity, and decreased need for sleep. People experiencing hypomanic episodes are often quite pleasant to be around. They can often seem like the “life of the party” — making jokes, taking an intense interest in other people and activities, and infecting others with their positive mood. The danger is for the sufferer, as opposed to others, becuase the more elevated the hypomania the more severe the ensuing crash into depression.
Depressive episodes in improperly medicated bipolar II disease are similar to “regular” clinical depression, with depressed mood, loss of pleasure, low energy and activity, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, and sometimes thoughts of suicide. Depressive symptoms of bipolar disorder can last longer than the hypomanic periods, generally spanning weeks, months, or sometimes even years.
I hope this helps some, at least, understand the nature of the disease and those who suffer from it. While it would be too optimistic to believe that no-one would treat me or anyone else with Bipolar II as a modern day leper, perhaps sharing this will decrease the incidence of grabbing children out of the way as we walk into a room.
An addendum to this article can be read here.