Thoughts on Bipolar Disorder and Church Attendance

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I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder I, a severe mental illness that influences mood regulation and emotional stability.  Bipolar disorder I is characterized by alternating emotional periods of depressive “lows” and manic “highs.”  It can be treated with medicine; however, these medicines are not always effective particularly if the dosages are not in the right range.  The condition has dramatically affected my life, destroying relationships and a marriage, harming my ability to work in demanding job settings, and making the attendance at seminary more difficult than it would be without having the condition.  One of the symptoms of the condition for me is a struggle with my Turkish-American identity and mania.  I have found over time that central triggers for mania are church services where the message of the service relates to war and terrorism.  In this paper I reflect on how church attendance and ministry work may be beneficial to living with bipolar disorder I, but may also be harmful if it triggers a period of mania.  Finally, I reflect on how I envision remapping the connection between bipolar disorder I symptoms and the issues of war and terrorism through regular psychotherapy attendance in order to accomplish a successful ministry in the church.

Approximately a week and a half ago I had a manic episode in Miller chapel in response to a sermon on the book of Joshua and a call for prayer for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.  This episode was immediately preceded the day before by an episode where the sermon message conveyed the Boston Marathon bombings in an “us versus them” manner.  I reflected in a journal about the sermon:

“The sermon in church on the recent Boston bombings today made me sick.  I am sick of sermons about terrorism in American churches that use divisive rhetoric of “us versus them,” and rhetoric that speaks of the “evil” done by individuals as if they are isolated actors divorced from societal influences.  The bottom line is that some American Christian churches need to take a cue from the Zen Buddhists and the Quakers that wars start and end with the mind.  Wars are fed by the idea that life is just one big black and white binary opposite. Grey exists too.  I do not trust churches that place American flags in their sanctuaries.   My hope is that I can write up these ideas into a paper for my Pastor as Person class fleshing out in more detail why I feel this way and explain to others the need for peaceful, nondivisive language from American pulpits.”

This response to the sermon, when reflected upon in a “nonmanic” state, appears to be overly critical as well as disjointed.  However, perhaps from another perspective it is a cry of mourning from an individual who sees the dangers of divisive rhetoric to the already tenuous condition of Islamophobia in the United States.  From the perspective of “Mourning and Family Systems Therapy” perhaps my response to the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing is natural.[1]  Since my family system spans the Islamic Turkish world and the Judeo-Christian American world, in the presence of bipolar disorder I, it is perhaps understandable to respond in such a way.

A significant concern that I have in pursuing Christian ministry is, how will my bipolar disorder I condition influence my ability to care spiritually for a set of parishioners?  How can I compensate for having bipolar disorder I in order to have to have a successful ministry?  Three specific aspects of ministry may require particular care given the condition of bipolar disorder I as exemplified by the context of sermon delivery.  First, my future preaching must be considered to be a conversation, “giving it a form or structure, but in a way that is unobtrusive and, like the banks of a river, facilitates the conversational flow.”[2]  By ensuring that a sermon is a conversation with a congregation that is delivered gently, I hope to avoid overwhelming and alienating the congregation with potential manic energy.  While there may be faults in the congregation, the best approach is not to point them out directly.  Second, to the goal of delivering successful sermons, I believe focusing on simplifying sermon metaphors will be another important skill to develop as described by the section “On Not Mixing Metaphors” in Dykstra’s Discovering a Sermon: Personal Pastoral Preaching.[3]  The reason for this is that on certain occasions a person having bipolar disorder I perceives the world as more “connected” than others do.  The consequence of this is that I might jump to a conclusion that many might not come to.  The importance of having a congregation able to follow a sermon is essential to success as a pastor.  Third, it is absolutely essential to engage the congregation as a system of caring for my struggles with bipolar disorder I not in a therapeutic sense but rather in a spiritually supportive way.[4]  Maintaining openness in front of the congregation may provide a support structure that is essential to thriving in ministry as a person who possesses bipolar disorder I.  The positive side of maintaining openness is that the congregation may understand and learn what it is that I struggle with in order to help confront any symptoms or reach an understanding if mania does emerge.  The negative side of this is that it may cause others to stigmatize me.  In the context of sermon delivery, preaching about having bipolar disorder I might enable me to be viewed by the congregation as a “Wounded healer,” an individual whose psychological wounds allow him or her to be more empathetic and caring with others.[5]  The challenge with being identified as a “Wounded healer” is that I will have to come to terms with healing from the psychological wounds of living with bipolar disorder I in order for these experiences to contribute to my future ministry in a significant way.

“We are better understood, then, as a folding together of many selves – personalities formed in identification with numerous inner objects or part-objects (not just id, ego, and superego).  Each of us is in ourselves a multiplicity of “selves in relation.””[6]  The same attributes that may serve as a weakness may also serve as a strength in ministry.  The analogy of the “wounded healer” may accurately describe the state of my body and mind in relation to the fragmentation that bipolar disorder I brings to one’s life.[7]  I feel that through having experienced bipolar disorder I, I am more compassionate and understanding of people that suffer from mental and physical illnesses.  It is difficult to imagine another way that I would have developed such compassion without my experiences with mental illness.  Indeed, I might not even be in seminary if it were not for my experiences with bipolar disorder I.  Since I already have a Ph.D. in chemistry, I would still be working as a Ph.D. chemist rather than preparing to enter into ministry.  The loss of a job due to bipolar disorder I led me to seminary to start a new career.  In a sense, bipolar disorder I is what led me to perceive a call to ministry.  This unconventional calling to ministry is related to a deep desire to learn more about what God has to offer and to share these gifts with others.  I hope to transcend the alienation and loss that I have felt due to bipolar disorder I by reaching out to others to shape a ministry that is true to the word of God.  Regular psychotherapy is a component of how I seek to accomplish this goal.  Psychotherapy helps me to analyze behavioral patterns and triggers for mania and helps address how to live in a way that results in a moderate emotional balance.  Regular psychotherapy is a challenge requiring a participant to analyze painful emotions and to work through difficult feelings.  Despite these challenges I do believe attending psychotherapy regularly assists in one becoming a better pastoral counselor.  One is able to improve fundamental listening skills via participating in a close one on one dialog.

     The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships contains a central message for how to alleviate symptoms of bipolar disorder I within the context of Christian ministry.  “Not being listened to is hard to the heart, and so to varying degrees we cover our need for understanding with mechanisms of defense.”[8]  Listening to oneself first is perhaps the single most important approach to regulating mania and depression.  Becoming aware of internal feelings and the response of these feelings to medication is essential to controlling symptoms of bipolar disorder I.  “Having an understanding attitude doesn’t mean presuming to know a person’s thoughts and feelings.  It means being open to listening and discovering.”[9]  This principle is a general principle that can apply both between individuals and to a single individual.  In the context of one who struggles with bipolar disorder I, this principle is particularly difficult to implement.  It is sometimes not possible to completely understand your own thoughts and feelings particularly during a period of mania.  Mania floods the mind with random thoughts; sometimes ten thoughts pass for every one that can be grasped.  It is absolutely overwhelming and can even physically hurt during intense bouts.  Recovering from mania starts first by focusing on the outside world and then by removing oneself from internal thoughts.  In the end, I am aware that bipolar disorder I does not have a cure.  Rather, it is a chronic mental illness that must be managed throughout one’s life with medication and psychotherapy.  Even this is sometimes not enough to avoid manic episodes.  Each time a manic episode emerges however, I acquire more knowledge about the causes of these episodes and am able to adapt my life to try to minimize them.

Perhaps this explains some of my recent aversion to topics concerning God.  If a symptom of a mental illness prevents one from worshiping or worshiping in the right way, how is one ever going to reach out to God in prayer and liturgy?


[1] Philip Culbertson, Caring for God’s People (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), p. 236.

[2]  Donald Capps, Giving Counsel: A Minister’s Guidebook (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), p. 74.

[3]  Robert Dykstra, Discovering a Sermon: Personal Pastoral Preaching (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), p. 112-113.

[4]  Carrie Doehring, The Practice of Pastoral Care: A Postmodern Approach (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), p. 97.

[5] Robert Dykstra, Images of Pastoral Care: Classic Readings (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), p. 76.

[6]  Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner; Teresa Snorton, Women Out of Order: Risking Change and Creating Care in a Multicultural World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 11.

[7]  Robert Dykstra, (2005), p. 77.

[8]  Michael Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships (New York: The Guilford Press, 2009), p. 39.

[9]  Ibid., p. 51.

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About kayaerbil

I am a Berkeley educated chemistry Ph.D. who is moving into the area of working on developing appropriate technology for communities that are subjected to socio-economic oppression. The goal is to use simple and effective designs to empower people to live better lives. Currently, I am working with Native Americans on Pine Ridge, the Lakota reservation in South Dakota. I am working with a Native owned and run solar energy company. We are currently working on building a compressed earth block (CEB) house that showcases many of the technologies that the company has developed. The CEB house is made of locally derived resources, earth from the reservation. The blocks are naturally thermally insulating, keeping the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Eventually, a solar air heater and photovoltaic panels will be installed into the house to power the home and keep it warm, while preserving the house off the grid. A side project while in Pine Ridge is a solar computer. I hope to learn about blockchain encryption software for building microgrids. In addition, it is an immediate interest of mine to involve local youth in technology education.
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