Good Boundaries

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;

surely I have a delightful inheritance. (Psalm 16:6)

One thing I’ve experienced in the time I’ve spent at psychiatric hospitals is that there are many rules. Rules about toiletries and other personal affects. Rules about visits and contact with others. Rules about schedulestimes to sleep and meet and eat and rest. Since I am one who generally functions best with good, clear boundaries, these rules haven’t bothered me so much. I’ve benefited quite well from them and have come to appreciate their value. There’s a part of us all, though, that constantly tries to get around the rules.

Like the man who found a staff person willing to bring him Starbucks coffee (at a steep price, no doubt) to replace the lukewarm dishwater coffee they served us from the cafeteria.

Like the woman who gained permission to use the exercise room as a space to listen to loud hip-hop music on her boom box.

Like the couple who found a way to prop a broom against the laundry room door so they could get around the “no-fraternization-with-the-opposite-sex” rule.

One thing to learn as psychiatric patients (and people as a whole) is that rules are generally good for us. As chaotic as the world is around us, and as distorted as our mind is within us, rules provide order and clarity to prevent us from harm – from others as well as from ourselves. Rules help establish clear, consistent boundaries within which we can live safely and safely let others live. Only when we have good, firm boundaries can we survive (and even thrive) within this crazy, often unpredictable world.

Praise be to God who gives us such boundaries for life. As the Psalmist says, It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth… (Psalm 74:17a).

Where Is He?

Why, Lord, do you stand far off?

Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)

When people in a psychiatric unit find out one of their own is a pastor, their behavior tends to change. Some clean up their language a good bit while others go out of their way to say something shocking. Some try to trip you up with trivial theological minutia while others seek you out as a spiritual guru.

I’ll never forget the reception I once received from a young man named Daniel when he found out I was a pastor. Daniel had spiky hair and tattoos that covered his body. He came right up to me and said,

“Where is he?”

“Where is who?” I asked.

“God. Where is God?”

I paused and tried to determine if he was serious. He must have read my thoughts.

“I’m not trying to be a smart aleck. I really want to know. Is God somewhere in your life?”

Daniel then looked at me intently as I shared how God was with my wife when she found my body on the floordead weight from my attempted overdose. And with the psychiatrist who coached her through my admission to the hospital. And the therapists and even other patients like him who were helping me get back on my feet and feel like living again.

Daniel smiled.

“Thanks, he said, I knew He was out there somewhere.”

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To a Spacious Place

Praise our God, all peoples,

let the sound of his praise be heard;

he has preserved our lives

and kept our feet from slipping.

For you, God, tested us;

you refined us like silver.

You brought us into prison

and laid burdens on our backs.

You let people ride over our heads;

we went through fire and water,

but you brought us to a place of abundance. (Psalm 66:8-12)

No matter what we have gone through—as people living with bipolar or people living with other limitationswe can rest assured that God is there for us. Here, the Psalmist encourages Israel to bless the God who has blessed them so much. Even though God tests and tries us, God ultimately gives us the strength to endure – to survive and eventually thrive in the midst of our trials.

If I could choose my medical profile, I would likely not opt to have bipolar. Yet, in the midst of my bipolar life, God has strengthened me such that I’ve come through it a better person. Through the intensity of my emotions, God has enabled me to better empathize with the hurts of humanity, to feel them in my gut, like the Bible says Jesus did with “bowels of compassion.”

When I went back to pastoral ministry after my first diagnosis in 1995, people responded to me in various ways. There were some who kept me at arm’s distance, perhaps concerned not to over-stress me, perhaps worried that my mental illness was contagious. Many others, however, reached out to me and confided in me their own battles with mental illness – either personally or in the lives of loved ones. Until then, they had kept quiet about it in church, not wanting others to know (fearful of how they would respond). I found them eager to unburden their hearts and minds through conversation and prayer about something they felt so deeply.

There was one older woman I visited who, as soon as I stepped through her door, challenged me with the statement, “I thought Christians weren’t supposed to get depressed.”

I smiled and took a deep breath. Then, I shared how some of the greatest Bible heroes went through terrible periods of depression. Moses prayed to be relieved of his duties as Israel’s leader. Elijah wanted to end his life resting in the shade of a sycamore tree. David—a man after God’s own heartcalled out profusely to God to pay attention to his struggles. I opened my Bible and read a few passages in the Psalms where David cried out for emotional relief from God.

I saw a tear form in her eye, and she told me her story. She had battled crippling depression for years and had been told she was wrong to feel that way. Her challenging comment was not one that came from within her own heart. It was one imposed on her. It was something she had heard countless times from well-meaning, yet seriously misguided friends in faith.

Being Christians doesn’t mean we never get depressed. It means we have Someone to turn to, who lifts the “crushing burdens on our backs,” who leads us through fiery trials and floods of emotions to places of abundance where there is enduring joy and peace.

Desert Wastes

Some wandered in desert wastelands,

finding no way to a city where they could settle.

They were hungry and thirsty,

and their lives ebbed away.

Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,

and he delivered them from their distress. (Psalm 107:4-6)

I was fifteen years old when I first noticed a strange symptom that could have signaled my bipolar disorder. I was taking an Algebra test for which I was well prepared. I knew exactly how to solve the equations, yet there was a convicting “voice” inside me telling me I was stupid, that I was only fooling the world pretending to be a good student, and that I should just give up. The voice was so powerful, I had to ask to be excused for a drink to clear my mind. The voice then subsided somewhat, and I was able to score well on the test. But the experience is one I would never forget; one I would revisit in therapy many times as I explored the origin of the “voices” that have hounded me at various points throughout my life.

It took over fifteen more years of wandering in the desert waste of drug use (and abuse), mis-diagnosis, relational conflicts, and emotional crises before I was properly diagnosed. It then took another fifteen years to find the right chemical balance, treatment regiment, and spiritual discipline, to realize a period of “maintenance remission” – and I’ve only been able to experience this without the stress of a job (being on disability) and daily responsibilities as a husband and father (being separated from my family).

Thank God, though, I’ve not been alone in this desert waste. I have met many other wanderers (people wrestling with mental illness and other struggles). Just last week a man at church invited me to his home where a small group meets regularly for food, fellowship, Bible study and prayer. I shared some about my illness and this book project. He was eager that I meet a friend of his who had come to the group, yet was currently battling mental health issues and pulling away from the church. Later, I was asked to pray for this man and his family and for church members to have the wisdom and courage to reach out to them.

The delight in the disorder of bipolar is often found as we reach out to each other, as we connect with those who have similar struggles, as we share the faith and hope that keeps us going from day to day.

Victory Over Our Enemies

Listen to my cry,

for I am in desperate need;

rescue me from those who pursue me,

for they are too strong for me. (Psalm 142:6)

The greatest enemy I’ve faced in my disordered life has come from within – from the illness itself. The dangerous highs have skewed my perspective and taken my focus away from essential tasks I’ve needed to complete in order to be productive and lead a balanced life. The desperate lows have robbed me of the energy to do much of anything. Bipolar disorder has made a mockery of my mind and left my emotions ragged, strewn about like carcasses along life’s road.

More than a few times, however, I have also had external persecution that seemed too strong to overcome. When I have “come out” about my illness, some people have become so disturbed that they’ve tried to prevent me from doing even what I do best. In a few cases, former friends have abandoned me and allies have betrayed me.

After several battles with such persecutors, I’m learning to let them be and accept that the path of non-resistance is most often the best path to take. I’ve seen ample evidence that their passion stems from unresolved issues over the illness in themselves or other loved ones. Nothing I can say or do will help them make them address this. I’m better off looking elsewhere for my support and being very selective about what battles I fight.

Persecutors can be very strong, as this Psalmist points out, but ultimately the power of the LORD prevails. We need to draw on God’s strength each time we face persecution so that we can overcome.

There was one particular time in my ministry when I was under heavy attack. Unable to sleep, I walked through the darkness to church and entered the sanctuary. Circling the pews I started to pray, reciting

Rescue me from those who pursue me,

for they are too strong for me!

My own tears mingled with the tears of the Psalmist, and for over an hour I cried out to God for relief. In time, I gained the strength to leave the sanctuary and re-enter the battle, confident God had heard me and would help me endure the attacks that came with grace and love.

I look back on those days and marvel at how I functioned with a mental illness in such stressful situations. I certainly couldn’t have done it alone. Thanks be to God, I didn’t have to.

The Living Room

The prince of love, he speaks in whispers,

whispers low to my heart’s deep voice.

Where deep calls to deep

in waterfalls, I stand, his breakers

crashing down around me with

their silent shuddering, the voice

of love amidst the thundering;

to me he calls.

No-one there is with eyes of such fire

seated upon his sapphire throne,

with radiance that shines my soul with its burning

and his brightness a bow in a rainy-day’s cloud.

Inexpressible, he is: how he blends such bright fury

with the gentlest whisper of his nail-scarred palms,

sparkling in glory over valleys,

the Son of Man.

Let the world have its dazzling allure and stories;

the eyes of this prince, this prince of love’s glory

shine truer than all of the world’s diamond lies.

He sits with the blind man and Zacchaeus, the road-side

his banqueting table, for Samaritans and me.

Sit with me, friends, at his morning-bright table

and we too will shine with him

eternally.

~ The Bright-Shining Lord” by Matthew Pullar (After Ann Griffith’s “I Saw Him Standing”)

In our house, there is a room just off the family room we’ve used for various purposes. It has been a “music room” with a piano and CD player. It has been a “play room” with a toy box, monster Legos, and puzzles. It has served as a “sewing room,” where Alice and our daughters have made dresses and pajamas and gathered with friends and family to create lovely quilts. It is also perfect as a “courting parlor, with a partition that separates it from the family room – providing just enough privacy and just enough connectedness.

In the house of my bipolar mind, the “living room” is the space where I meet people outside my family and find God at work in the world. Whether it be with church folks or fellow psychiatric patients, the elderly or the young, therapists or pastors, this is a space where I explore ideas beyond myself and examine my faith perspective to discover who I am and who I’m called to become.

I realize for many people who battle bipolar disorder, this is a room that can be unwelcoming, even frightening. This is just as true for church folks as well. We often prefer to “hang out” or “fellowship” with those who “get” where we are coming from, who share our “worldview.” Yet, for spiritual and psychological growth to occur, we do best to follow the example of Jesus who ate with both publicans and Pharisees instead of hiding out in a hermitage.

Restoring Relationships

Create in me a pure heart, O God,

and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

At a Bipolar Support Group meeting I attended, a woman confessed to having repeated affairs on manic binges throughout her nine-year marriage. Once caught, she felt compelled to leave home, convinced after a particularly angry confrontation that her husband could never forgive her.

It is possible she was right. But I urged her to reconsider the decision to leave for good and at least work on their relationship. While infidelity does wreak havoc on many marriages, it is within God’s power to purify our hearts stained with sin and renew our spirits so that love can be restored.

It doesn’t always happen, but what a blessing it is when God claims victory over the forces that divide us and unites us once again. The statistics aren’t good for persons with bipolar remaining married, but I have found tremendous reassurance having this sacred bond in my life to promote healing and wholeness.

Even now that I am separated from my wife and miss her daily companionship, I have valued our life together and will continue to be in a relationship with her, even if it just as a co-parent.  She is a wonderful mother for our children and a devoted “keeper at home.” There have been times I have betrayed her trust, yet she has remained faithful. I pray, in the years ahead, I will show her as much respect as she has shown me. And with God’s help, I will.