Long Dead

The enemy pursues me,

he crushes me to the ground;

he makes me dwell in the darkness

like those long dead.

So my spirit grows faint within me;

my heart within me is dismayed. (Psalm 143:3-4)

Nothing crushes the spirit like a prolonged depression. I’ve experienced several bouts of deep despair in my journey with bipolar. One occurred shortly after our move to Upstate New York in 2009. I had left my job, going on disability. In many respects, work had been my life, so I was left feeling I had little reason to get up in the morning. Often, I didn’t get up. And when I did, I would only make it as far as the couch where I would collapse again and remain for much of the day.

I found this condition appalling. Yet my personal disgust would not awaken my spirit so I could rise from the dead and get back to life. Like the Psalmist, my heart within me was dismayed and nothing seemed to help.

Fortunately, some things fell into place, such as the conception of this book. I got out of bed, off the couch, and rejoined the land of the living. Writing has been and continues to be therapeutic for my mind and spirit. Healing words flow as I look for ways to describe what God is doing in my life in spite of, and even as a result of, the appalling conditions of my life. Dismay that could lead to despair instead turns to hope.

Nostalgia

These things I remember

as I pour out my soul:

how I used to go to the house of God

under the protection of the Mighty One[a]

with shouts of joy and praise

among the festive throng. (Psalm 42:4)

After nearly twenty years of weekly worship leadership, I went from being a praise-filled pastor to an exhausted exile. Due in large part to complications caused by my bipolar, I became unable to perform my duties with consistency and went on full-time disability in 2009.

One of the biggest struggles for me particularly in the first months of my “exile” was a nagging sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia may feel good at first, but it can be a deadly demon particularly for someone with bipolar. Ruminating on the past takes me away from present challenges and gives me the desire to find short cuts to get back there.

Longing to experience the way things were in the “good old days,” I could try to manufacture a manic episode with something as simple as an overdose of caffeine or sugar or something as serious as skipping my medication. I could pay too much heed to the voices in my head filled with regret such that my sorrow deepens. I could spend so much time remembering the past that my days and nights become little more than re-creations that actually cut into the creative work God has yet planned for my life.

It is good to remember and appreciate the past as long as I don’t try to re-create it in the present and wind up with no future at all.

Confined by God

You hem me in behind and before,

and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,

too lofty for me to attain. (Psalm 139:5-6)

Some people (my wife is one) enjoy having the covers securely tucked in at night. I, on the other hand, find it distressing to be so confined. It feels like I’m in a coffin.

Likewise, some people find the thought of God’s intimate involvement in their lives to be tremendously reassuring while others find it to be more than a little disturbing (and may reject the notion altogether).

Since I first became aware of God’s presence in my life, I’ve never doubted God’s desire or ability to care for creation in even seemingly minute and insignificant ways. Most of the time, this knowledge has given me persistent peace and abiding joy.

For some reason, however, the night of my attempted overdose, I was feeling smothered by the presence of God in my life. Strange as it seems, I wanted a break from being so close to God. My attempted suicide was in part a futile effort to gain some distance, to create some shade where I could hide from the spotlight of God.

Yet, as the Psalmist discovers,

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light about me be night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is bright as the day,

for darkness is as light with you. (139:11-12, NRSV)

There are still days I prefer to pull the shades and lie in bed rather than walk in the light of God. Ultimately, though, I’ve come to embrace God’s presence in my life as good news. I’m grateful I’ve passed through the darkness. God’s light always shines in our darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Out of the Pit

You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;

you spared me from going down to the pit. (Psalm 30:3)

When I was first revived from my attempted overdose, I was angry. Really angry.

I was angry at my wife for finding me instead of letting me alone to die.

“Why did you have to find me when you did?”

“Couldn’t you just have left me alone?”

“I’d have been better off dead.”

I was angry at myself for attempting suicide in the first place.

“What possessed me to do this?”

“What was I thinking?”

How could I do this to my family?”

I even became angry with God.

“Why does it all have to be so complicated?”

“Why do I have to go through this?”

“Why?”

Fortunately, I passed through this season of rage. It has taken years of prayer, Bible study, and counseling to move through my anger – particularly anger at myself. Yet, I have come to a place of gratitude. I thank God for preserving my life and giving me a fresh start after I had made such a mess of things. I came to celebrate with another Psalmist what God had done,

He lifted me out of the slimy pit,

out of the mud and mire;

he set my feet on a rock

and gave me a firm place to stand. (Psalm 40:2)

The saving love of God in Christ now means even more to me than it did before I attempted suicide. God saved me from what was almost certain death at my own hands. Those pills should have killed me, but they didn’t. Through monitored medication, persistent prayers, and Biblical guidance, God then set my feet on solid ground so I could move forward in faith, one step at a time.

Salvation is for me now more than a future hope of entering heaven. It is a daily deliverance to live abundantly on earth in spite of my desire to choose death.

Being Humbled

Before I was afflicted I went astray,

but now I obey your word. (Psalm 119:67)

It was good for me to be afflicted

so that I might learn your decrees. (Psalm 119:71)

While I’ve learned to value boundaries, I still struggle with limits. If I am immersed in an interesting writing project, I will work for hours without getting up to stretch or eat or even get a drink of water. Particularly if I’m on a manic swing, I resist going to bed on time. Even while lying in bed, my mind races to all the things I’d like to accomplish.

The week before my first hospitalization, I had barely slept at all. My mind was filled with ministry ideas (all of which seemed brilliant to me). I would formulate the next day’s plan while lying in bed, then move on to solve the problems of the congregation one by one, laying out a year, five-year, a ten-year ministry plan. It all came together amazingly, fitting together like an intricate jigsaw puzzle. In my mind, I had solved the problems of the church, my family, even the world. All the while things in reality were falling apart around me.

The crash occurred one cold winter Sunday. I had gone to church around 5 a.m. and noticed one of our signs was bent over. I became convinced someone was plotting to overturn our ministry, but I was determined that we would keep pressing on.

All through the morning I was a ball of energy, flitting from one person to the next. I thought I was saying profound things but now realize I was just creating confusion. In the sermon I was moved to tears over mundane sentences.

The afternoon was a blur of activity. A nursing home service. Home visits. Sermon preparation. I didn’t bother going home. And I don’t think I ate.

That evening I led youth group. I played the R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It)while literally bouncing off the walls. A light fixture fell, and I was sure it was a sign the End was near.

Fortunately, I made it home that night and agreed to admit myself to a nearby psychiatric hospital the next day. I had done some outrageous things but had yet to jeopardize my standing as a pastor. God helped me make it to the hospital before I had a complete breakdown.

The experience was certainly a humbling one. While I still sometimes resent limits, I’ve learned to stay within certain bounds to stay healthier and sane for the sake of the LORD. The “affliction” I experienced being hospitalized and medicated before doing great damage to myself and others has taught me to use greater caution, to maintain balance.

No more bouncing off walls. Now when I listen to R.E.M., I keep my ear buds on and channel my energy into healthy and safe speed walking.

Crying

I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping

and drench my couch with tears.

My eyes grow weak with sorrow;

they fail because of all my foes. (Psalm 6:6-7)

I’m not typically one to cry. Apart from a few touching scenes at the ends of movies, and the first times I laid eyes on my children, I’m not sure my cheeks even got wet the first decade of my adult life. So it came as quite a surprise to me when I suddenly started crying uncontrollably in the middle of my sermons.

The first time it happened, I dismissed it as being a strong reaction to a moving illustration; I quickly collected myself, and moved on. The following Sunday, however, the tears came at a much less emotional point. By the third week, I could have been reading the phone book up there and blubbering through it. What was happening to me? Was I going crazy?

In a sense, I was. I needed help. The next day I checked myself into the hospital, and there I would find out that the anti-depressant I was taking not only wasn’t working, it was causing me to cycle from dangerous highs to desperate lows. I was experiencing what they called medication-induced, mood-incongruent symptoms.” In other words, I was crying for no good reason, and the drugs were making me do it.

In time, we were able to make necessary medication adjustments. Since then, I have only experienced a handful of occasions where the tears flowed, usually with good cause. Sometimes I almost wish I would cry more, to let out some of the sadness bottled inside me.

One of my frustrations over the years is how, first with my illness and now with my medication, I have lost touch with my true emotions. In the midst of personal crisis, I maintain a “flat affect” and then, much later, a wave of sadness strikes while doing something as basic as vacuuming. It’s as if my body has become a test tube and my emotional outbursts are simply expressions of the chemicals poured in from foreign sources, “foes” that weaken me, that wear me out.

It has helped a great deal to have an empathetic counselor. As I share difficult details of my experience in matter-of-fact tones, he sometimes reacts with audible expressions of pain, commenting, “That must be awful,” and asking me to reflect more on how I dealt with it. When I see how my story impacts him, I begin to sense what emotional links I’m missing and I feel better, knowing better how I feel.

The Basement

God, my soul is thick with dread

And muted tears,

Sinking deeper with every step I tread

And losing feeble years

In silence.

Heavy drags the weight of days

Pulling me under,

And still you swamp me with all of your waves

And deafen with thunder

Yet say nothing.

I look up to your sky to find

There some escape;

Instead the clouds encompass all my mind,

A heavy cloak, a cape

But no flight.

To you I call all day, all night,

My spirit splayed;

The dead cry with me, yet they have no sight

To see your grace displayed

And do not dream.

My eyes veiled from what you have done,

Already close to death,

I follow you into oblivion

With weak and fading breath

And thinning faith.

Darkness is my closest friend;

Still I pray,

For, with no resolution and no end,

You may yet mend the fray

And bring in day…

~ “Despair” by Matthew Pullar (After George Herbert’s “Deniall”)

Basements come in diverse forms and serve a variety of functions. I’ve had everything from a century-old basement crawl space suitable only for hiding from tornadoes to a finished basement on Long Island that served as a separate living quarters when I was very low.

The basement in my bipolar mind is dark and damp yet soothing almost like a womb. Sometimes I fall into it when I’m least prepared. Other times, I methodically descend one step at a time.

When I was doing my best, while serving in Ovid, New York, I set up an office in our basement.

After often spiritually grueling Sundays, I would descend the basement stairs on Monday mornings to pray, become immersed in God’s Word, and sit in front of my computer screen, dreaming of new life to emerge.

The basement can be a deep pit we fall into and from which we never come out. Yet, when we have a solid foundation, the basement is the safest place to be protected from the storms around us (and within us). Time and again, God has met me in the basement of my bipolar mind and, after reminding me of His constant care, has shown me the stairs and directed me to face the world with greater confidence, better equipped to serve in the Spirit of Christ.