Preparing the Table

You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies(Psalm 23:5a)

Throughout the course of my illness, I’ve been fortunate to have a steady stream of income, a way to “bring home the bacon. More than this, I’ve been blessed with a devoted wife who fries it up for me. I’m not ashamed to admit that we found the traditional gender roles to work well in our relationship. In no way has this diminished my respect for her. I know full well how poorly I would function without her. Now that we are separated, I am blessed to live with my sister and step-mother, who see that we are well fed.

Too many persons with mental illnesses find themselves in positions where they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Even those with material resources struggle with chaos in their lives that works against their need for constant structure. No doubt this contributes to the number of people with mental illness who are malnourished.

One thing faith communities can provide to serve those with mental illnesses is a good meal. And not just for the poor. A church I once served offered a free Christmas dinner to the community and found that more volunteers showed up than customers. These were mostly older and single adults looking for a way to battle depression that often strikes on this holiday typically devoted to families.

When we receive a meal prepared by people who care about us, the enemies of depression and other forms of mental distress can be held at bay by a strong sense of fellowship. Together, we can gather around God’s table of grace where we “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Revive Us Again

Will you not revive us again,

that your people may rejoice in you? (Psalm 85:6)

For over a year after I went on disability, I battled crippling depression. There were many days in which I felt doomed to live in darkness for the rest of my life. Hope is a precious commodity, and it was in short supply during those dark days.

Then I read this verse (Psalm 85:6). To be revived again. What a hope that offers! And it is a hope based in reality. I thought of the ways God had revived me in the past.

When my Grandmother Roberts died, and I felt lost and alone, I found purpose in playing sports and writing stories.

After college, when I was grieving the loss of friendships and searching for direction, God called me to seminary where I formed valued relationships and gained renewed vision.

In my last year of seminary, when I was struggling to decide whether to leave for an internship or finish out the year, I worried about entering ministry alone and longed for a life partner. Through prayer and Scriptural guidance, I decided to stay and within a week met Alice, who became my wife.

After seminary, when I was struggling through a chaplaincy internship and feeling uncertain of my call, God blessed us with expectant hope in the conception of our first child, and I was motivated to seek and receive a call to a local church.

Time and again, I have been lifted up from dark periods, set down on level paths. For God to revive me again, I reminded myself, would be entirely consistent with the divine character I’ve grown to know and love. This hope is based not on wishful thinking, but lived experience.

Even now, writing this many miles separated from my wife and children, I give thanks to God for reviving me through writing. As I reflect on God’s ways and put into words my experience as a child of God, I become more connected – both to other people who read my work, and (more importantly) to God, who revives me through the Word that is eternally encouraging and inspiring.

Consolation Surprise

When anxiety was great within me,

your consolation brought me joy. (Psalm 94:19)

I was sitting in the psychiatric unit feeling sorry for myself. Looking around at people who had visitors, I wanted to call somebody but felt the phone would only remind me of the distance between us. It seemed everyone on staff was having a hectic day and all the patients were preoccupied. So I sat there, staring at the television screen wishing I were anywhere else but where I was.

Then an aide came up and told me she had a package for me. It was a basket filled with monster-sized fruits as well as gourmet candies and cookies. I looked at the card. The basket came from a reader of my blog who had heard I was in the hospital and wanted to reach out. With some extensive research and no doubt a fair amount of time and money this kind lawyer from Houston, Texas consoled my aching heart. I’ll never forget him for that.

How Long?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Psalm 13:2)

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar, I was told it would be a life-long condition, sort of like emotional diabetes. Along the way, I have experienced some periods of “maintenance remission” where I am mostly symptom-free as long as I remain in treatment. I’ve enjoyed these reprieves immensely, though I can never tell when they will happen or how long they will last.

Likewise, I can never be sure how long an episode of mania or depression will last. It could be less than a day or weeks on end. Being a “rapid cycler” {Yipee!}, I can move from mania to depression in about the time it took you to read this {Ugh!} sentence. I once heard of a postcard message that perfectly sums up the experience of rapid cycling: “Having a Great Time. Wish I Were Dead.”

With bipolar, I can never know how long a cycle will last. The best thing to do as I wait to cycle is to pray (to cry out with the Psalmist if need be) “How long?” In God’s own good time, relief is bound to come.

As I wait and pray, I have drawn on particular resources that have provided me a measure of relief. When I’ve been at my worst, I’ve called mental health hot-lines, prayer ministries, and phone counselors. I have a network of friends I have called. Lately, I’ve been able to express my struggle through blogging and through that now have a faithful prayer partner in Australia. On a few occasions, as I’ve reached out to others, it has become clear I’ve needed more intensive help, and I’ve gone to emergency rooms for care.

Having bipolar is like being on a very scary ride that seems to never end. You sometimes need to sit by someone who will reassure you of safety and remind you the ride doesn’t last forever.

10 Things to Look for in a Psychiatrist

It is better to take refuge in the LORD

than to put confidence in mortals. (118:8, NRSV)

Now that I’ve had fun poking at psychiatrists, I thought it best to look at the positive side. Mostly, I’ve benefited from quality psychiatric care. I realize many are not so fortunate. Maybe you know someone who is looking for a psychiatrist who can meet his/her needs. First, I should say for most people with bipolar it is functionally necessary to have two mental health care givers: a psychiatrist to prescribe medication and a counselor to provide talk therapy. Ideally, they work together as a team.

While psychiatrists typically do not provide much more than medication management, it is helpful to find one who at least coordinates quality care to address psychological needs from a more holistic perspective. Here are ten characteristics I have found in the best psychiatrists:

Someone who listens to what you say and hears what you don’t say.

Someone who provides good treatment options in plain language.

Someone who is reasonably accessible in-between appointments.

Someone who keeps up on the latest meds and yet…

Someone who is not overly anxious to prescribe them all.

Someone who talks with your key loved ones respectfully.

Someone who can smile when you joke about your illness, yet…

Someone who doesn’t laugh with you when you are being manic.

Someone with a calm demeanor who can readily ease anxiety.

Someone who respects your faith as a primary healing resource.

I believe we take refuge in the LORD when we seek out trusted servants of the LORD who are gifted at promoting healing. My hope and prayer is that more people will find quality mental health care to address their physical and emotional needs.

10 Reasons to Leave Your Psychiatrist

Give us aid against the enemy,

for human help is worthless. (Psalm 108:12)

I have Christian friends who advise me to steer clear of psychiatrists who do not share my faith perspective. I believe God, however, can use even atheists to promote healing should God choose to do so. I’ve had some excellent psychiatrists and some real stinkers. During one period where it seemed I was getting one bad psychiatrist after another, I decided (in frustration) to laugh instead of cry. I composed a satirical list of ten ways to tell it might be time to leave your psychiatrist.

It’s time to leave your psychiatrist when s/he says:

Enough about your mother, let’s talk about mine.

Sure, the blue meds are working, but the pink pills are so much cuter.

In my professional opinion, you’re crazier than a loon.

Suicide, smooicide.

If you want a taste of E.C.T., just stick your tongue to this car battery.

What was that you said? I was too busy picturing you in the nude.

Before we treat your O.C.D., I’d like you to clean out my garage.

You think you’ve got problems! My Porsche has a flat tire.

I can see now why your wife wants to leave you.

You think you’re fat because you are fat.

This kind of human help is worthless. Fortunately, God provides professionals who care much more than this. It’s our job to keep looking until we find them.

Happy or Blessed?

Blessed are all who fear the Lord,

who walk in obedience to him.

You will eat the fruit of your labor;

blessings and prosperity will be yours. (Psalm 128:1-2)

I remember as a child refusing to clap my hands for the song, If You’re Happy and You Know It” when I didn’t feel particularly happy. Later in life, I learned that Biblical happiness is much more than a fleeting sense of pleasure. It is often translated “blessed,” and it refers to a much deeper spiritual sense of contentment that persists in spite of outward circumstances of loss or lack.

I have had periods of depression where I’ve had to force myself to get out of bed. The idea of putting on a happy face and pretending all was fine with me and my world was repulsive. It seemed the height of insincerity. Nothing short of a lie.

Yet as a pastor, it was my job to convey a sense of blessedness, to pass on a blessing whether I felt like it or not. As a parent, it is my job to show my children the joy of the LORD. I haven’t often done these things well, but I thank God for the strength and energy I have received to get it right at least as often as I have.

I may not always feel happy in the “smiley-face” sense of the word—but I am truly blessed. In my relationship with God. In my relationships within my family. In my relationships with all who love me no matter how dark my mood happens to be at the time. Like it or not, I’ve been blessed—to be a blessing to others.