When I first received my Bipolar diagnosis, the picture painted for me of my future was rather bleak. The staff at the psychiatric hospital explained that I would likely not be able to continue in ministry. I would probably go on disability, possibly work a part-time minimum wage job. I would have repeated hospitalizations and the chances of remaining in my marriage were slim to none.
My psychiatrist, however, wanted to offer a ray of hope. He recommended I read a new memoir that had just been published by perhaps the most world-renowned expert on Bipolar disorder – Kay Redfield Jamison. In Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Jamison beautifully describes her own life-long struggle and brilliantly depicts the love-hate relationship many folks with Bipolar have with their illness. She defines what she prefers to call “Manic-depression” –
…a disease that both kills and gives life. Fire, by its nature, both creates and destroys. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” wrote Dylan Thomas, “Drives my green age, that blasts the root of trees/ Is my destroyer.” Mania is a strange and driving force, a destroyer, a fire in the blood.
In other works, Jamison has extensively explores the relationship between Bipolar and creativity, citing examples in the lives of many artists past and present who displayed significant symptoms yet produced amazing expressions of life and the world around them.
Recently, I re-read An Unquiet Mind (for the fourth time, I think). One passage I was particularly drawn to, given my current separation from my wife was this –
“No amount of love can cure madness or unblacken one’s dark moods. Love can help, it can make the pain more bearable, but always one is beholden to medication that may or may not always work and may or may not be bearable. Madness, on the other hand, most certainly can, and often does kill love through its mistrustfulness, unrelenting pessimism, discontents, erratic behavior, and especially through its savage moods.”
It’s sad, but often true that people with Bipolar seem incapable of sustaining intimate relationships. Redfield herself has been married more than once, joining the ranks of the more than 90% of folks with Bipolar who get divorced.
So is it worth it? If given the opportunity, should we eradicate Bipolar through gene therapy? For now (at least), Redfield would say, “No.” As she poetically reflects on her own experience living with the illness –
‘I honestly believe that as a result of it I have felt more things, more deeply had more experiences. more intensely loved more and been more loved; laughed more often for having cried more often; appreciated more the springs for all the winters; worn death “as close as dungarees,” appreciated it — and life, more; seen the finest and most terrible in people, and slowly learned the values of caring, loyalty, and seeing things through…”
Not many of us (only one, in fact) can be Kay Redfield Jamison. I see my Bipolar more as a “thorn in my flesh” than something that has enhanced my life. Still, I am grateful. Through this thorn I have discovered that God’s grace is sufficient. This realization has led me to a more abundant life in Christ and given me a greater appreciation for the struggles of others.
How about you? Those of you with Bipolar, how do you view your illness? If you had the choice, would you seek out a cure? How have you learned to make the most of it?