Post Author: Deborah Matthews
Last year my life exploded. A mental illness I didn’t know I had shifted into full bloom, landing me in the hospital. One day I solo pastored a church in transition, loving my call and work. The next day I was in the hospital because of severe depression, one pole of my newly diagnosed bipolar disorder. In the year that followed I was on 15 different medications to find the right combination for treatment, had 4 hospitalizations for a total of 10 weeks, spent another 9 weeks in intensive outpatient treatment, and experienced 7 controversial ECT treatments (electro convulsive therapy, not at all like what you’ve seen in movies!). It’s been a harrowing year.
As my life exploded, my faith imploded. Instead of the closeness I felt to God and the many practices of faith that helped sustain that, I felt lost and alone. I didn’t ask God, “Why me?” because I didn’t know that God existed. I no longer felt God’s presence, and all spiritual practices felt fake and forced. Chaplains and pastors likened the experience to St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, but I didn’t feel abandoned by God. I felt in suspension. All that I thought I knew and felt just stopped. I could write and recite a statement of faith or a creed – and believe what I said – but it was dry, unreal, and distant from my reality. The illness took over how I thought and felt, and that included my spirituality.
The most disturbing part of this experience was that I heard that the spiritual highs, closeness to God and creation, and occasional religious euphoria that I had experienced most of my life were classic symptoms of the mania pole of bipolar disorder. In one fell swoop I lost the basis of my spirituality. I sought those religious highs and feeling of God’s presence through me and around me to help ground me as a child in the image of God. Who was I without the sense of connection to God? My spirituality had been the basis of my self-image – and my sense of call. In my work, in my call, I created experiences in worship, education, pastoral care and spiritual leadership to help others experience God’s presence in their lives too. Had I been misleading others? Had I truly felt a call to ministry, if my spirituality had been such a huge part of my experience of that call?
Throughout this identity crisis, I learned to separate my personal self-image from the persona and job of pastor. Yet I longed for that life. I mourned the loss of that wonderful church I served, and mourned the likelihood that I would never serve in parish ministry again. The job requirements would exacerbate my chronic illness, and I now need to take the illness into consideration in all decisions I make. Part of my new self-understanding includes the desperate need to care for myself and put my health first in my life. The stability I’m beginning to experience depends on routine, exercise, medication and meeting regularly with my care team. In this healthy milieu I’m able to build a sense of self again, but I miss my spirituality and how it was so integral to who I am.
I have found another Presbyterian church in the area to attend and try to find a supportive and faithful community. It is hard to be vulnerable and open about my illness. There is still stigma surrounding mental illness, even among church-goers. When I attend worship, memories flood me and the faith of others washes over me. It is painful not to be leading worship – which I loved. It is hard to be surrounded by images, acts, words and people of faith. It is painful to feel surrounded by people who don’t understand how hard I’m struggling. It is disorienting that the Church I loved, and the God I loved, cause me so much pain.
Yet I have been blessed even as I struggle with my faith and sense of call. Friends and colleagues have held faith for me when I couldn’t. While I no longer feel the mighty and compassionate God through Water and Spirit, others have hugged me and whispered the baptismal promises to me. As I question whether I was called into ministry, and what form that might take in the future, others have proclaimed the good news of resurrection and a new life. Though I feel like the widow of Zarephath who despaired of having bread and oil to sustain her, like her I have been blessed with just enough faith to make it through one day, or one hour, at a time. And I have been blessed to have hope that the tunnel I’m in will end. I trust that the God of Elijah, the God of the Widow, the God of Water and Spirit and all of Creation, and the God of Resurrection will be there when I find faith and call again.
The Rev. Deborah Matthews is a PCUSA minister-at-large in the Chicago Presbytery, and lives with her husband and three cats. She blogs at: http://suddenlybipolar.wordpress.com