Here's a photo of my younger brother Eddy showing off a fish he caught in 1993 (Yes, he is an adult now). I am 12 years older than Eddy. When I was a young adult, he often wanted to me to take him fishing. For a long time I found my emotions driving me to drill Eddy on the right ways to fish and how to not fall into the river. I remember one time when I even told him that he needed more faith if he wanted to catch more fish. My mania, depression, and belief in God were all mixed together in a big knot...like some of Eddy's fishing lines that I had to untangle. Over time, I learned to recognize what emotions were given from God (they were all peaceful and not critical), what was mania, and what was depression. This clarity helped me to realize that causing my younger brother to cry because I told him he didn't have enough faith, was actually me pushing for perfection to try and escape depression. Not a spiritual deficiency in my little brother. As I realized this, I let go of the perfectionism, and even though I still felt depression, my relationship with my brother improved.
Is it God, Mania, or Depression?
As a person with bipolar disorder and also someone who believes in God, one of my biggest challenges is figuring out which thoughts and emotions come from above and which simply stem from mania or depression.
Back in 1990, at the age of 19, I chose to go on a religious mission for my church in Taiwan. At that time my symptoms of mania and depression were becoming more and more extreme, but I refused to believe or even acknowledge that the extreme emotions, both highs and lows, were amplified greatly by a chemical imbalance in my body. I believed the intensely powerful feelings were only influenced by either God or the devil.
Ignorance of my mental illness and its relationship with the religious beliefs I had allowed mania to progress into manic psychosis after serving in Taiwan for just 10 months. Ironically, the obsessive theme leading up to and then throughout my psychotic break was the very question: “Is this God?”
Despite tranquilizing injections to gain control of the utter insanity, a night locked in a padded holding room, a month in the psychiatric ward of a hospital, multiple group therapy sessions, even more individual sessions with a psychiatrist, and hours of talks with my parents who had already been through the exact same thing with my mother, I still refused to accept that illness caused the breakdowns and not God.
The unwillingness to separate my illness and my faith made it impossible to continue a religious mission. I returned home and tried to live the life I knew before leaving on my mission. But bipolar disorder was now my permanent partner. It took years and years of mental suffering, both myself and those who loved me, before I was willing to find and live a balance between what I thought God was telling me or causing me to feel and what was simply depression or mania. For those still searching for this balance, here’s an important lesson I have learned: Perfection Is Not the Cure for Depression
One time in church, a man (that I respect and love) got up and told the people that when we are happy, positive and productive, that is when we are following God’s Spirit. He went on to say that when we are depressed, negative and non productive, that is when we are listening to the devil. A lot of people in religious circles, though well meaning, make ignorant comments like this. It makes me wonder what they think when they read in the Bible that Jesus was “acquainted with grief and sorrow.” Was it because Jesus wasn’t living right or not following the Holy Spirit? Definitely not.
Most religions teach that living righteously brings happiness and not following God imposes sadness. For those of us with bipolar disorder, confusion comes when we try to be good and righteous yet still find ourselves fighting the sadness associated with depression. When we hear comments like those of the man in church that I mentioned we often conclude that we must not be living good enough to feel the happiness they describe. This confusion in me led to very destructive perfectionism.
The feeling that I needed to live better (striving to be better is good, but I worked at it to the detriment of my emotional and physical health) in order to feel God’s happiness, for most of my youth and early adulthood made me seldom satisfied with where I was, and perfection in all things became barely acceptable. Always striving for greater and higher levels of perfection caused me to developed unbelievable, ridiculously high expectations on myself and on those around me.
It wasn’t enough for me to read scriptures every day. I set a goal to memorize all of them. It wasn’t enough to humbly say prayers and move through life with faith. I wrote a goal that my prayers would become conversations with immediate, direct and audible answers. Just before my mania reached the extreme, I even wrote on a card a goal to receive a personal visitation from Christ Himself. I truly believed if I tried hard enough I could receive this gift…within two years.
Ultimate perfection was not just an expectation I held on myself. The other part of the confusion I carried was that I could escape the down feeling (that I believed the devil or God was making me feel) if I helped others to reach the same standard I held for myself. Obviously, helping others to be better is a good thing, but when your motivation is out of desperation for relief from unidentified or denied depression, it becomes forced and uncaring for the person you’re trying to “help.” Forced, unkind, unmerciful, unquenchable help is really only hurt in disguise.
An example of this happened while I was on my mission in Taiwan. I had a roommate who made a comment that a person we were working with “just needed a brick to the head.” I’m sure to my roommate it was just a passing comment. To me however, it was a declaration that he needed a more perfect understanding of Christ-like love.
So I immediately fired at him a story about two men who died and went to heaven. As the first came to the pearly gates, the gatekeeper asked him, “What do you know of Jesus?” The man replied, “He was born of a virgin, healed the sick, and was a great prophet.” “Yes,” replied the gatekeeper, “but what do you know of Jesus?” The man looked confused and answered, “He suffered for the sins of all mankind, died on a cross, and was resurrected the third day defeating death and opening the door for all to follow.” “Yes, yes. All these things are true,” replied the gatekeeper. “I’m sorry but you cannot enter.” Sad and confused the man turned and started walking away. Right then the second man came to the gates. Seeing the gatekeeper he yelled out, “My Lord, My God!” and rushed to the feet of his Savior.
After telling this to my companion I looked up at his face. His eyes were full of tears and red with anger. Through clenched teeth and with a trembling voice he asked, “Don’t I know my Savior?”
This was the kind of manipulation I used when I became desperate or felt I was failing at “helping” someone else reach perfection. Looking back on my life this kind of “hurtful help” mostly fell on those I loved; my closest friends and especially my family. After marriage it continued with my wife----believing I would find happiness by “helping” her to change into what I thought would make her happy, and believing God was telling me to do it. It took years of her crying and locking herself in the bathroom, leaving me alone to try and figure out where I went wrong before I started to realize I wasn’t acting out of love for her. Rather, I was simply trying to escape my own depression.
Realizing this, I tried a new approach to life that started with the belief that being righteous didn’t mean I had to change people. God didn’t command us: “change thy neighbor as thy self.” He commanded, “Love thy neighbor as thy self.” When I was able to get out of the business of trying to change people and get into the business of loving them as they were, a huge load was lifted including, in part, my depression.
Today, I try to live the lesson I learned that perfection is not the cure for depression. But please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying the cure for depression is to quit trying to reach excellence or to stop striving to live right. There’s a balance that we all have to find between trying our best and trying too hard. I still believe that helping others is necessary for happiness, but now I take a different approach. If the point of fishing is to enjoy time together, I don’t need to drill knots, faith, and technique when my brother doesn’t catch fish. If the point of a Sunday School lesson is to help others feel love, and the discussion radiates love, then it’s ok if I don’t read everything in the lesson manual. If the point of working with my children is to teach them to enjoy working, then pushing them to tears while forcing them to get every last crumb defeats the whole purpose. I have found that depression drains lowest and happiness holds highest when I give what I can and simply trust in God to do the rest.