You Just Have To Live Long Enough

Of all the encouraging things I can say to those of you who have been struggling with the pain and loss and regret that bipolar so often brings,  most encouraging thing you need to know is that if you live long enough, you’ll see how those shattered pieces of your hopes and dreams have come together in an altogether unplanned yet compellingly beautiful life…..if you abandoned yourself to the Great Craftsman somewhere along the way. I cannot speak for nominal Christians, or those without faith in God through Jesus Christ. However, if the agony of bipolar drives you to throw everything at the feet of Jesus – and let go – it is with an exceptional boldness that I tell you the day will come that you have a beautiful life worth living. You just have to live long enough for enough of the pieces to come together that you can see the big picture they point to.

When this scourge hit just after my 31st birthday, the only way to describe it was “tragic.” Coming at the prime of my life, only halfway through preparations to secure employment as a professor in an educational institution, breaking into a full-blown psychotic manic episode constituted a betrayal by my mind of enormous proportions. Now, at 61, I can see that my life – my whole life, from conception to adoption to accomplishment to bipolar and beyond – has been bone-crushingly difficult, but it has not been tragic. It has left me wounded, but not broken as I had thought I was most of those 61 years. But I had to live this long to see it with my own eyes, and believe it in my own heart. Had I checked out even 4 years ago, I would not have seen the masterpiece as easily as I see it today – and it is becoming more clear all the time.

I realize it’s not easy to live long enough for the pain to make sense and be swallowed up in the larger context God is constantly creating. Your family and loved ones will never know how hard it is to keep going without the things to your name you could easily have earned, were you not out of your mind half the time. For me, it was those framed documents on the wall – the Ph.D and the Mrs. One I never earned, and the other I earned and lost twice. People look at you sadly, shaking their head. “You had such potential.” I got so tired of having potential. I ached for actual – and for the most part, it never came in the typical worldly ways. It’s not easy to walk in the world of “haves,” when you are a “would have had if I wasn’t sick”. No one knows how hard and painful it is, except someone else who has to walk the road. My children and family will never know how hard I fought to stay alive, or what it cost me. But I did it. And it turns out, the beneficiaries really aren’t my children or family – staying alive benefits me most. I can see what my life was all about – and it is good. The sting of bipolar, the tragedy of it, is gone for good.

So, do what you need to do to stay alive long enough for the picture to come together. Your blessings are on this side of the River Jordan. If you’re not alive, you will miss them. Surviving doesn’t have to be pretty. There’s no extra credit for gracefulness or good form. There are no deductions for stumbling and muddling through. In the really bad days, you can learn to say, as I did, “Thank you, God, that I’m alive to feel this shitty.” Just keep going. When you fall down, get up and keep going. I promise, the day will come when you will be very glad you lived long enough to see how things are working out.

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Acceptance is Not an Option

Acceptance came hard for me.  I don’t mean the diagnosis.  After a full-blown manic break, complete with psychotic delusions, I knew something was terribly wrong.  It only took four months, until the next hypomania began, for me to accept that the “something” fit the bipolar description.  Given the extreme highs and lows and rapid cycling from one to the other, I had plenty of opportunity to affirm the diagnosis, and plenty of reason to use it to explain what I was going through to myself and others.

That’s not the kind of acceptance that came hard for me.  I realize some people balk at accepting the diagnosis and even spend years explaining away their moods and behaviors in other ways.  I didn’t have that kind of difficulty.  My difficulties can be summed up by my reaction to a poster I saw on the first psych ward I was ever admitted to, during the very first manic break I’d ever had.  The poster said:

The Brain Can Get Sick Too

With utter clarity, as if it were happening right now, I can hear the thought that went through my head:  The brain can get sick too?  Oh.  Then the brain can get well.


You get pneumonia.  You get over it.  The thought was so clear, you might just as well have equated it to something like there’s 24 hours in a day.  The brain can get sick.  The brain can get better.  I fully well expected to get “over” manic-depression.

For ten years, I expected, without a shadow of a doubt, to get over manic-depression.  My life fell apart.  I lost custody of my young children.  A second marriage fell apart.  I gave up my academic career.  All losses I could barely endure, save for the conviction that I would get over bipolar and then painstakingly rebuild a new life.  I accepted “the brain can get sick” but would not, could not accept that sometimes the brain does not get better.

I entered therapy and over the course of several years, did some exceptionally powerful work.  Still, I could not give up the conviction that I was going to get “over” this maddening affliction.  In the beginning, on that first psych ward, faith in God had nothing to do with my conviction.  However, as I made strides in managing the condition and began participating in a faith community, I became even more resistant to doing the “psychologically healthy thing,” (i.e., surrender my objections and find the peace that lies beyond “true” acceptance. )  No!  My peace comes in Jesus Christ, and nothing is too difficult for God to do!!  “Acceptance” felt like “giving up,” “giving in,” and denying the power of God.

Eventually, God showed me that I was fighting over the turf of “tomorrow.”  I was fighting for a tomorrow where my brain got well, where I got over manic-depression, where my life would start anew.  In earlier years, I fought for tomorrow because today was otherwise unbearable.  I fought with desperation.  Sometimes with blind desperation.

Now, however, my life is much better.  I’ve gained great stability and satisfaction, and through Christ have come to see possibilities where none existed before.  So, finally, as a believing person with faith in God, acceptance has come to look like this for me:  I accept that today I have real and definite limits, and I am determined to live responsibly within those limits.   However, my limits may be different tomorrow or in the future.”

            Acceptance isn’t an option. We must accept where we are and the limits we are dealing with.  Yet, we must also accept the existence of a God who cares about individuals on a personal basis, a God who touches our lives in response to heartfelt prayers, a God who owns “tomorrow” and a God who is enough for “today.”  Living well with a bipolar condition means accepting all of it.  God + bipolar = hope.

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Christian and Bipolar: Blessing or Curse?

Bipolar can be an almost unbearable curse for people who have been judged, rebuffed, and put down by people who call themselves Christian.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that Christians can be the main reason people like us give up on Jesus.  As one man put it to me:  “I’d rather say I was a terrorist than let other Christians know I have bipolar.”

I was shocked when I heard that.  My experience has been completely opposite.  I actually stood up in church one morning and publicly announced my need for prayer because I was having a hard time with my bipolar.  I didn’t know very many people in the church, and I had no idea I was running the risk of rejection.  Other people stood up asking for prayers.  I didn’t see any reason for me to fear doing the same.  In truth, in that church, there really was nothing to fear. I asked for prayers, and people prayed for me.  They also embraced me warmly and showed real compassion for the burden I was carrying.  I know now that’s incredibly rare, but that was what happened.  After 15 years, it’s still the case.  

I also know now that finding a healthy, stable, and loving Christian community is really hard for practically everyone.  Even in my own church, the rich community that embraced me 15 years ago has become fractured and thin.  Most of the women and nearly all their children have moved or found other churches.  New people have come, but they have not entered into the community life.  Established churches everywhere are on the rocks.  New churches either die or grow too big for real community.  Small groups are the rage, but few offer the kind of in-depth and consistent acceptance that vulnerable people need, and that I was blessed with for so many years.

What I’m saying is this:  Our God is faithful, powerful, and safe, but churches and many believers are not.  To be blunt, if you go to church looking for Jesus, the fact that you don’t find Him there has nothing whatsoever to do with your diagnosis or your pain.  It has to do with the spiritual poverty of the church.  That poverty is also the reason why so many church-going Christians say such stupid and hurtful things to people struggling with mental illness.  They say stupid and hurtful things to most people who are struggling with anything.  That’s because they’re not growing in Christ, they don’t know how to live in the Spirit, and their church is being run by people who think that kind of Christian life is “normal” instead of pathological.

God + Bipolar really does result in blessings and hope and healing you just can’t get any other way.  However, Church + Bipolar is a crapshoot.  There are some decent churches left in the world, and there are a lot of really good and wise and strong Christians.  Don’t stop looking just because one church or one Christian lets you down.  More importantly, do not think the church or Christian let you down because you have bipolar.  They let all kinds of people down.  Move on.  Keep looking.  It’s not your fault.  You didn’t do anything wrong.  Don’t give up on God.  God hasn’t given up on you.

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What Does God Think Of Me?

I read something today in another blog on bipolar that I want my readers to ponder:

Part of the ugliness of this illness (in my experience) is feeling unworthy of God’s grace because it’s exceptionally hard to be happy or thankful or even hopeful. I know it’s not ME who feels all the negativity, but I still feel like I’m disappointing Him, even though I know that’s never the case.

When your brain is swimming in depression soup, when your feelings are so powerful what you think hardly matters, and especially when you don’t have strong Christians in your life who will regularly affirm that God isn’t disappointed in you, what you “know” just doesn’t cut it.  I found it almost impossible to get a clear, undistorted view of God’s mercy and grace when I was constantly cycling.  Under these conditions, what you “know” about God is a mere mental construct that doesn’t stand up to the rotten life you’re living.  You end up stuck in the middle of the Casting Crowns song, “East to West”:

…I start the day, the war begins, endless reminding of my sin

Time and time again Your truth is drowned out by the storm I’m in

Today I feel like I’m just one mistake away from You leaving me this way…

I’ve been there.  Scripture says “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”  (Psalm 103:12)  I knew that.  It was small comfort.  For years, I thought God didn’t care about what was happening to me.  I thought He’d take care of me after I died, but as for now?  “Well, look at what He let happen to His own Son,” I said to myself.  “Why expect any better for me?” Tragically, I did not expect any better in those years.  This was no passing thought, no “phase” in my spiritual development.  It was an unchallenged premise which invaded my entire sense of who I was, and what God thought of me.  Were it not for the fact that God was not about to leave me that way, that thought would still be with me.

God Himself challenged my thought.  Relentlessly, tirelessly, and of His own accord, God intervened in my life over and over and over again.  What I believed about Him was a terrible lie.  God did not let it stand.  I did not “outgrow” the lie – God smashed it to bits with His own hand.  The only thing I contributed to the smashing was an abiding willingness to be wrong.  I “knew” what God thought of me, but I was willing to be shown otherwise.  I was teachable.  I was not a pushover, but I was able to recognize – and acknowledge – God’s hand at work in my life.  Eventually, the evidence built up to the point that I understood it was because God allowed Jesus to suffer and die that I could count on God caring about my life before I died.

I say eventually, because it took a very long time for me to be certain about it.  I was an intellectual by training and choice.  I also had frequent excursions into unreal “realities.” I couldn’t afford to underestimate my ability to delude myself. No, changing my core convictions isn’t something that happened just because I wanted (or wished) to believe something more positive.  I changed because, incredibly, God earned my trust.  Eventually.  Not all at once, but eventually.

Today, I can sing the last lines in that Casting Crown’s song in good conscience.  I am included in God’s grace and mercy.  God is not angry or disappointed in me.  God cares about my life, my suffering, my pain, my illness.

Jesus, You know just how far the east is from the west

I don’t have to see the man I’ve been come rising up in me again

In the arms of Your mercy I find rest

‘cause You know just how far the east is from the west

From one scarred hand to the other

The Song: East to the West, Casting Crowns

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The Inner Peace Award – Passing it On

It is with great humility that I pass this award onto Unshakable Hope.  Bill has ALS and writes one of the deepest and most inspiring Christian blogs available on the web.  I hope you will visit and delight your soul in this man’s amazing wisdom and grace.

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Inner Peace – The Difference God + Bipolar Makes

This Inner Peace WordPress award was given to me by SimplyEnjoy,

a blogger I follow who writes beautifully on the art of restoring the human spirit through seeking God, practicing simplicity, and cultivating creativity.  Her multi-media blog is a high-quality treasure box of wisdom and practical advice for anyone seeking to gain freedom from the things that ensnare our souls.  I am humbled to receive this award from her.  There is no way to explain it, other than to say that

God + Bipolar = Hope

The greatest puzzle, or at least it would have puzzled me several years ago, is how a person could truly be content and at peace with herself (and with God), if the bipolar condition was not healed.  If anyone had tried to tell me I would be extremely happy with my life at age 56, even though the bipolar had not been cured, I would have dismissed their prediction as wholly foreign to the person I am.  Perhaps someone else might be happy, but not I.

The bipolar condition was in the way of everything I wanted, everything I valued, everything I lived for and thought I needed to keep  on living.  I had to get “over it” so that I could go back to school, finish my doctorate, wrest my children away from my ex-husband (who had assumed primary custody), have an enviable life with a second husband and a stellar academic career at a good university.  For many years, I fiercely held onto my plans to “get my life back” once the bipolar was cured – to the point that I would not grieve my losses because I would not accept that all was lost.  Had someone told me then that I would be deeply content at 56 – never having finished the doctorate, never having regained custody of my beloved children, divorced a second time, unable to economically support myself, and still dealing with bipolar cycles – I would have thought “What kind of cruel joke is this?”

Bipolar, without God, is very cruel.  It is cruel to the afflicted person.  It is cruel to those who love and try to live with the afflicted person.  It is cruel to the children, to the parents, to the spouses, the lovers, the good friends.  It’s taken me years to understand that I am a loving and worthwhile person who is terribly missed when I am underground during a depression.  I am also a wise and intelligent person, whose counsel is missed when I am on the manic side and my words can’t be trusted.  I once thought the only real damage I did to others was the usual destructiveness of a mania, or the trauma of having to watch me go to the hospital.  Now I am well enough to understand that simply losing me for unpredictable periods of time is a heartache as well.  Without God, bipolar is a cruel affliction that breaks the hearts of many beyond the one who suffers the cycles.

With God, bipolar has been a means of transforming my heart from the inside out, so that when Jesus led me to my green pastures, I was whole enough inside to delight in what His love had provided.

In dealing with the bipolar through my life in Christ, I lost the life I had been holding onto so fiercely.  I buried my PhD, my coveted Mrs., my economic independence, motherly satisfactions, and personal significance in the bloody ground at the foot of Jesus’ cross.  I gave up the big chip on my shoulder against a God who was not using His power to take away the bipolar once and for all and for good.  I gained the holy dreams of my Savior, and a heart that takes great delight in them.

My life is quiet, peaceful, loving, and full of hope.  I did not in any way “achieve” inner peace.  It is a gift given to me by one who gave all for all of us.

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The Despair of Dead Ends

If you click on the link above, you will be taken to an article written by a man who is presently working with people who are enduring severe mental illness.  I’ve put it on my bog because it gives me new words and images to describe my experience as a woman who was once mired in the depths of repeated, severe, unremitting bipolar depressions.  Although it is written to pastors, and is focused upon the difficulties of being clergy in today’s American church culture, if you read it sensitively, as I did, you will have a new way to understand and talk about the trials of life with the bipolar affliction

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GOD + “Things will be better in the future” = HOPE

Back to simple Math:

NO GOD + “Things will be better in the future” = wishful thinking

GOD + “Things will be better in the future” = justified, confident HOPE

And not just any “god.”  I’m speaking of the much-maligned God of the Bible, the God that so many people are prone to reject out of a very thinly supported, often second or third hand opinion that THAT God is NOT the true God of love, and therefore not the “Real” God.

Not so.  THAT God is the “Real” God, and when THAT God says “Things will be better in the future,” that is a prediction backed up by the power that created the universe and a track record of 100% fulfilled promises.  That’s a statement you can stand on in confidence and hope.  You can take it to the bank.  You can count on it being true because the One who said it has the power to make it happen.

Now, answer me this:  what is backing up the prediction of a better future when you read it on an attractive graphic, or hear it from a motivational speaker, or it comes out of your own mouth?  I’ll leave you with that question, for the moment.  Perhaps some of you who visit this post might have a good answer.

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25 Years of Mental Illness…..A Letter to My Church Prayer Guild

It was 25 years ago, on Labor Day weekend 1987 that I first learned I had a mental illness.  A mania had come over me of disastrous proportions, completely overwhelming my sense of reality and propelling me into a delusional state.

My ex husband had come down that Friday to accompany our son to his first day of kindergarten, only to discover that I had completely and utterly forgotten to prepare Jack to go to school.  He took both our children home with him for the regular weekend visit.

Saturday and Sunday, the mania continued to spiral out of control.  I didn’t sleep.  I didn’t see anyone, and I stayed at home (Praise God).  I don’t remember eating much, but I did drink a lot of water.  I found out later that all that water washed out my electrolytes which further added to my mental instability.

Sunday, my ex returned with the kids, and realized I was not in my right mind.  He took both children back with him, and called the police later that night, saying he thought I was a suicide risk.

The Oceanside police arrived to find me sitting outside my house, enjoying the night air.  They called me to the curb and politely asked me if I had ever been in a mental institution before.  “Yes,” I happily replied.  “I’ve been in graduate school at UCSD for the past 5 years.”  They looked at each other and asked me the question again.  Again I relayed my witty response.  After answering a few questions, which I answered with ease, they decided I wasn’t a danger to anyone, including myself and drove off.

Not satisfied with the police response, my ex drove back down from LA Monday afternoon.  One look at me and the house was more than enough to convince him he needed to call the police again.  This time three uniformed officers came into my living room and asked me questions while my ex stood to the side, shaking his head and indicating he’d seen enough.  I believe had I been alone, they would have concluded I was not a danger to myself or to others (as would be the case in future episodes).  But as a lawyer and former Marine, my ex husband exudes authority.  His determination to have me taken in was very clear, and the police obliged him.

I can still remember my shock and horror as the policemen dragged me off to their car and shoved me in the back seat.  The smell of cigarettes and leather was burned into my memory.  The police took a route to Tri-City that cut through Mira Costa campus. For a time, I thought they were taking me to college – which made perfect sense.  Then I was at the ER entrance, and nothing made sense after that.  I was taken to the locked unit at PalomarHospital, and two days later received the diagnosis:  Manic Depressive, or as it is commonly known now, bipolar.

English: The front page of the Honolulu Star-B...

The front page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 1st Extra, December 7th, 1941 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Labor Day, 1987, was my morning of December 7th, 1941 (when the Japanese attacked PealHarbor).

Pearl Harbor wasn’t like an earthquake or a tornado or even a tsunami.  After disasters such as these, people rebuild their lives and go on in a world that has largely remained the same.

Pearl Harbor did more than blow apart a shipyard that had to be rebuilt.  Pearl Harbor changed lives forever.  Pearl Harbor changed the world forever.  Nothing went back to the way it had been before.  And nothing in my life has gone back to the way it had been before Labor Day 1987.  My whole world changed, and so have I.

The biggest change – and by far the best change – was coming in from the wilderness to the shelter and victory of a Christ-centered life.  A few of you know who I was, and how shattered I was when I first came to First Presbyterian Church in 1993.  Some of you were praying for me way back then as “Sande Varano,” the name I had from a second marriage that failed, before I resumed my first married name of Rajcic.   Some of you were in the early service when I began to openly ask for prayers for my condition.  Some of you remember the shape I was in when I began to fellowship more regularly in the first service, around 2003.   You are the ones who know the fuller magnitude of the grace God has given to me.  You are the ones who gave me Christ’s shelter, and spoon-fed me His truth and His love when I was weakest and most confused.

All of you are my strength when I falter.  Being able to serve the Lord by organizing the prayer list each week, gave me hope and comfort during the times of depression when I was really too ill to be faithful in actually praying over the list.  Your constant care and concern for me, ever faithful to see me and not my diagnosis, gave me “Jesus with skin” when I needed His hugs as much as His salvation.  And, every one of you over the age of 70 are a light to me and a vision of what is possible when the Lord is in one’s life.

I was raised to think the “Golden years are the pits,” and fed the sage advice, “don’t ever grow old.”  I came to believe that when I hit 65 life was going to be pretty much done and down hill.  I had no vision of happiness or fulfillment, let alone energy or vigor.  In the light of life I behold in your faces, the Lord has blown all that apart!  I know if I follow Him closely, I’ll have the character to face the challenges of later life, and He’ll fill me with purpose that won’t run out or go dry.  When you spend 25 of the “best years of your life” in mental hospitals, or flying in another reality, or just plain flat out in bed, too weary to get up and no reason to try, it means more than you can know to believe there’s a good life ahead of me.

Twenty five years sounds like a very long time for God to answer my prayers for healing and relief.  Put it in perspective.  Mental illness comes in varying degrees.  Bipolar can hit a person anywhere along a spectrum from easily treatable to practically uncontrollable.  My illness was on the more severe end of the scale.  Medically speaking, even with the best, state of the art medications and good, hard work with an excellent therapist, the chances of me progressing out of the level of disability I had to my present level of stability and quality of life are – nil.  Zero.  Doesn’t happen.  Not in 25 years.  Not in 35 years.  My biological aunt is 75.  She still suffers from severe depressions.  My biological mother is 77.  She’s been depressed since January, and still isn’t entirely out of it.  They may not have worked as hard is I have with their doctors, I can’t say.  What I can say is bipolar doesn’t resolve itself.  You don’t “outgrow” it.

Praise be to God for his mercy and grace to me. Praise be to God for the loving Christian family he’s given me.  Praise be to God for the opportunities to serve that this church has extended to me.  May Christ be exalted among us now and forever more.


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What Kind of God Brings Hope?

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Espera...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s start with an easier question:  “What kind of God dashes your hopes to the ground and makes you feel worse about yourself than you already feel?”  Ah.  That is the God who judges, the God who punishes.  That is the God of narrow religion.  The God of the Bible.  The God some of us were raised with, (and that some of us can’t seem to get out of our heads).

Actually, I am not among the “some of us” mentioned above.  I was raised in a non-religious environment by non-religious parents.  I mean, God was a non-issue, as in nonexistent.  For some reason, they sent me to Sunday School for a few years, but they simply dropped me off and picked me up, and there was no more discussion about it at home than there was about the “See Dick and Jane” readers I had in public school.  (Yes, I am that old, and there really were “See Dick and Jane” reading books back in the 60’s)   In my house, Christmas was ruled by Santa Claus and Easter was about bunnies and eggs and God was some old dottering elderly fellow in the clouds.

So what I’m saying is the God who dashes your hopes to the ground when you’re down and makes you feel like dirt when you already feel like shit was never God to me, or my family.  God wasn’t out to get you if you did bad.  God wasn’t looking over my shoulder, God didn’t create the world or anything in it, and heaven was where my pets went when they “went to sleep.”

(I did, however, learn the Serenity Prayer by heart before I reached the age of 5.  My mother seemed to feel she needed God to grant her a lot of serenity to accept the things she couldn’t change, namely me!)

Without the baggage and the wounds, the Jesus I met as a teenager in the 70’s, during the Jesus Movement years, was the warm and compassionate Jesus portrayed in the gospels of the “Good News” or “Living Bible” (popular paraphrases of the day), and most definitely not the stiff “verily, verily I say unto thee” figure of the King James translation.  The Jesus I met was not a prisoner of the ink printed on the page.  He was a Living Person, a Savior.  He was also a Good Shepherd who talked to his sheep so often and so well that each one knew his voice and could recognize it out of a crowd of many other voices.  That was the Jesus I met and got to know.  And I got to know the sound of that Jesus’ voice.

Simply put, that is the voice of hope.

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