Choosing life

Dealing with bipolar disorder

January 19, 2011 | Feature | Number 2
By Ingrid Peters Fransen |

Every morning I look in the mirror and do not know who might be looking back at me. I wonder what the day will hold. Will it be a day of relative calm? Or will it be a day when my voice becomes higher-pitched, and my speech speeds up, gushing out of me in staccato fashion while my mind tries to keep up with the ideas that come rushing in?

Will I balance my chequebook or will I shop until I drop? Will it be a day of tears or a day of rage? Will it be a day when I reread a sentence countless times because I can’t remember what I have read or a day of brilliant insight? Will I spend the day napping because exhaustion overtakes me or will I need to go to emerg at 3 a.m. to get drugs to put me to sleep?

Whenever I am overcome by a bottomless abyss of sadness or crazed by a rage that respects no boundaries, I grasp for the message, “Choose life.”

I had my first bipolar episode 18 years ago—a mixed episode in which my mood alternated between depression and mania on a daily basis for over a month. I was diagnosed with depression 13 years ago and with bipolar affective disorder seven years ago. After my diagnosis of bipolar, it took me three-and-a-half years to stabilize. Since I was diagnosed and entered treatment, the duration, frequency and severity of the episodes have all decreased.

I miss the intensity of emotion—joy was more intense, sadness was more intense, rage was more intense, the feeling of injustice was more intense. Life now seems muted by comparison, but I choose meds because of the people around me. My children have been the worst casualties of my disorder, but the church has provided them with models of stable families. They have welcomed my children into their homes, Sunday school, summer camp, youth groups and programs.

For me, the church has been somewhat less hospitable. Some members are leery of a person whose mood is so unpredictable and, at times, quite destructive. I understand their apprehension. Perhaps the person most frightened by the tempest of my disorder is me.

Some, however, see me through the lens of my abilities, not my disorder, and have supported and befriended me. My nearest and dearest friend is a model of Christian charity, loving me unconditionally and meeting me weekly regardless of my inclination. My psychiatrist is a Christian who understands the importance of faith in the process of healing. Most importantly, God chooses life for me—blessing me with children and a grandchild. My children also choose life for me—forgiving me my transgressions.

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Ingrid Peters Fransen teaches economics at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Man.

Steps toward healing

If you think that you have bipolar disorder, or are developing it, here are some important steps toward managing it:

1. Get professional help immediately. Bipolar disorder is a serious condition that responds to treatment, so there is no reason why you should wait.

2. Expect medication. Since bipolar disorder has a strong biological component, you will very likely need medication.

3. Be open to psychotherapy as part of your treatment plan. Therapy can help you work with the stress, relationship difficulties, sleep disruption, unhealthy thinking and other factors that can affect the onset, severity and duration of your mood episodes.

4. Learn about the disorder. Proper education about the causes and treatment of the disease is important not only for you, but also for your loved ones and your faith community.

5. Follow your recommended course of treatment.

Excerpted from ‘Dealing with bipolar disorder,’ a pamphlet in the ‘Close to Home’ series published by Mennonite Publishing Network (mpn.net/closetohome).

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