This past year my wife and I went to my 40th high school class reunion. I had not seen many of my classmates since graduation. So, you can imagine how strange it was to see them after so many years of life. Fortunately, those in charge of the event provided us name tags to wear that not only had our name on it but also our senior class picture. And boy was that helpful!
I found myself reflecting the entire evening about how fast life goes and how no one’s life necessarily turns out like they thought it would. When you have not seen someone for 40 years, you could see in their physical appearance the toll of living. Of course, we all had aged (some better than others). And our journeys have been very different. But, it seems that even though the journeys have been very different, there is a common thread that life weaves in each person’s journey. That thread is made up of joy, happiness, disappointments, hurts, fears, brokenness, grief, hopes, mistakes, success, failures, dreams lived and many dreams lost. I could see in my classmate’s eyes that disappointments and brokenness had taken their toll. Living life can take the life out of you.
So, why do I share this with you? Here’s why I share it: life brings with it a lot of disappointments., pain and brokenness. It’s part of the human condition. And life keeps going on whether or not you are stuck in those things. See, I believe that you and I can easily get into a mindset that having a mental health challenge “ruins” your life and we can begin to think that we can’t move forward in life and enjoy it. The truth is that everyone faces something in life. Living can quickly suck the life right out of any and everyone. A mental health challenge is just one of the many obstacles found in this “thing” we call life.
It’s easy to begin to focus so much on ourselves and how “hard” we have it that self-pity can start to creep in and take up residence in our beliefs. And while we get stuck in the pain and brokenness of bipolar disorder, life keeps going on. Life doesn’t stop. And for me, life is way, WAY too short to get so stuck in self-pity or stuck in believing that now life is “over” because of a mental health diagnosis. Yes, a mental illness/disorder can suck. Yes, a mental health issue can hinder ones’ life and alter the course of what we had hoped life to be. Yes, a mental illness is a “cross to bear” in life. But, lest you and I forget, many other crosses in life are just as difficult and some even more tragic and painful to bear. For me, it has been imperative that I remember that there are much worse crosses to bear in life than bipolar disorder. Remembering this helps keeps my self-pity at bay.
I spent seven very long years stuck in my pain and brokenness following the manic episode that brought about the collapse of my life. Self-pity was part of those seven years. I was stuck in it. I felt as though my life had been robbed from me. But, really was being stuck and feeling sorry for myself that was depriving me of life, not the bipolar disorder! And I didn’t get unstuck until I got sick and tired of feeling sorry for myself and believing that my life was over.
So, I decided I was going to live well in spite of having bipolar disorder. Those three little words, “in spite of” are the mantra of my recovery. To get unstuck I did three things:
- Changed how I was thinking by taking control of what I was thinking about. I did not allow myself to rehearse the pain and brokenness continually. Instead, I began to think about how the pain and brokenness could propel me into living well. (This was the hardest thing I had to do in recovery!)
- Set reasonable and reachable goals that continually moved me towards living life well. I stuck to the goals, and when reached, I set new ones. Failure was not an option. Yes, there were failures and set backs. But, I chose to see the set backs and failures and learning opportunities for living well.
- Started helping others with mental health challenges and got my focus off of myself. (This probably was the major game changer for me.) When I began focusing on helping others I found my passion again; there was purpose for all of the pain I had experienced.
Here’s what I know about life and how people live it based not only on my life but also after pastoring for the past 30 some years: everybody has “stuff.”
Everybody has pain. Everybody has tragedies and losses in their lives. Pain is pain. Whether it is the loss of a child, cancer, financial collapse, divorce or a mental health challenge: you either work through it, or you get stuck in it. (By the way, if this blog post is “ticking you off”, then you are most likely stuck in your pain.) As they say, life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.
So, how are you responding to the things that life is throwing you? How are you reacting to having bipolar disorder? Are you living well in spite of having bipolar disorder? If not, why not?