This next lesson is somewhat difficult for me to discuss because it was so painful. It was also very personal as it had to do with my health. It started over 50 years ago when I was a young man in my 20s. I would have episodes that are still very difficult for me to describe. They would last a week or two and then disappear as mysteriously as they had appeared. They would begin with an inability to sleep, and this wasn’t a simple case of insomnia. The instant I closed my eyes it felt as though the room around me would begin to spin at incredible speeds. What was going on? I felt as though my heart was racing but taking my pulse showed there hadn’t been any increase in heart rate. I became almost afraid to try and sleep. My thinking would become increasingly irrational.
After I was married, I visited my GP to see what was causing this. I had to wait until I was in the middle of an episode to see my doctor, otherwise there was nothing to observe or test. For a while my doctor thought I was having problems with my blood sugar, but multiple glucose tolerance tests showed nothing untoward. Still no answer. While we were in Fort Saskatchewan, I had an episode that was so severe that I was hospitalized. The doctor thought I might be experiencing a form of depression and I was referred to a psychologist for talk therapy. Within a short while the episode ended, and I felt normal again. Was it the therapy or was it simply the episode ending on its own.
It wasn’t tied to seasons or anything else I could identify. One night I would be overcome with this inability to sleep, and the episode would begin. I began to worry if this would be what the rest of my life would be like. We had moved to the central Alberta town of Rimbey to take on the pastoral responsibility in that church. I’d been there for a couple of years when I was hit with another episode. Finally, my family doctor referred me to a psychiatrist, telling me he thought I might be experiencing clinical depression. The psychiatrist confirmed his diagnosis and after studying my history he concluded that I had a form of depression that could be triggered by a viral infection. What a relief! It had a name and once something is named it can be treated. In the past I’d been prescribed antidepressants but again I don’t know if they helped or if the episodes simply reached their conclusions on their own. One antidepressant actually had the unpleasant side effect of causing anxiety attacks. My psychiatrist had a suggestion. He prescribed an antidepressant and said that if I ever had a particularly difficult viral infection, I should take it to possibly prevent another depressive episode. It seems to have worked. It has been over 25 years since my last episode, but there have been some lasting lessons out of this experience.
The first is that it is okay to admit that I’m not perfect. My people needed me to transparent and vulnerable. They needed to see that I was just as human as they were and not somehow immune to the problems and conditions they faced. I mentioned my encounters with depression, with mental illness from the pulpit, I spoke about them in personal conversations without becoming an emotional exhibitionist. One result was that I believe I became more accessible. In Winnipeg a woman in our congregation had suffered with bipolar disorder for over 40 years. As a young woman she would be approached by some of the older women in her congregation who would say something like, “Now dearie, if you just confessed your sin, the Lord would heal you.” And so she confessed everything she could think of, but those confessions seemed to have no impact on her mental health. When I visited with her and her husband and told them of my journey through mental illness, it was as though she now had permission to name her condition and deal with it. She knew that her pastor understood. I wish I could say that she was totally healed, but bipolar can be very tenacious and resistant to treatment. We don’t like to talk about mental health in the church nor does our health care system seem to know how to deal with it. I tried to allow God to use my weakness to show His strength.
Something else I learned – listen to your body. I knew that a viral infection could trigger a bout of depression, so I paid attention to the messages my body was sending me. Both Iona and I became students of what our bodies were telling us.
My depression taught me to be more compassionate to people who were going through problems of various sorts. I wouldn’t be able to fully relate to what they were going through, but I could try to understand. The reason for the incarnation was at least in part to give God an experiential knowledge of what we experience. Hebrews 4:15-16 (NIV) “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
A difficult, painful lesson, but it helped me become who I am. What are the lessons God is teaching you? They may be tough and feel rather unpleasant, but through them all remember to Keep the Son in Your Eyes.