On my first visit to Overcoming with God, I wrote about how drastically my life changed the day my husband and I learned our younger son Nathanael had Down Syndrome. Through that experience, we learned that God can turn sadness into joy. I included a character with Down Syndrome in my first book, and I’m thrilled to report that right now as I type, plans are underway at our church to develop a ministry to other families with special needs.
Caroline, the young woman with Down Syndrome, also appears in my second book, as does another character with a different kind of special need. But this condition isn’t visible on the face. In fact, it is one family members seldom discuss with any but their closest friends and relatives. Mental illness.
The intrepid heroine of my latest book has a sister locked away in an asylum. Because my book is set in the past, I chose a brain trauma injury instead of a heredity illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder to explain her behavior. I figured the characters of the time period could better understand an injury.
I wish I could say our “modern” era is more understanding. Well, perhaps it is, but only to a degree. The truth is that mental illness is still highly misunderstood, often misdiagnosed, and usually stigmatized.
Our family spiraled into the darkness of mental illness around the same time Nathanael was born. My husband had had some stress issues a few years earlier, and then again when Nathanael was a few months old—probably the first signs of developing bipolar disorder.
Bipolar disorder is a chemical imbalance in the body that disrupts the brain’s ability to regulate a person’s moods. People with bipolar alternate between periods of mania (elevated moods) and depression (lowered moods). Depending on the person, cycles may be as rapid as minutes or as slow as years.
For months, my husband complained of sleeping issues, digestion problems, work stress—all classic symptoms of depression. After a trip to Asia (and attendant 15-hour time change), he returned home excited, charged, and filled with ideas for his job. And then a few months later, he was once again stressed, tired, miserable.
I wanted to be a supportive wife. Tell me what you need to be happy, and we’ll make it work, I’d beg. But he couldn’t tell me because there is no rational reason for the depression that comes part and parcel with bipolar. I’d had no prior experience with mental illness, and I couldn’t recognize it though I was staring it right in the face.
Another trip to Asia brought another manic episode, one with symptoms conspicuous enough even for me to look back over the past few years and see the developing pattern. Elevated moods of approximately three-months followed cycles of depression lasting nine-to-twelve months. I will never the first time I voiced the words to a friend, “I think my husband has bipolar disorder.”
Then followed the frightening aftermath as I learned just how serious bipolar is. What would happen if he refused to get treatment? What would happen it the doctors couldn’t find a combination of medications that would stabilize the disease? Many people with bipolar enjoy the highs of the manic episodes too much to take their medications. Many others are unable to hold a regular job or maintain normal family relationships.
I spoke to people with bipolar disorder. I questioned family members of people with bipolar disorder. I prayed. I cried. And I made contingency plans. What would happen if he couldn’t keep his job at some point? What would happen if he refused to get treatment? Our boys were six and three at the time. Was it better for them to stay or go? At the time, I figured there was a 50% chance we’d still be married five years later.
Look at the top of this blog again: Overcoming with God. I am thrilled to tell the world that this is not my story, it’s his. He is the one sought treatment, who takes his medication faithfully, who monitors his sleep and diet, who sees his doctor regularly.
That was 13 years ago. Today, David is a deacon in our church and works full time. Our boys have only ever known a two-parent family. My husband is, in short, a bipolar success story, a man who lives a normal life, and who just happens to also have a mental illness.
And he is the one who gave me permission to go forward with our story, despite the stigma attached to mental illness. We have never told this story in such a public forum—in front of friends, relatives, co-workers, and total strangers.
I wish I could promise every bipolar story would end so happily, but I can’t. Mental illness can be an incredibly debilitating condition that robs us of our very essence. However, we can offer hope. Even in our darkest hours, God will hold our hands.
By C.J. Chase, whose new release "The Reluctant Earl" is out this month with Love Inspired Historical books and is on Carrie's best of 2013 books!
GIVEAWAY: "Like" C.J.'s author page on Facebook and put "CJ" after your answer to this question: Do you have a loved one who suffers from mental illness? One winner will receive a copy of C.J.'s new release!