Thursday, April 11, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook, Mental Illness, and the Church

by Rachel Donegan

I have bipolar II disorder. Let’s just get that out of the way right now.

But I didn’t always have it, nor did I always understand it. In high school, I remember hearing some news story about a Hollywood actress who went to rehab for depression, and thinking, “What could you possibly have in your life to be depressed about?”

Seven years later, mental illness hit me like a freight train, and there was no going back.


Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, David O. RussellIn December, while on break from graduate school, I went with two close friends to see David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (which comes out on DVD April 30th). I’d heard good things about it, but as someone who lives on the lower end of the financial spectrum, I did some homework beforehand to see if this movie was worth sacrificing ten bucks on.

It was then I learned that the film was truly a labor of love. Russell, the film’s director and screenwriter, made the movie for his son, who has both bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorder. He made the movie to let his son know he was loved and understood, which is beautiful.

I had to see the movie after that. Russell, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence all do an impressive and authentic job of portraying just how complex, isolating, and frustrating mental illness and its stigma can be, and how essential community is to the recovery process.

I, like Bradley Cooper’s character, Pat Solitano, hate that I need medication in order to function. I too hate that seemingly harmless things like songs can trigger emotional collapse, or that sometimes words jump out of my mouth before I can reach out and stop them. I know the embarrassment of falling apart in front of a group of people who cannot comprehend what they’re witnessing. And, like Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany Maxwell, I know the anger, shame, and betrayal of being judged for a disease that I cannot control on my own.

During the film, I sat in the darkness of the theater, simultaneously laughing at the film’s humor and crying over its honesty and poignancy. I kept returning to the same thought: “Someone finally gets this…I am not the only one. I am not alone.” Great films and great stories have that kind of emotional heft and personal relatability, and Silver Linings Playbook fits that description well.

How does the church get so wrong what Hollywood gets so right?

Like most people with Bipolar II, I was first misdiagnosed with severe clinical depression. Out of fear, I kept the diagnosis close and quiet. The very few friends that I told were sworn to secrecy until I knew how to handle it.

Slowly but surely I started to open up to the people I went to house church with about the “black dog,” as Winston Churchill once called it, of depression. I could tell from their faces that many of them didn’t know what to say, but they were supportive.

For the next two years I went through cycles where I went to therapy (at a wonderful Christian non-profit agency), prayed and cried out to God nightly, slowly got better, and inevitably collapse again. All the while, my self-hatred boiled under the surface. WHY couldn’t I get better?  WHY couldn’t I just be normal? I don’t want to be “the girl with all the problems” anymore!
why, pencil, paper, questions 
My anger at my illness, at myself, and sometimes at God was overwhelming. “Why?” became the constant question without an answer.

After my re-diagnosis, things seemed to change. Many friends—both inside and outside of the church—started to quietly, but collectively, distance themselves from me. I was both puzzled and terribly hurt. Actions like that just confirmed the dark and horrible things that mental illness was already telling me: “You are broken beyond repair, and are a sucking, annoying, black hole of need. It’s not fair that other people would have to deal with you. It would be so much better for everyone if you weren’t there.”

But then I realized something: the church is much more familiar with how to handle episodic suffering than chronic suffering. We know how to show up at visitations and funerals with casseroles in hand. We can send “Get Well Soon!” and “In Sympathy” cards with ease because physical illnesses, relatively speaking, are short-term problems and are more accepted and understood than long term ones.

Many people in my life could handle my depression when they thought it was temporary. But when it comes to long term suffering, the church fidgets and uncomfortably looks away. In his TEDTalk from 2011, the late Roger Ebert said about long-term illnesses: “It is human nature to look away from illness. We don’t enjoy a reminder of our own fragile mortality.”

There are still too many forms of brokenness that make the church squirm.

My bipolar disorder won’t disappear anytime soon, because without a major medical breakthough, I’ll most likely have it until the day I die. My specific type is marked by rapid shifts in mood, ranging from hypomania, where I am boiling over with both exuberance and anger and will post twenty tweets in three hours, to severe depression, where I won’t want to talk to anyone and getting dressed is a marked achievement. There is no “cured” per se, just “stable.”

Neither Hallmark, Family Christian, nor Lifeway makes an “I’m sorry you relapsed” or “Please don’t give up” mental illness card. Plus, many within the church still believe that mental illness is born from either spiritual weakness or sin and that psychiatric medication is immoral and ungodly. To those people, I have only one thing to say: without counseling, medication, and my fiercely loyal friends, I would not be alive. There is zero doubt in my mind. Just be thankful you don’t have a mental illness.

In the past week, the story of Rick Warren and his son’s suicide has been nearly impossible to avoid. For me, the story especially hit home. Like Warren’s son, I’m twenty-seven, and I also have bipolar disorder. I confess I read Warren’s letter to his church and thought—if his son had access to the best help in the country and didn’t survive, what hope is there for me, who can barely afford medication and therapy?

The suicide rate for those with bipolar disorder is a high 20%, and treating mental illness is a hard, slow business. Since everyone’s brain chemistry is unique, it generally takes four to six weeks for medications to begin to work, if they’ll work at all. It can take several tries to find the right medication and balance. The side effects can make you anxious, lethargic, or violently ill; during my most recent medication switch, the new side effects made me feel like I had the flu…constantly. Often, you have to get much sicker before you can get better.

So what can Christians and churches do aside from helping people find treatment? This isn’t a complete list, but here’s some suggestions:

sky, church, heavens, sunDo not claim to have all the answers. Be a good listener when you can. Unless you personally have a mental illness, don’t claim you completely understand. You don’t. That simply makes those with mental illnesses feel even less heard and understood.

Be as patient as possible. I have weeks where I’m excited to go to church. But there are still weeks where I’m too wrecked with anxiety to even get out of my car, and I drive home filled with shame and embarrassment. Sometimes I have to cancel plans at the last minute because I’m not having a good mental health day. Recovery is not a straight line; like my therapist says, it’s often two steps forward and one step back. And that’s okay.

Ask how people how they are doing.  Asking means you care. Asking lets a person with mental illnesses know they are not invisible. Asking means their suffering is not unnoticed.

Little things make a tremendous difference and do not go unnoticed. So many times just getting a random text or email has helped me considerably.

Remind people with mental illnesses that they are loved, they are not alone, and that life is still worth it. I started having some emotional turbulence near the end of writing this article, so I took a walk in my apartment complex’s park. The grass itself was a patchwork of weeds, but within that ugly mess were violets. Thousands and thousands of violets—so many that from a distance, the grass looked purple. In the middle of their darkness, the church can help people with mental illnesses find the violets, the little good things that are still present.

So often I have to remind myself that even if I cannot control my emotions or my mind, Jesus is still in control of my life. Jesus is in control, I am not, and this is always a good thing. He’s still there. And always will be.

Rachel Donegan is a proud survivor of 17.5 years of private Christian schooling. She loves college football, poetry, red velvet cupcakes, and long walks on the beach. Her dream of dreams is to be best friends with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. You can follow her on Twitter @rachdone.

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  1. Thank you for sharing your story, Rachel.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Rachel. It's beautiful and helpful.