“together we not only survive—we thrive.”
TIM: Since 1979 I have lived with the consequences of a brain-based mental health challenge called bipolar disorder. Through these years I have experienced episodes of extreme mania, protracted periods of dark depression, as well as eruptions of psychosis.
Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, a leading authority and herself diagnosed bipolar, clearly expresses the effects of this brain disorder in her book, “Touched with Fire.” She wrote that bipolar illness “encompasses the extremes of human experience. Thinking can range from florid psychosis, or ‘madness,’ to patterns of unusually clear, fast, and creative associations, to retardation [slowing down] so profound that no meaningful activity can occur.”* This very succinctly and accurately describes how I have often experienced the bipolar disorder.
NANCY: My husband, Tim, and I met in 1968 in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he was attending Bible College and preparing for the ministry. We got married in April 1971, and soon moved to Tulsa where Tim transferred to Oral Roberts University. Tim was always a very upbeat, enthusiastic, outgoing, and flying high type of person. I, on the other hand, had always been the cautious, quiet, and shy type. In fact, many times in the early years of our marriage, I thought something was really wrong with me because I never seemed to get as excited about anything as Tim did.
Through the 70’s we were leaders in college-age ministry. In 1978 we moved to Springfield, Missouri, to assist in launching a university campus ministry. There were some significant stressors that accompanied that move. Shortly before Christmas in 1978, I started noticing things that concerned me, but it wasn’t until right after Christmas when Tim was laid off his job, that things seemed to escalate. He tried to sell products door-to-door without much success. Initially distressed and depressed, he started fasting and praying with greater intensity. He began sleeping less and less. From depression and distress, he suddenly shifted to talking about elaborate ideas for success that he was getting from God. He was constantly on the move and seemingly elated, but I noticed little actual success.
TIM: As Nancy says, prior to my collapse into mental illness, I was generally viewed as an outgoing enthusiast, albeit a serious-minded one. I was an ambitious goal-oriented young married guy with two pre-school-age children. I was running at the opportunities afforded me consistent with my vocational aspirations. It was my dream to inspire people to discover and realize their fullest God-given potential for life—especially young people. Late 1978, and into the spring, seemed to me to be the most ecstatic full-of-bliss time of my life—right up until the nightmare from hell broke in upon me.
NANCY: I became increasingly alarmed and confused by his non-stop thinking and talking in order to convince me of his “revelations.” There was also an increase in bazaar behavior. He became less and less the man I had married. It seemed that Tim was seeing, hearing, and understanding things in ways he never had before. For him, it seemed to be “mind-expanding and spiritually enlightening.” He became so positive and certain about his destiny. For me, it just became more disturbing and frightening. I was hoping that whatever the problem was, it would just go away.
TIM: When I was laid off work in early 1979, it was in the dead of winter—a winter declared to have been one of the worst on record in many years. The consequence felt like a financial crisis. It was a real shock, stretch, and stress for me. Things were not going according to plan. Nevertheless, I was determined to persevere and remedy this in order to prove myself a good husband and father and not jeopardize my calling. I became increasingly anxious and depressed when circumstances didn’t improve. I began to look for ways to become financially independent.
I found Amway (short for “American Way”), an American company specializing in the use of multi-level marketing to sell health, beauty, and home care products. Almost overnight I found my mind flooded with expansive notions for how to become so monetarily self-sufficient that I would be able to abundantly fund my own ministry vision and mission without dependence upon unpredictable sources. I began selling door-to-door.
As ideas kept coming, my energy level surged. It was as though I had tapped into a high voltage power source that 24/7 kept reinvigorating and animating me. I truly felt superhuman. Strategic planning became an all-consuming obsession. I slept less and less and seemed to feel better for it. I was convinced that my intellectual and spiritual capacities were exponentially expanding. With mounting intensity, I kept trying to impress upon my wife the certainty of my schemes and their outcomes.
NANCY: Then came the day Tim took our credit cards and maxed them out without my knowing it while taking a non-rational trip to meet with the President of the United States in Washington, D.C. It was then I realized that something had to be done. With the help of family, a pastor, and the assistance of the sheriff’s office (who sent two deputies to take him into protective custody), we got Tim admitted to a hospital psychiatric unit for observation, evaluation, and subsequent treatment.
TIM: During those days my self-estimate seemed to know no bounds. My imagination was constantly taking quantum leaps of logic-stretching proportion. In an epiphany I realized that I was not only a man of personal destiny—I was the link of destiny for all sentient beings. My destiny was the destiny of the cosmos. I was persuaded that my every thought, word, and action was predestined. Next stop—it was time to advise the President of the United States.
I literally arrived at the gates of the White House in April of 1979 to meet with President Jimmy Carter. Within days I was in a hospital back in Tulsa behind the locked doors of a psychiatric unit and on anti-psychotic medication.
NANCY: Getting Tim hospitalized for the purpose of psychiatric observation and treatment was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. The month that he spent in the hospital was a time of very mixed emotions for me. On one hand, I was very upset and felt his pain and humiliation. On the other hand, I was relieved that I didn’t have to deal with him every day—yet that also promoted feelings of guilt. The doctors decided that he had suffered a psychotic break as part of a “schizophrenic episode.” Ultimately this proved to be an inadequate diagnosis. They gave him a combination of very potent anti-psychotic medications, but when he was released to come home, I found him no different. In fact, there were ways in which he seemed to be worse—continuing to say and do things totally unlike the Tim I had known.
TIM: Following my discharge from the hospital, and over the weeks, months, and next few years to come, I found myself on a roller coaster ride of manic highs and agonizing lows. The highs would at times break into the delusions and hallucinations of psychosis. The lows would often fill me with feelings of self-loathing shame, helplessness, and even hopeless despair. In part, this was due to the combined consequence of misdiagnosis and my not being put on appropriate replacement medication when I begged off the meds given to me in the hospital that had produced frightening side effects.
NANCY: When Tim was up, he would tend toward expansive manic episodes which included enthusiastic, non-stop thinking, talking, restless activity, and argumentativeness. When he was down, he tended toward depression expressed by anger, frustration, irritability, and criticism. Our children were very young at the time and didn’t understand what was going on and it was up to me to shield them and be the “strong one.” And then, eighteen months later, it was as if someone flipped a switch and I had the old Tim back. The roller coaster ride stopped and we began to experience a comparative “calm” after a great storm.
TIM: By grace, my wife, family, and I survived. I will ever be grateful for Nancy’s long-suffering love and loyalty as my wife. For several years I worked blue-collar jobs. Then an opportunity to return to the ministry was offered to me. Together we rejoiced that 1979 and its aftermath was in the rear-view mirror of our lives and out ahead of us a reason to hope for brighter days.
NANCY: Early in 1988 I began to notice telltale signs. I really didn’t want to believe it. I was in denial. In so many ways I had been seeing Tim’s personality, gifts, talents, and skills restored. Most importantly, having seen his self-esteem plummet, I had rejoiced to see its healthy recovery and a renewed self-confidence. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to shield and protect him. He had already suffered the pains of humiliation and shame in front of his peers and elders. I didn’t want him to experience this again. However, I was witnessing the rapid pressured speech (indicative of his racing thoughts) and was observing more and more illogical flights of fancy and disconnectedness. He began resting less and less—living life with extreme intensity. Self-confidence lost and regained was now again turning into delusion. I was afraid of the outcome.
One day while I was praying, I remember asking God to have one of Tim’s co-pastors call or approach me so that I would know I wasn’t the only one noticing these symptoms. Within a short period of time, the senior associate called me while I was at my office and asked if everything was all right with Tim. I remember that I began to cry. A mental health professional was consulted and recent behaviors were described. The description immediately suggested to the professional that there was a real possibility that Tim was suffering something called “bipolar disorder” (manic-depressive illness). Tim was taken aside by his peers and told that he had to get help. Although in a false state of euphoria and resistant to the idea that he was dealing with a mental health challenge, Tim agreed to a doctor’s appointment.
The initial diagnostic workup and evaluation supported the original suspicion. It was determined that Tim needed to again be hospitalized and undergo treatment. He began to rapidly cycle back and forth between episodes of high manic energy, delusional thoughts, and hallucinations that would shift into episodes of weeping in distress, despondency, and fear that reduced him to childlike dependency.
I’ll never forget how he sat on our stairs at home, just inside the front door. We were both weeping and holding on to each other. I knew it was best for him, for me, and for the children, but it was still hard to talk him into going. That night after leaving Tim at the hospital, I came home, put the kids to bed, went into our bedroom and pulled a pillow over my face, and started to sob. I was crying out to God, “Why? Why God? What have we done wrong? I don’t understand.”
There are things I may not ever understand, but I discovered that I had choices to make. I could choose to hold on to my feelings of anger, bitterness, and resentment and leave Tim, or I could choose to believe God loved us and knew where we were at.
I remembered the night nine years before when God’s word to my grief-stricken heart had been to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). So that night in 1988, I chose again to trust God with what I didn’t understand. In choosing to remain faithful to my vow to God and to Tim, God gave me a song in my night of storm that to this day gives me strength and peace, and calm.
I choose to praise You, to lift my hands to You,
Turning away from all my struggles, confusion, and strife.
I choose to worship You, to lift my hands to You,
Knowing that You will work all things together for good in my life. ©
TIM: After the two-and-a-half-year roller coaster ride, encompassing my 1979 breakdown, the symptoms had stopped. I was determined to get on with my life. I had at that time no way of knowing that I was living with the ticking time bomb of a brain anomaly that could be triggered and again induce life jeopardizing mental illness.
As Nancy has described, in 1988 the bomb exploded ultimately wreaking havoc, pain, and suffering for all of us all over again. My experience with pain was also mixed with episodes of grandiose euphoria and occurrences of deceptive delusion. However, this time a diagnosis crystallized—bipolar l with psychotic features. I began the process of learning to take medication, getting informed, pursuing self-help coping education, and accepting the therapeutic support of others.
Currently, I experience the effects of this brain disorder every day. There are periods of relief and there are periods of deep pain and episodes of relapse—but none so debilitating as in the days when we didn’t have a clue as to what was happening and had no response strategies. While mania must be monitored and managed with an eye toward staving off psychosis, it’s the more oft experienced symptoms of depression that I find most critically requiring management.
Daily I choose to live optimistically even when hurting. My wife says to me: “Life is choice!” I choose to live as one committed to optimizing wellness. I embrace the truth embodied in the words of Meghan Caughey:**
“We are inherently whole at the deepest level of our being, and the path to wellness is the journey of discovering and expressing this wholeness. Our deep wholeness can guide us in making choices about what we need to be well. This intuitive sense is powerful when combined with all of the available resources and information to help us make informed choices.”
Wholeness for me feels like love, acceptance, and purpose. So, for me, Wholeness feels like the God of love I’ve come to know and embrace through the revelation of Jesus Christ. Daily Wholeness is present with me and intimately discernible in the midst of me—that is to say—in the midst of my brokenness there resides Wholeness. Daily communion with Wholeness is healing. Daily communion with Wholeness inspires me to make choices about what I need to do (and not do) to optimize wellness.
I work hard, receive therapeutic support (especially from my wife), and stick to my treatment protocols. In order to keep on keeping on, I nurture spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical resilience by means of varied spiritual, psychological, and physical exercise and coping practices. With gratitude to God, Nancy, family, and friends, today I am more capable of effectively monitoring and managing this disease and its effects than ever before.
NANCY: When I married Tim, neither of us could have foreseen the challenge of this physical illness that would become a part of our life experience together. However, I’m glad that I made the choice to stay in our relationship and to be a “support giver” and as is called for, a “caregiver.” This is my chosen response to the life opportunity that God has entrusted me with. Today, Tim is my best friend, my encourager, my nurturer, and my lover. I love him more today than I ever thought possible.
You see—we are each other’s support givers and caregivers. Yes, there are times when he needs “special” care from me, but there are also times when I need “special” care from him. As Tim says, that makes us both “care-givers” and “care-receivers” experiencing the truth that it is in the giving that we receive—not in a co-dependent relationship but one that is interdependent. I’ve needed (and continue to need) the support of God, pastors, counselors, family, friends, and others in my life. I am continuing to learn more about how to take better care of myself in order to be a better support giver and caregiver to others.
TIM: In 2001 my wife and I left behind our church positions in order to offer faith-based peer support. Through Bright Tomorrows we began facilitating our first peer support group. Our curriculum-based groups have become safe havens for sharing and caring. We encourage our group members to stick with the therapeutic assistance that good psychiatry, family doctors, medications, therapists, religious and church life (together with caring family and friends) can provide. Within this context, we offer mental health “coaching” through education and self-help training that is designed to equip our participants with self-monitoring, self-managing and self-stabilizing tools. Never forgetting the disorientation, grief, deep sadness, and anger that the impact of mental illness had upon us as a family, we also offer ourselves as mental health “consultants.” In solidarity and with compassion, we are able to sit with the diagnosed, their care-support family, and/or friends and help them map out navigation paths for survival that give hope and a reason to believe in brighter tomorrows.
NANCY: Today Tim and I have a better understanding of what his particular health challenge is in life. We both appreciate the power of good prayer, good medicine, and good therapy, along with good physical and mental health practices. Again, as Tim says, “together we not only survive—we thrive.”