“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 with bipolar disorder, 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 bipolar disorder.
NANCY: My husband, Tim, and I met in 1968 in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, where his Dad had become pastor of the church I was attending. At that time, Tim was attending Fort Wayne 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. Through the 70s, we were leaders in a college-age ministry and youth pastors with a local church. In 1978 we moved to Springfield, Missouri, to assist in launching a university campus ministry. There were some significant stressors that accompanied that move.
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.
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 toddlers. 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 of 1979, seemed to me to be the most ecstatic time of my life—that is, right up until the nightmare from hell that broke in upon me.
NANCY: Shortly before Christmas in 1978, I became increasingly alarmed and confused by Tim’s non-stop talking in order to convince me of ”new revelations” from God. But what I was seeing was bazaar behavior that was not representative of the man I had married. He started fasting and praying with great intensity. He began sleeping less and less. He had suddenly gone from depression into some kind of euphoria. For me, it just became more disturbing and frightening. I was hoping that whatever the problem was, it would just go away.
TIM: Besides working with the on-campus ministry, I had a job on the side essential for the balance of our income. I was laid off from work in early 1979 due to a worst-on-record snowfall in the city. The consequence felt like a financial crisis. It was a real shock and stressor for me. Things were certainly 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. However, I became increasingly anxious and depressed when circumstances didn’t improve. I began to look for ways to become financially independent.
I found a multi-level marketing business opportunity with a company called Amway. 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.
It seemed that I was seeing, hearing, and understanding things in ways I never had before. It all seemed so mind-expanding and spiritually enlightening.
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 felt no need for it. I was convinced that my intellectual and spiritual capacities were exponentially expanding. With mounting intensity, I kept trying to impress upon Nancy my schemes and their outcomes.
Then it seemed that suddenly, as by Star Trek warp speed, I was able to catapult into other dimensions of insight and capacity. My self-estimate seemed to know no bounds. My imagination was constantly on fire. I became possessed of 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. It was time to advise the President of the United States.
NANCY: Then, one day, Tim took me and the kids back to Tulsa and dropped us off at his parents’ house. Offering no convincing explanation, he took a borrowed car and made a non-rational trip east. In the process, without telling me, he maxed out our credit cards for travel expenses and wardrobe purchases—including airfare, hotel, rental cars, and dining. It was then I realized that something had to be done.
TIM: I literally arrived at the gates of the White House in April of 1979 to meet with President Jimmy Carter. I didn’t get past the gates.
NANCY: For some reason, Tim determined to return to Tulsa to straighten us all out. By God’s grace, this allowed me, with the help of family, a pastor, and the assistance of the sheriff’s office, to get Tim admitted to a hospital psychiatric unit for observation, evaluation, and subsequent treatment.
TIM: Within days, I was in a hospital back in Tulsa behind 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. He continued to say and do things, totally unlike the Tim I knew.
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.
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.” Then eighteen months later, it was as if someone flipped a switch, and I had the old Tim back. The roller coaster ride that we’d been on stopped, and we began to experience a comparative “calm” after a great storm.
TIM: By God’s grace, Nancy and I and our family survived that period in our lives. I will ever be grateful for Nancy’s long-suffering love and loyalty as my wife. For several years after my hospitalization, I worked at blue-collar jobs. Then an opportunity to return to the ministry was offered to me. Together we rejoiced that 1979 and its aftermath were seemingly in the rear-view mirror of our lives, and out ahead of us was reason to hope for brighter days.
NANCY: Then, 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 rejoiced to see his healthy recovery and his 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:
- rapid and pressured speech (indicative of his racing thoughts);
- illogical flights of fancy;
- restlessness and trouble sleeping;
- extremes of intensity; and
- an increase of delusional thoughts.
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 work 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 from 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 be hospitalized again 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 the night of my storm that, to this day, gives me strength, 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 once again 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 most oft-experienced symptom of depression that I find most critically requiring management.
Daily I choose to live optimistically even when hurting. Nancy 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 Nancy), 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, when 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.
We are each other’s support givers and caregivers. There are times when he needs “special” care from me; there are also times when I need “special” care from him. As Tim says, that makes us both “caregivers” and “care receivers”—experiencing the truth “that it is in the giving that we receive.”
TIM: In 2001, Nancy and I left behind our church positions in order to offer faith-based peer support. Through Bright Tomorrows, we began facilitating our first curriculum-based peer support groups, which have become safe havens for sharing and caring. We encourage our group members to stick with the therapeutic assistance that can be found with good psychiatrists, family doctors, medications, and therapists in their faith communities as well as among caring family and friends. 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 impact that mental illness had upon us as a family, we also offer ourselves as mental health “consultants.” In solidarity, we are able to sit with the diagnosed as well as their care-support family and friends to 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-working-together for good of prayer, medicine, and therapy, along with good physical and mental health practices. Again, as Tim says, “together we not only survive—we thrive.”