By Karen Bowlby
“Do you want to be healed?”
The question cut through the pregnant silence that followed my plea for guidance, and a lump formed in the pit of my stomach–a reaction to the metaphorical kick I’d just received. The young couple positioned themselves around me–I’d been in churches long enough to know what was coming.
Looking around, a stranger in the room, I found myself vulnerable, my heart laid bare to a group of people who knew nothing of my past, nothing of my symptoms, nothing of the disorder I struggled to understand.
Since my first encounter with this small band of Christians, I had waited expectantly for the stones I felt were always just around the corner. One month into the journey, I let my guard down, revealing a tiny piece of the raw hurt I thought I hid so well. I wasn’t sure what I had expected, but I hadn’t expected what I found.
Stigma is an ugly thing. It is shame attached to something considered socially unacceptable. It is isolation, and guilt. However, as ugly as stigma can be, there is nothing uglier than stigma in the Church. It is the opposite of grace in that it judges, condemns and carries out the sentence in the blink of an eye. We live in a rapidly changing culture that embraces differences in sexuality, race, class and religion. Yet, as fast as our society rids itself of its stigmas, the Church stagnates, holding on to them tighter than ever, tiptoeing around issues like mental and emotional illnesses and disorders, medication, and addictions to drugs, alcohol sex and pornography.
As a result, the Church is currently filled with Christians (those who actually stay in the Church, that is) who suffer and struggle in silence to avoid being stigmatized–leading lives that are rarely joyful–using dysfunctional survival techniques to deal with feelings of loneliness, guilt and shame. Is it any wonder then, that both substance abuse and self-mutilation are on the rise in not only our society, but our churches, too?
I was diagnosed with rapid-cycling Bipolar Disorder at the age of 22–in the midst of self-medicating via alcohol abuse and prescription drugs. I fought my diagnosis for three years through alcoholic binges, a blackout-related car accident, a suicide attempt and severe depression. In fits of euphoria, I would declare God had healed me, the ups and downs were just a part of my creative personality and I didn’t really need my medications. In the doldrums of depression, I would fight suicidal thoughts, feel indefinitely disconnected from God, end friendships and retreat into whatever un-reality I created in my mind. I prayed unceasingly for God to take the symptoms away, for the diagnosis to have been a mistake, for the ability to control my rage and the words that seemed to pour out of my mouth without a filter.
Some nights, curled up under the covers of my bed, too weak to try anymore, and wanting only relief from the battle raging behind my eyes, I fell asleep, begging God to end my life–only to awake the next morning. I sat stunned, frustration building, the lump in my stomach spreading to my chest and throat as the question was repeated, “Do you really want to be healed?”
Looking back, I know their intentions were pure. I know that God is the ultimate Healer and authority on healing and could have easily healed me, had He chosen to. But there was something more going on in the room that night. God knew my heart, and knew I was not looking for healing, but for acceptance, grace, unconditional love despite my ups and downs.
If that young couple had only taken the time to know me first, before praying physical healing over me God might have shown them it was not my body that was broken and in need of healing, but my trust in an unconditionally loving God as illustrated through His people. Instead, I went off my meds in response to unsolicited pressure, and spent three months feeling as though I lacked the faith to make my symptoms disappear, before finally beginning to seek and accept what God had intended for me to find all along: Peace.
Now, back on my meds, and two years sober, I have discovered that in my own story, giving up control of my health and trusting God is trusting that He has provided and blessed me with the doctors and medicine necessary to live a stable, joy-filled life. My step of faith continues to be talking openly and without shame about my past struggles and experiences with Bipolar Disorder, actively working to break stigmas in the Church and educating those around me about various mental illnesses and addictions.
I often meet with young women in my church community who suffer from one or more disorders, living with heart-wrenching symptoms because they are afraid of what it might mean for them to confess their struggles and seek help in whatever form God might provide. It is beautiful, seeing them light up with relief when they realize they are not alone, and their symptoms not necessarily a reflection of their faith in God. In these moments, when I am able to speak to someone else about my weaknesses and the peace I’ve been granted, I am reminded of a passage in 2 Corinthians 12:
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties” (TNIV).