“Everything happens for a reason.”
“Something good will come from this.”
“God has a plan for your life.”
These are all incredibly easy things to say as someone who isn’t living with a mental illness to say to someone who is, but is absolutely infuriating to hear as the person suffering. Really? Part of God’s plan is for me to wake up every morning wondering whether I’ll be able to persevere enough to make it through the day? God is really sitting up there on his white cloud throne with his chalkboard, mapping out how deeply I’ll suffer today? I don’t buy it. Mental illness is not some blip or obstacle in the road that will make you stronger or build your character, the way that getting a bad grade on a test or dealing with a bad coach can be. Mental illness is not just pain or discomfort. Mental illness is suffering, and diminishing someone’s suffering by saying it is a part of God’s plan is plain rude, no matter how well-intentioned. These theologies continue to aggravate me, but I will tell you this. While I do not believe bad things happen to people for a reason, nor that God himself is planning out how a person is going to suffer next, I do think that there is goodness to be found despite badness, if you look hard enough, and that, while God and/or the universe did not plan for awful things to happen to us, they can do a mighty number with plan B.
I don’t think I was given bipolar disorder “for a reason” or that my purpose in this world is to suffer and then heal and then tell about it. No. But because I suffered, I have a story to tell and I’ll be damned if I don’t use it to prevent some level of suffering in the lives of people cursed in the same way I am.
I’m thankful for Bipolar Disorder in the same way I’m thankful for any other objectively bad thing that has happened in my life; I’m not. I’m not thankful that bad things happen to anyone, ever. I am not thankful for the fact that for some part of just about every month, I cry in my car most mornings before work, because I know I’ll have to pretend to be okay for the following nine hours. I do not rejoice in relying fully on a cocktail of medications to maintain my sense of stability. I am not happy that I missed a good portion of my upbringing because I was trapped inside my own mind. I loathe that there are days that taking the first step out of bed feels like being lit on emotional fire. I wouldn’t wish this rollercoaster of a journey on my worst enemy. What I can find gratitude for, though, is everything good and beautiful that has happened despite. I am thankful that I have a story to tell from enduring such a thing, a story I can use to connect with others and help them heal. I am thankful for the God-given strength that has carried me through recurrent traumatic experiences, and for my people who never gave up on convincing me that it would be possible for me to feel lightness and ease again.
While the perspective I take on mental illness usually depends on which end of the spectrum my mood lies, there are constants. There are things I know to be true despite how I feel at the moment. I know that lightness and darkness can coexist, and that depressive lows always precede pleasant highs. I know that it is possible to be both horrified by the world and completely in love with it at the very same time. I know that happiness is an elusive, flaky acquaintance, and that wholeness is a far more worthy pursuit. I am certain that I can survive this ebb and flow, push and pull, euphoria and desolation, and that having a name for the friction between the two takes a great deal of shame and blame away.
Even though I hate the thing I suffer from and refuse to let it become my identity, I am happy to allow the way I manage and react to it to define my strength and it is something I’ve grown incredibly proud of.
There is something else I know now to be true: that there will always be days when I feel like it couldn’t possibly get worse, and then it will. And I will have gentle conversations with the voices in my head that question if it is worth it to carry on, and I will carry on. Because I know that there will be moments like the second hour of a wedding reception when every guest is glazed over with wine and warmth and affection, and every inch of you swells with joy as you twirl and sing along to the music. And because I will feel the sun on my skin on the first day of summer, and encounter the thrill of a brand new crush and that very first kiss. I will quench my thirst with ice water after a long run on a delicious Saturday morning, rejoice in the cleansing sound of a baby’s laughter, and feel the deep love of my dearest friends upon our every reunion. Bipolar Disorder won’t get in my way of experiencing the depths of elation that living fully can offer. I know I will have both of these types of moments for the rest of my life, separated by mundane, routine weekdays that carry just as much significance as the rest. And I will hold on through the lows, sometimes with white knuckles, I will revel in the highs, and find rest during the mundane. This perspective is one that enduring a mental illness has caused me to grow into, and for that I can find reason to be grateful.