I have an illness that affects nearly 1 out of every 17 Americans, and affects 1 out of every 5 families. This disease is chronic in nature, and can only be controlled, not cured. It is not consistent in either symptoms or treatments. Controlling the symptoms is a lifelong struggle, and can only be accomplished through therapy, medication and developing coping skills.
People with this illness are treated like modern-day lepers. They are ridiculed, stereotyped and misrepresented in society. No matter how skilled or educated they may be, the dark cloud of this disease follows them everywhere. In order to maintain employment, they must resort to lying.
I know this because I am one of these people. Moreover, although my situation might seem unique, it is more common than you might think.
Now, I am warning you that, when I reveal the identity of this dreaded illness, your initial reaction will more than likely be, “Oh, that’s not so bad.” However, given a few minutes, as you ponder in your mind all of the images of the people down through history who have been likewise afflicted, your attitude will surely change. You will look for the nearest exit from the situation. Even if you were my friend before, now you are afraid. People in the past who had this disease usually didn’t fare well in society.
Of course, that is not the case today. By looking at me you don’t even know I’m sick. However, the moment you know, you change; you become afraid. Because I am mentally ill, if you are one of the 95% of people, you have now labeled me untouchable.
I am a United Methodist pastor, and I have a form of mental illness called bipolar disorder. I am not alone, and my situation is not unique. In the conference where I serve, a study discovered that nearly 65% of the pastors appointed to it were prescribed antidepressants in 2007. Though not unique in diagnosis, we all share a commonalityour employer doesn’t know.
I was diagnosed nearly 16 years ago, at 35 years old. My illness, which manifests in many unique, yet similar ways, can be managed, but not cured. There are times when the symptoms of this illness can be extremely exhausting and disorienting. It strikes unexpectedly, without warning. Unfortunately, you are usually unaware of any symptoms. When you are sick, you become the disease, and together you move along as if everything is just fine.
For the past eight years I have been, and still am, a full-time pastor at a mainstream, Protestant denomination. Prior to my call to ministry, I spent nearly 25 years in various positions in manufacturing management. I have only served one church, and the church is doing well. I have spent the time faithfully serving God, and have experienced the problems that all pastors experience. I have conducted weddings, performed funerals, sat at the bedside of a dying member, performed baptisms, and conducted bible studies. I have done what is expected of a pastor, and sometimes more, and I feel I have done it well.
My problem is that I am living a lie. I haven’t told anyone about my secret, other than those who need to know. I am sick. What I have is incurable, but it can be controlled through medication. It isn’t fatal, but often the sweet release of death would be a welcome relief.
When people hear of this disease, they act as if the person were on the streets of 1st century Jerusalem, crying “Unclean, unclean!” the way that lepers were required to do.
Anyone who hears of an illness such as cancer or heart disease does all they can to support and encourage the afflicted person. If I become paralyzed and am confined to a wheelchair, I will have assistance at every corner, every door and every grocery store. Although it may not be wanted, I can have help with everything I do or wish to do. That is wonderful, and it is deserved.
When people hear of my disease, their eyes open wide, they stutter a few words of sympathy, and they get away as quickly as possible. I will get few visits, if any at all. Nobody will offer to help me get to the doctor, or to the hospital or to the emergency room late at night. I will be on my own. Other than a few very close family members, I sail this ship solo, through uncharted waters that a seasoned mariner would choose to avoid. Being alone with my disease is exactly what I don’t need or want.
Now you see my problem. My entire purpose as a pastor is to help people to know Jesus Christ, which requires a great deal of trust. In most situations, when they come to me for advice, they are actually asking me what I think they should do. They trust in my judgment. They expect my advice to be sound and true, brought about by experience, training and the leading of God. I’ll be around their children. I’ll be present at church and family functions. In their mind, they don’t know when I’m “gonna blow.”
If they know, they won’t come around to take me to doctor appointments, or water my plants when I’m hospitalized. They won’t drop by to try to cheer me up when I’m down. They won’t bring food by the house when I’m so depressed that I can’t even get out of bed. Now all of a sudden, the advice, which was good yesterday, is tainted, questionable and unreliable. Everything, and I mean absolutely everything, that I do will be studied and unnecessarily brought into question. Although none of my church-related activities would change, I would be scrutinized with new, different eyes. The same hand and mind that put together the sermon last week is this week called into question; these new eyes seeing things a little differently, and its delivery a little out of place.
Not surprisingly, I am not the only pastor faced with this dilemma. During 2007, in one conference of the United Methodist church, 65% or approximately 300 of the nearly 500 pastors were prescribed antidepressants. My fear of “coming out” must be common, since I don’t know even one of these pastors suffering from a mental illness. The people need a place to go for information, to share problems and to feel safe. The purpose of my blog is to provide just that place.
I pray that pastors, as well as other professionals, suffering from mental illness, will someday be able to “come out” without fear of retribution or being ostracized. I pray that people will understand that mental illness does not mean evil, but is simply a disease of an organ in the human body. However, this will only happen when those with this diagnosis stand up and reveal that they are functioning, responsible, productive members of society. We need to stand up, take responsibility for who we are and be willing to accept the consequences.
OK, who wants to go first?