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.