Hiding in the Shadow of God's Wings--My Experience with Bipolar Disorder
by Lisa Whinery
When the door of the mental health unit locked behind me, I couldn't believe this was happening. After all, wasn't I one of the success stories? Diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 29, I had weathered my mood swings without hospitalization. Instead of hiding my disorder, I became a spokesperson for bipolar disorder through television and newspaper interviews and speaking to support groups. My desire was to inform and encourage bipolar sufferers and their families. Now, no amount of information or encouragement could keep me from slipping into a despairing depression. I was fighting the biggest battle of my life, and I was losing. The black hole of depression was defeating me in my battle for sanity.
Frozen with fear, I trembled inside and out. Very little made sense. Leaning against the locked door, I begged God to hide me in the shelter of His wings. I clung to these words throughout the night and into the upcoming months. In my emotional turmoil, I knew God's refuge would be my only source of strength to endure the depression that lay ahead.
In my teens I had experienced mood swings, but I didn't realize they were due to an illness. I believed the moods were a sign of my own weakness. I often wondered if I was different from my friends. Though I periodically experienced deep bouts of sadness and low self-esteem, no one suspected a thing because I hid it so well. I was outgoing, a strong student, and participated in many activities. Most importantly: I always smiled. Eventually the sadness became so severe that I did tell my parents. The doctor brushed off my emotions and assured my mother that I was a "typical moody teenager." My parents accepted the doctor's diagnosis and assured me that I would "outgrow" it. Hurt by the doctor's casual dismissal of my symptoms, I vowed to fight and control these feelings on my own.
For the next 11 years I did manage my moods on my own. I successfully completed college, got married, taught high school, and gave birth to our daughter. But in November 1987, I slid into a severe mood swing, displaying symptoms of both depression and mania, swinging quickly from deep despair and inability to function to fiery anger and erratic behavior. I knew my behavior wasn't normal. One evening in December, I met my husband for dinner in Dallas. Afterwards, we walked by some shops on our way to the parking lot. It was late and the stores were closing. I wanted to buy a pinata for my classroom, but my husband said we didn't have time to stop. Instantly I became furious. I got in my car alone, screeched out of the parking lot, and sped home on the interstate. I was so angry that I wanted to drive off a hill into the lights of the city below. I swerved off the road, but at the last second swerved back. I held the steering wheel so tightly that my fingernails punctured my hands.
After that experience, I went from extreme rage to an almost catatonic state of depression. For several days I had difficulty speaking or concentrating, and spent most of my time sitting in a chair as if in a trance. My husband and I put off seeking help, hoping the symptoms would go away. Two weeks later, we decided to seek medical help.
In January, a psychiatrist took my symptoms and put a name to them. That name was bipolar disorder. The diagnosis was a relief. At last I was told that my symptoms were caused by a neuro-chemical imbalance of the brain instead of an emotional or spiritual weakness. The moods I had fought for over half my life were not my fault. Furthermore, medication was available to treat and stabilize them.
I am grateful to my husband, Tom, for staying by my side during my mood swings and diagnosis. Most marriages involving bipolar disorder end in divorce. The erratic behavior rocks the foundation of a marriage and the diagnosis of a "lifelong" disorder often scares spouses away. Our marriage has been rocky at times, but with counseling, prayer, true love and dedication we have grown stronger and closer through our struggles.
My life did not end with my diagnosis. In many ways it began. I was prescribed lithium and an antidepressant. Between the two medications, I experienced side effects of headaches, nausea, dry-mouth, constipation, and weight gain. As bad as that may sound, it was worth it to restore a balanced mood. Within nine months, I had returned to a strong mental state. I was once again self-confident, energetic, and funny. I first realized my mood was improving when I was washing dishes one evening and began laughing out loud at a funny joke I had just made up.
I decided that if I was going to wrangle with bipolar depression over the years, I wanted to know what I was up against. My husband and I attended support groups and researched bipolar disorder. I recommend doing both of these. I remember how relieved I was at the first support group I attended. The room was filled with other people experiencing the same bipolar mood swings. They understood me completely. The pain of hiding my moods for so many years began to evaporate. Research informed me further of what was going on in my body. Knowledge became power because I better understood the brain's malfunctioning during mood swings and what could be done to treat it. My research made three important facts clear to me: 1) There is no "cure" for bipolar disorder; 2) bipolar disorder is usually controllable with medication and therapy; 3) bipolar disorder is not a sign of a weak faith in God.
Diagnosis, faith in God, knowledge, and medication do not take the "sting" out of bipolar disorder. Although medications are helpful, they do not prevent all serious mood swings. I can look through family photo albums and see in my eyes which years I was depressed, and which years I was not. Since my diagnosis, I have experienced mood swings every three to four years. I chose not to conceive another child because my medication, lithium, causes severe birth defects. Instead, Tom and I chose to adopt our second child. I also resigned from my teaching position because I was too ill to work.
Upon diagnosis, I went through an angry period with God. I often questioned God, "Why me?" or "Why my family?" Many days I sobbed, begging God to take this away from me. But He didn't. Instead He used it to bring me closer to Him.
I grew up in the church always believing in God. However, I didn't study the Bible and didn't rely upon God daily. After my diagnosis, a friend invited me to a women's Bible study. Through God's Word, I discovered how much God cared about me. Such words as "Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go" (Joshua 1:9) encouraged me. Other comforting images came from the Psalms. Psalm 16:1 says, "Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge," and in Psalm 17:8 David cries out to God pleading, "...hide me in the shadow of your wings." The image of a strong loving God sheltering me in His wings assured me I was not alone in my experiences. God was always by my side.
My relationship with God and my faith strengthened over the years. My anger towards God faded as I began to see my struggles as a means to grow closer to Him. During this time, I boldly shared my disorder with others in hopes of encouraging them and leading them to God. This period prepared me for the most devastating mood swing of my life. My knowledge of God's Word and my trust in Him anchored me through such great emotional pain and turmoil that I don't believe I would have survived without them.
When a mood swing strikes, people want to identify the cause. Stress, trauma, and fatigue are often factors in addition to the fact that mood swings are cyclical. Some people experience mood swings every 2, 3, or 4 years while others experience them every few months or weeks. During these times individuals are more vulnerable to experiencing serious symptoms, but often medications combat those symptoms and protect from serious problems. However, medications can lose their effectiveness and stop working.
In May 1998, I was in a vulnerable condition for a mood swing and began to realize the symptoms. My closest friend died of brain cancer in November 1997. I deeply grieved her death and missed her terribly. We had shared so much, including my struggles with depression. Blenda encouraged me to speak and write and was always there for me when I suffered. As a result, I began sleeping less, which fatigued me. I had not experienced a severe mood swing in four years, so according to my cycle, my ticket was up. My present medications, Depakote and Zoloft, had stabilized me for four years. But over the spring, they gradually stopped working. These elements conspired against me. In May I realized I needed medical help.
In the beginning of a mood swing, depression and mania creep into your life without notice. Even seasoned veterans like myself may not notice the symptoms for a time. In May I felt tired, sad, and uninterested in events. I blamed these symptoms on not sleeping well. I did not realize that these were depressive symptoms and postponed calling my doctor hoping they would go away. For me there is always that element of hoping that if I ignore it, it will go away. When the symptoms continued, I went to see my psychiatrist in early June. He changed my antidepressant, taking me off Zoloft.
At my return appointment six weeks later, my depression was better. This time I was anxious, energetic, and sleeping less, which are symptoms of mania. I was so energetic that I stayed up late one night scrubbing the grout of my kitchen floor with a toothbrush. My doctor then took me off Depakote, a mood stabilizer, and prescribed Neurontin. Within six weeks I was taken off the two medications that had stabilized me for four years. Would the new medication work? How long would it take for them to affect my mood? I faced many questions in these unchartered waters.
I muddled through the summer, waiting for my new medications to help me. Some days I could barely get out of bed, and on others I felt great. In mid October, I began having panic attacks. I could not fall asleep for fear of suffocating. I became obsessed with fears for my family's safety and believed I would die soon. Thoughts of impending doom consumed me constantly.
During the next weeks, I had no control over my moods or emotions. This was difficult for me because I had always been able to manage my moods to some degree. Now control was beyond my capability. I cried frequently, often unable to stop myself or identify the cause. I withdrew from my activities because it was too difficult to converse with others. I could no longer focus on reading or doing my Bible study. I was afraid to be alone. My life was an emotional frenzy.
My home became my cocoon, and my husband became my gatekeeper. Tom went into overdrive as he juggled his responsibilities at work and took over mine at home. He emotionally responded by taking control of as much of the daily details as he could. He took my messages and broke engagements for me. Only my closest friends and family could reach me. Thanks to Tom and friends, the girls continued their daily activities.
My doctor changed my medications in October and again in November. When I showed no signs of improvement in mid November, I agreed with my doctor to be hospitalized. This required me to go to a hospital 30 miles from my home and see another psychiatrist because my doctor no longer made hospital calls. Upon arrival, I was interviewed, met the new doctor, taken to the mental health floor, and assigned a room. The entire procedure was very impersonal. I was having the most serious crisis of my life, and the hospital staff treated me like I was just another mound of paperwork.
When my daughters left for school that morning, they had no idea I wouldn't be home when they returned. My doctor's appointment and hospitalization happened while they were away. Fortunately, my father came from Austin to help, and he picked the girls up from school. When Tom got home, he told the girls I was in the hospital. My 12-year-old daughter, Kate, raced to her room and broke down in tears of fear. She cried that people who go into hospitals don't come out of them. Claire, who was six, was frightened by her sister's response and wanted to know when mommy would be home.
That night Tom, the girls, and my father came to visit me. It was very difficult, but I managed to pretend I was okay in front of the girls. Claire snuggled beside me and I wrapped my arm around Kate as they told me about their day. I looked up at my father and saw that he was fighting back tears; Tom was very pale, but he too was trying to be jovial for the girls. When it was time for them to leave, I hugged everyone tightly, as I felt a new rush of panic. I truly believed I would never see them again. I watched my family walk down the corridor as the security buzzer sounded behind them. With tears in her eyes, Kate turned to find me waving to her through the door's small window. I blew her a kiss as she turned the corner.
Overcome with emotion, I felt my lifeline was severed when the door locked, separating me from my family. I collapsed on the floor in front of the nurse's station. No one comforted or helped me. Eventually a nurse looked over the desk and told me to drink some water so I wouldn't become dehydrated from crying.
That night in the hospital was the loneliest night of my life. I tried to read my Bible, but could not focus on the words. I rocked back and forth in the darkness, trembling with panic and fear. Suddenly, I felt a great peace. The trembling and crying stopped. In the quiet of the room, God reached me through the terror. I began to pray a fragment of Scripture I remembered, "Hide me in the shadow of your wings." I prayed these words in the darkness until I eventually fell asleep. These words became my foundational prayer, throughout the duration of my ordeal. Once again, I remembered God was with me--I was not alone.
When I saw my new psychiatrist, I begged him to let me go home. Although I was having suicidal thoughts, I had not attempted suicide. Therefore, the doctor released me with the understanding that I would have adult supervision 24 hours a day. I am forever grateful to my husband, parents, and closest friends who cared for me during that vigil.
I remember the time after hospitalization being inundated by flowers and cards. I received many beautiful bouquets with notes saying, "Get well soon." I felt so much pressure to improve, and yet I didn't. My heart broke while watching the flowers wilt and die, and I couldn't bear to read the cards I received in the mail. I was cheered knowing my friends cared about me, but I couldn't open them. Not only was I not well, I was beginning to believe that I would never be well again.
My mother came frequently to care for our family. She entertained the girls, cooked, did the laundry, and always encouraged Tom and me. When she was unable to stay, four special friends took turns spending the day with me while other friends brought meals or watched the children.
The panic attacks eventually stopped, but the depression became more severe. I ate and spoke very little. After showering in the morning, I stood at my closet completely bewildered, not able to choose my clothes. I could not listen to the news because local and world events frightened me. I continued to believe someone in my family or myself would be harmed. Although I was tired, I could not sleep during the day or night. Constant thoughts of suicide haunted me. No matter how hard I tried to stop these thoughts, I could not. My doctor assured me that suicidal thoughts were a symptom of severe depression and didn't mean that I would attempt it, but his words did not comfort me. These thoughts were like demons in my head. I was so afraid I would attempt suicide that my husband hid my car keys, medication, and sharp utensils. Finally, my suffering became so blurred I don't remember what I thought or did.
Three weeks before Christmas, my original doctor sent me to a day hospitalization program for ten days. I was now into my seventh week of a new medication, and showing no improvement. The first day I was so overcome with fear and unable to focus on what people were saying to me, that I called my mother during lunch. I wanted to beg her to come get me, but somehow I resisted. My mother sensed that I wanted to come home but she did not offer to pick me up early. We both believed we had to give the program a chance. I am thankful we did, because God used the program as a turning point in my recovery. The new environment combined with my medication beginning to work brought me my first ray of hope in over three months.
I went through the program with six other men and women experiencing depression or bipolar depression. We became a close group, sharing our experiences and encouraging one another. I benefited from getting dressed in the morning and leaving the house each day. With my medication's new effectiveness, I followed conversations better, talked, and even laughed with others. I was on my way to a slow but determined recovery.
Five days before Christmas, I was released from the program. Although I was better, I still needed much time to rest and heal emotionally. Individuals with bipolar disorder often expect to have a miraculous recovery, but recovery is a slow process. Over time one symptom and then another dissipates. I remembering waking up the first time in months and not feeling depressed. "When did this happen?" I asked myself. Then I laughed and thought, "Lisa, don't ask when, just be glad it did!"
Before leaving the day program, my counselor gave me a medallion with the "Serenity Prayer" inscribed on one side and the words, "One day at a time," inscribed on the other. I have made this my motto for the past year and a half. I don't take my family, health, or God for granted. I love hugging and holding my daughters and smelling their hair when I kiss them goodnight. I know that if I ever hit rock bottom again, my family will stay by my side, loving me through it all. I realize I could have another serious mood swing at some time. I do my best to prevent that by taking my medication, seeing my doctor regularly, and getting plenty of rest. Instead of spending all my prayer time asking or telling God what I need, I praise Him for His faithfulness in my life and thank Him that His Word is the Truth.
I focus daily on the gift of the present instead of mourning the past or fearing the future. I continue to write and speak in order to encourage others suffering in any way. Today, 2 Corinthians 1:4 is my life's goal. I want to comfort others in trouble with the same comfort I receive from God. Also in 2 Corinthians, I am reminded that I may be hard pressed, despairing, or struck down, but with God's Holy Spirit I will never be crushed, abandoned, or destroyed. Most importantly, I remember the dark hospital room where God reached down and sheltered His terrified daughter in the refuge of His wings.