Bipolar can feel like a psychological and physiological barrier to living a satisfying life. With mood fluctuations, highs and lows, uncertainty about origins of intense feelings, bipolar can begin to feel like you no longer have control.
Still worse, persons who have not yet been diagnosed are often the brunt of comments, questions, or concerns from family and friends that can make a person feel totally responsible and alone in their process of understanding themselves.
We often assume people are totally in control of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But psychology reveals there are often deeper, unseen factors at play when things like mood or affect are inconsistent.
Definition of Bipolar Disorder
The easiest way to describe bipolar is to think of a roller coaster. The person on the ride will experience highs and lows, both of which vary at times drastically in intensity, duration, and frequency.
Bipolar One can be thought of as a roller coaster ride where there are frequent shifts between the ups and downs (or, in psychological terms, ‘rapid mood fluctuations’).
With Bipolar Two, a person might experience their high and low moods for longer periods. and when they do switch from one to the next, the average person around them may not even notice as these shifts can be subtle, like a soft hill rather than a steep drop more commonly found on a Bipolar One ‘ride’.
The end result can be the same, however. No matter what kind of ride they are on, any person dealing with bipolar disorder can feel anything from annoyance to downright exhaustion and defeat as a result of these shifts.
The DSM-5 describes specific aspects in its definition of bipolar disorder. For starters, in order to have this diagnosis a person will experience two very different things. The ‘manic’ phase of Bipolar One includes feeling flightiness of ideas, grandiose sense of self-esteem, increased motivation to do things/increased energy, rapid thoughts, intense anger, recklessness, and more. The ‘depressive’ phase of Bipolar One includes feelings of hopelessness, low motivation, low energy, insomnia or hypersomnia, etc.
So, that’s what bipolar can feel like for the person experiencing it. But what about for those observing it? For the outsider, bipolar, in my experience, can be sometimes very obvious, and other times very hard to detect. I have actually met many people in my life who later told me they have bipolar and I was amazed because I would have never guessed it! They seemed like everyday go-getters, capable of functioning, holding jobs, raising families, etc.
But, upon closer look, I did notice some similarities between their lives. For some of them, symptoms like feeling lethargic were extreme. They would report feeling tired to the point of needing excessive amounts of sleep just to feel they were functioning adequately.
For others, their sleep cycle was interrupted frequently by manic episodes of tremendous energy. These phases could have them cleaning their entire apartment at all hours of the night, productively starting projects, organizing, and more, but all to their frustration because they came out still feeling exhausted.
In any case, persons struggling with the tug of manic and depressive phases (such as sleep exhaustion, for example) feel a contradiction between what their body is telling them to do (“stay awake all night!” or “sleep for 12 hours!”) and what they actually want to do (get a normal, 8-hour night of sleep).
A Diagnosis, Not an Identity
For some, it can be difficult to not over-identify with a disorder diagnosis. I have had many people come into my office and explain their feelings and then follow with, “But, it’s because I have bipolar disorder.” Like any diagnosis, it is just that: an explanation of your symptoms. What it is not meant to be is your identity.
In Christ, no matter our symptoms, we are not those things. The Bible says we have been given a new name, and a new identity in Christ. So … what can be said, then, about a mental illness like bipolar in conjunction with faith-based beliefs that sin separates us from God?
You are not responsible for your illness.
I use the word ‘responsible’ because when we talk about Christianity, it often gets categorized into the domain of being a ‘religion,’ and, with any religion, there is a certain weight of responsibility that we can place on ourselves to ‘live the faith,’ or to be ‘of spiritually sound mind.’
[Side plug here: that mindset does not capture the radical grace and freedom found in being a believer in Christ and in the forgiveness of our sins allowed us.] BUT, we are human, and as any human, even the most Spirit-refined person cannot deny they might from time to time slip back into a religious mindset of wondering, ‘Am I representing the gospel of Christ well enough?’
But, back to bipolar. Anyone who has experienced a manic episode will tell you they might exhibit behaviors or act on impulses they wouldn’t normally, some of which can be easily classified as ‘sins’.
For example, let’s say my friend in a manic phase of Bipolar One has the urge to spend their entire savings account in one evening. From a humanistic standpoint, we can say, “Oh well, they are harming themselves, I guess, but it doesn’t really hurt anyone else, and they are in charge of their bank account so they can do what they want with it.”
The same logic can be applied if that same person in a manic or depressive episode engaged in self-destructive habits of cutting, excessive drinking, or drug use. They are, in that phase, drawn to do something they wouldn’t normally do. And again, we could nullify that by saying, “Oh well, it’s their life.”
On the other end of the spectrum, we could condemn them. We could hold them totally accountable and responsible for their actions and think things like, “How could you do that to yourself?! You’re so careless, you obviously don’t have any impulse control or self-control, and therefore, you are living in sin because you are acting on your urges.”
A third response is somewhere in between. We might say “Oh, it’s not your fault, you just had the impulse. It’s okay, it’s a biological response, don’t be so hard on yourself.”
Any of these responses are reflective of our human tendencies. We quickly make judgement statements about people’s behaviors and categorize them as “okay” or “not okay,” or not worth worrying about the ethical weight of these behaviors.
How much more do those struggling with this kind of disorder weigh the value of their actions! Many of the bipolar clients I sit with are not strangers to dark or self-critical thoughts about themselves being “worthless,” “careless,” “foolish,” “irresponsible,” “lazy,” and many more things.
A Biblical Perspective of Bipolar
So now that we have cleared the air and addressed some of the common mindsets we humans can have when we face the ethical questions about a person’s behaviors, what if we look at a biblical perspective of bipolar?
Let’s start by talking about sin. Sin is understood as a willful act. It is, in my opinion, best described as the times when we elevate our wills, plans, purposes, thoughts, desires or what have you, above God’s. It’s the act of denying God’s power in our life by basically living as though we don’t need Him.
Just like in the Garden of Eden in Genesis, Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because she did not believe God when He told her eating it would open her eyes to all kinds of knowledge about evil that humankind was not meant to know.
Eve, and then Adam, were the first ones to make a choice that their ways were better than God’s, thus resulting in the first example of what we now categorize as “sin.”
So how does that relate to bipolar? Well, “The pivot point of faith-based therapy is exactly the same for a person with bipolar disorder as it is for anyone else. That is, to focus our energy on God” (quote from source listed below).
Discussing moral convictions a bipolar person may encounter if or when they act in ways contradictory to who they are when they are not experiencing a manic or depressive phase is really not that difficult.
The simple fact is, they are just as loved and invited to live a transformed life and even experience a “renewing of the mind” that Scripture refers to, during their most manic phase, as anyone else is. Their choices do not separate them from God’s love, and their needs for transformation are not any more or any less than any other person in need of grace.
The question at the focus of this discussion should not be, “Should a bipolar person feel guilty or responsible for the way they might act in a manic or depressive phase?”
The question should be, “Should a bipolar person have any reason not to believe God’s grace and abundant mercy can meet them right where they’re at, even in the midst of behaviors that others might objectively label as “sins”?”
I would argue that the answer is no, they have no reason not to believe that He will meet them where they are at. If that were the case, Christ would not have eaten with sinners or forgiven prostitutes and those considered the most involved in risky or impulsive behaviors in that culture!
The conversation of mental health and theology should always rest on the fact that God knows our hearts, and our moral standing with Him is known by Him, and therefore even when we feel the least connected to our choices or the most responsible for mood swings, we can still rest assured He is not blind to that conflict that exists in our hearts. As Romans 8:1 says, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
If you would like to schedule an appointment today to discuss having a possible or confirmed diagnosis of bipolar disorder and how this has affected your walk with God, please contact us today.
If you would like further reading material on this subject, these are a few resources worth checking out:
“Ocean,” courtesy of apertism, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Mist,” courtesy of Brunel Johnson, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sanctuary,” courtesy of Annie Spratt, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “True North,” courtesy of Natalie Rhea Riggs, unsplash.com, CC0 License