A Woman on a Mission: Shannon’s Story

Last Updated: 6 Aug 2018
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How Shannon overcame stigma to succeed in her career.

 

By Michelle Roberts

 

Shannon O. , a Christian missionary in Bolivia since 2001, struggles to stay healthy despite overwhelming odds.

Not only does she confront bipolar disorder far from the love and support of her friends and family in Texas, she also faces ignorance about mental illness that permeates this South American country she has come to love.

More than a year ago, Shannon was forced to leave her beloved church, run by a Bolivian minister unaware of her disorder. “He kept preaching that if you’re ever suicidal and have mental illness, you have a demon,” she says. “After a while, that became very troubling to me.”

These days, Shannon, who also teaches Christian theology at a local university, drives to a suburb of Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city, to a different congregation —one that does not yet have a roof on it. On Saturdays, she helps direct a children’s club, in which more than 60 kids come to play games and sing religious songs. On Sunday evenings, she plays her violin at the outdoor church service.

It’s then, beneath the starry night sky, that Shannon’s struggle to stay in Bolivia makes sense. Just like she didn’t choose to have bipolar disorder, she didn’t choose to be a missionary. It is simply the path of her life.

“It’s a very difficult job in the best circumstances,” says Shannon, 40. “I struggle, but faith brought me here, and it keeps me here.”

 

This is who I am

Shannon was raised in the 1970s in Irving, Texas. Her father, a truck driver, left the family when she was 10, leaving her mother to work two or three jobs at a time to support everyone. Shannon, the fourth of six children, learned responsibility at a young age, as she and her siblings were expected to help pay the bills. “Mom always found jobs that we could help her with,” she says, including stocking newspaper racks and stuffing envelopes.

Shannon’s mother wasn’t her only early inspiration: her paternal grandparents were pastors in the same Dallas church for more than 50 years. “They were the most stabilizing force in the whole family,” Shannon says. “Just good, solid people.”

They also inspired Shannon to become a missionary when she was still in her teens. “I just felt a very strong pull that I needed to do that. Basically, since I was 14, this is who I am and what I do.”

To prepare, Shannon attended a Bible college, often traveling to the Mexican border to spread Christianity. When she was close to graduating, she told her mission director, “Send me wherever.”

Shannon’s bipolar symptoms appeared in her late 20s, while she was stationed in Honduras. At first, it looked like unipolar depression. In the spring of 1997, a missionary nurse referred Shannon to a psychiatrist, who placed her on an antidepressant, which she stopped taking after a few months.

The following year, in November of 1998, Hurricane Mitch, one of the deadliest and most powerful hurricanes on record in the Atlantic basin, dropped historic amounts of rainfall in Honduras and Nicaragua, causing catastrophic flooding. About 11,000 people were killed with more than 8,000 left missing by the end of 1998.

Shannon says the storm wreaked havoc on her mental state. “I walked around stunned for weeks.” A couple of months later, still battling depression, she returned to her mother’s home in Texas. She saw a therapist, who eventually told her that she suspected Shannon had bipolar disorder II.

“At first, I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ What convinced me was we got to the point where there wasn’t anything else to cover in therapy, but I couldn’t get rid of these dark depressions.” A psychiatrist later confirmed the diagnosis.

 

Dealing with stigma

Shannon was concerned when her next mission came up. After all, many people in Bolivia, among the poorest of the developing countries, still believe that mental illness is actually “possession by demons.” It had been difficult enough to accept her own illness, let alone try to overcome such overpowering stigma and ignorance.

To make matters worse, when she arrived in Bolivia in January of 2001 Shannon says she “was not on a good med mix.” The telltale symptoms of mania were present as she tried to settle into her new teaching job at a Christian university.

It’s a very difficult job in the best circumstances. I struggle, but faith brought me here, and it keeps me here.

“I had such grandiose ideas,” Shannon recalls. “I was teaching, thinking my students were so lucky to have me. Apparently, I was talking so fast that my students were just lost in class.”

She was also very aggressive and irritable. What’s more, she burned through so much money that her mission’s credit union had to cut off her checking account after “a ton of bounced checks.” Shannon recalls her reckless days of mania, including risking her own life by visiting dangerous marketplaces and staying in parts of town where a single, white tourist should not travel alone.

The manic episode lasted for a grueling six months, until she found a Bolivian psychiatrist, one of only 12 in a city of more than a million people. “I worked with her until I trusted her enough to deal with my medications,” she says.

In the six years since, Shannon has learned to do the best she can managing her symptoms so far from home. Her Bolivian psychiatrist prescribes her medications in consultation with Shannon’s longtime Texas psychiatrist.

While many Bolivians are still slow to accept the reality of mental illness, Shannon finds that compassion for her condition is slowly spreading through the missionary world. After her first depression in 1997, Shannon says she told an older missionary, “I hope I never go through that again.” The missionary replied, “We wouldn’t put up with it.”

Today, Shannon says her mission leaders are “excellent and preemptive” and regularly send struggling missionaries back to the United States to see counselors and receive psychiatric help. Her supervisors are aware that she has bipolar disorder (which has been reclassified as bipolar I).

But stigma is a reality she still faces daily.

“Most missionaries know I have bipolar, but few Bolivians know and certainly not in the university because that would change their opinion of me as a teacher —even though I’ve taught here for five years.”

To cope, Shannon uses her sick leave to regroup on days she can’t face the world. Her encouragement comes from across the globe via online support forums for people with bipolar disorder. “It’s saved my life sometimes, and I’ve helped save other lives. We talk about everything.”

It’s this virtual world, combined with her religious faith, that gives her the strength to keep going. “It doesn’t matter where you find your community—just that you do,” Shannon says. “People in the forum have helped keep me alive, sane, and healthy enough to do the job I was put on this Earth to do.”

 

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Shannon’s tips

  • Find your higher power. One of my doctors says that 70 percent of what keeps me stable is my spirituality.
  • Work with an accessible doctor. If there’s any way you can find a psychiatrist who also does therapy, do so. My doctor has kept me alive many times over through phone calls and email, just talking me through crises.
  • Stay self-aware. Level with your doctor. Don’t try to downplay your symptoms. They can’t help you unless they truly understand what’s going on.
  • Take medications as prescribed. Never stop your medications cold turkey because you’re sick of taking them. I’ve learned this the hard way.
  • Create your own support team. My family is thousands of miles away, so I rely on an Internet support team’s bipolar community forum. There are people who have been there for years. I use a pseudonym, but some of them know me well enough to tell me I’m headed into an episode—and vice versa.

 

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Printed as “A Woman on a Mission“, Spring 2008

About the author
Michelle Roberts, a recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

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