On Faith and Bipolar Recovery
Accepting the validity of both spiritual and clinical components of a mental health condition and its treatment can make a world of difference.
I believe in God and science, prayer and medication, faith and reason. I recognize my bipolar disorder as a sometimes agonizing clinical condition that requires medical treatment, but I also recognize it as a sometimes liberating mystical gift that requires spiritual acknowledgment.
Unfortunately, however, many mental health professionals and people of faith alike consider these inherently incompatible assessments, clinging instead to the false notion that an experience must be either 100 percent clinical or 100 percent spiritual in order to be considered valid as either. But life is not black and white, and for many of us living with bipolar disorder, myself included, the clinical and the spiritual can and do overlap.
My first acute manic episode, for example, briefly coincided with an intense mystical experience that took me years to finally accept as such. Because my health-care providers dismissed my ecstatic experience as pure delusion, I did too. But more recently, I have come to accept the validity of both the spiritual and the clinical components of my mental health condition, and for me, it has made a world of difference.
Prayer has come to play a powerful role in my recovery. Every morning, I hand my day over to the divine presence, pledging to do my best and asking the Beloved to do the rest. So far, it has worked. Where I lack worldly patience, I’ve been blessed with spiritual perseverance and reassurance.
A few weeks ago, after I presented a lecture, a fellow Muslim approached me and said, “Prayer is the only medication you need, Sister.”
I’ve heard countless versions of this before, and alas, such sentiments exist within nearly every religious tradition. Whether you’re Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Baha’i, chances are you’ll one day stumble across one such misinformed fellow believer, if you haven’t already.
In response to this well-meaning brother, I extolled the virtues of prayer and science, noting that they need not be mutually exclusive. I thanked him for his concern, however misplaced, and happily continued taking my psychiatrist’s counsel over his.
Thankfully, I now see a psychiatrist who respects my beliefs, but that hasn’t always been the case. As an inpatient at one facility, for example, I had a psychiatrist who pathologized my daily prayers, calling them a sign of “hyperreligiosity.” In truth, they were symptomatic of nothing more than a healthy spiritual life and an effective coping mechanism. Nonetheless, they were misinterpreted, labeled “hyperreligious.” But there’s a big difference between being hyperreligious and being religious. Prayer and meditation are perfectly healthy and effective recovery strategies.
For me, prayer has provided hope and solace amid my most painful depressions and mixed states. In that facility, for instance, I was so agitated that I couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes at first. But for the scarce minutes a day that I spent on my prayer rug, my agitation vanished, and I was blessed with a few fleeting moments of intense peace and respite.
Prayer has also provided me with a much-needed routine in my everyday life. As a freelance writer, I have to make my own schedule, and while my days may vary wildly at times, I always have my worship to steady my routine, to keep me grounded, to remind me of my purpose and my principles.
Ultimately, there is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the failure of faith communities to fully respect medicine and the failure of medical communities to fully respect faith. But for those of us caught in the middle here, it’s not about blame; it’s about recovery. We just want to be as well as we can be, and we want to be able to use every tool at our disposal to reach and maintain wellness.
No two paths to recovery will ever be identical, and there is no such thing as a “correct” path. In many ways, we’re all learning as we go here—and that includes our health-care providers and our faith communities. But those of us living with mental health conditions like bipolar disorder are in a special position to educate our peers and health-care providers about how to best respect the role of spirituality in our health-care plans and the role of health care in our spiritual plans. It’s high time we spoke up.
Printed as “Flight of Ideas: On Faith and Recovery”, Spring 2017