Ignatian discernment for mental illness
Bipolar Disorder, a mental illness characterised by extreme highs (mania) and lows (depression) started to surface in my late twenties. On the one hand, I stopped talking at the dinner table and isolated myself from others. On the other hand, I listened to my thoughts as if they were voices, and I obeyed them instantaneously. I lived in my own internal world filled with strong currents, howling winds and gnashing waves. In the midst of my suffering, God was trying to communicate as I began to learn about the importance of consolation and desolation in my spiritual life.
I had a great desire to seek oneness with God but I had this skewed belief in being ‘holy’ – a state of perfection where no weaknesses or vulnerabilities existed. Some days consisted of a 10 mile walk; 10 prayer periods; 10 pages of diary entries and more. I expressed whatever unconnected ideas came to mind in the company of housemates. And then my mood fell towards a depression. I remained swayed by my moods: the ‘evil spirit’ was my captain and he led me to despair and desperation. My body started to break down too as insomnia and severe tension headaches made my life a living hell. I needed help…and fast!
Like Saint Ignatius, I learned to turn from a closed fist into an open hand: I said “Yes” to the help of my family and friends. After spending time in a psychiatric hospital and in a day hospital, medicine became a course of treatment for me. As doctors experimented with different medications, I continued to suffer various symptoms such as mood problems, racing thoughts, and sleep difficulties. A faith friend reminded me “The truth will set you free,” so I persevered onward for God and country. Eventually, I noticed a gentle positive shift in my mood when I was treated with lithium, the classic bipolar drug.
I was helped by a key Ignatian resource – a wonderful book called ‘Finding the Still Point’ by Gerald O’Mahony SJ for making use of moods. Fr O’Mahony, who lives with bipolar, introduced me to a well-being scale from 0 – 10: 5/10 being the optimal point on this scale with depression being at the lower end and mania being at the upper end. For example, when I was at 8 or 9 on the scale, the Jesuit advised me to go easy or slow down my pace of life in order to reach 5/10. When I was at 1 or 2 on the scale, he advised me to keep working or to push onward with my daily tasks until I reached the balance. For someone who was versed in extreme moods, this discernment required real attention – like listening to the still, small voice of God.
Furthermore, regular Spiritual Direction with a Jesuit helped me to examine my thoughts and feelings with precision: where they came from, where they led to, and so on. I began to relish the divinity of my inner world: a territory where I turned towards beauty and light and turned away from messiness and disarray. In this orientation of heart and mind, my thoughts and feelings became grounded in reality rather than ones that were impulsive, and what an exciting time it was.
While I walked the road of recovery, I began to realise how Bipolar Disorder actually graced my life. For example, it became clear that my mind had plenty to say as I picked up the pen to write blogs, short stories, and a screenplay. I was gifted with humility which relieved me of any perfectionistic pressures; enabled me to let go the reigns of control; and come to know that I was held by love. Moreover, I turned my wounds into wisdom as I attended to my emptiness; expressed my heart’s desires; and held onto a hope without deception.
I set up a blog called ilovebipolar.com, a website that showcases my love for mental illness to the world. I created 10 upsides of bipolar during the first phase and right now I am delving into the downsides. Daily prayer gives me strength and that glorious oneness with God. I am a big believer in the normalisation of mental illness since we are all somewhere along the mental health continuum. Finally, I am deeply grateful to Jesus who has guided and inspired Jesuits to help orient my heart towards beauty and light.