15 Years

A Decade and a Half with Mental Illness

It’s Sunday, October 10, 2021.

World Mental Health Day.

Today is always a sobering day for me, as I think through my now 15-year journey with mental illness.

For those that don’t know: I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in June 2006, during my first major depression. I spent my graduation day from UCLA in a mental hospital coming to terms with the diagnosis that I had a mental illness – a disorder that causes up to 60% of those afflicted to attempt suicide and causes up to 19% of those afflicted to lose their life to suicide.

Those are sobering statistics, for sure.

But, now, having managed my mental illness for 15 years, I’ve learned that managing a mental illness like bipolar is a long, grind of a process. Occasionally, there is a game-changing breakthrough, like in December 2006 when I turned the corner toward progress after 6 months of intense treatment post-breakdown.

But those big moments are the exceptions, not the rule. Managing a mental illness over decades is the accumulation of a large number of small, consistent, incremental choices. For my mental health, these include: medication each and every day, a meditation practice, a hunger for knowledge about my illness, regular sleep/wake, daily exercise, alcohol in moderation, no illicit drugs, a practice of prayer and the reliance on the prayers of others, a team of mental health professionals to rely on, a faith in God, and a knowing of my limits when it comes to a heavy workload.

Small, consistent, incremental decisions that all add up to a mental landscape that is drastically different and drastically healthier than the broken-down, untenable, and suicidal reality of just 15 years prior.

Modern day Bible translator and Christian pastor Eugene Peterson uses the phrase “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” for one of his book titles, and I think it’s a very applicable phrase for a mental health journey. That “long obedience in the same direction” is exactly what it means to manage mental illness: using small, consistent, incremental choices to pave the way to greater mental health.

Not that I’ve arrived, by any means. I’ve had plenty of ups and downs along the way – including experiences of anxiety and depression. But I’ve also come a long way since 2006. And while my mental health still has many more iterations to go as middle and old age come my way, I know that my “long obedience” has already produced a healthy marriage and family, a career in Corporate America, a strong faith, and healthy relationships with those that are close to me. And for that, I’m so thankful.

My goal is that I continue in the “same direction” so that, in another 15 years, I can still say the John Newton quote:

“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”

So, prayers for you, friends, as we all manage our mental health in this pandemic season – and as we acknowledge World Mental Health Day today. Know that I’m praying for you, that you don’t have to have it all together, that God is for you, and that you have what it takes to practice that “long obedience in the same direction.” 🙏🏻

-KGC

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