God’s grace in struggling with bipolar
By MARLA BAKER
Special to Catholic Times
God blessed me with a loving husband and three wonderful children. He gifted me nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He has guided me though many joys and sorrows.
As a young woman, I earned a degree in elementary education. Unfortunately, classroom teaching proved to be too much pressure for me. I worked in various childcare settings, but from my vantage point, my most valuable job was working for seven years for a young girl with spina bifida. Confined to a wheelchair, she was brave, determined, and strong as she dealt with prejudices through her middle school and high school years.
At 28 years of age, I was enjoying a wonderful life as a wife and mother. I was living the life of my dreams. One day, my brother fed my youngest child a peanut, which lodged in her lung. At the hospital, I became agitated and lost contact with reality. Looking back, I had previously done some unusual things. But this event with my daughter brought everything to a head. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, once known as manic depression.
I spent the next four years in and out of psychiatric wards. I had many doctors and was given multiple drugs to stabilize my moods. I had been a strong, intelligent, and independent woman, but I had become a weak and nearly helpless individual.
At one point, I experienced an episode of severe depression. I was overcome with despair and had no interest in any activity. It was painful to see others carrying on with their daily activities with my feelings of uselessness. I hated myself and felt that everyone would be better off without me. I was enclosed in the garage when I turned on the car’s ignition and I waited. My husband found me unconscious and saved my life.
I tried to take my life. God showed me that He was in charge. I had no clue what He had in store for me — what I would have missed had I succeeded. I will regret this lack of trust for the rest of my life.
I was again hospitalized and was surprised to see a nurse whom I knew from high school. She recommended an excellent psychiatrist, and this doctor found the right combination of medication and treatment. His care gradually brought me back to functioning productively. I faithfully took my medication and visited him regularly. I have never been plagued with thoughts of suicide again.
I had viewed mental illness as a curse. I had been ashamed and embarrassed to own this part of me; it had destroyed my opinion of myself. Now, I look upon it as a blessing. I can empathize with others that have been affected. I understand the darkest of days. I have dealt with a stigma and tried to eliminate it — I follow my doctor’s orders with diligence to set an example of staying well. But above all, I have experienced God’s profound mercy and forgiveness.
Many years later, I developed bone-on-bone osteoarthritis in both knees and shoulders. I used a walker and slept in a recliner to avoid pain from movement in bed. I would fall and need the fire department to rescue me because I weighed 333 pounds. I was unable to dress myself without assistance. I stopped driving and attending Mass. I gave up on everything, including God. I needed so much help and spent most of my time in my lift chair wallowing in self-pity. In addition, my husband had surgery and experienced complications. He needed a great deal of assistance, and I could not help at all.
My father was my confidant and mentor. We were always on the same channel. After my mother’s death, we became very close. Shortly after my husband’s surgery, my father passed away. My husband was too sick to accompany me to the funeral. I felt so alone because it seemed that I had lost my mother all over again. All my parental support was gone. Shortly after my father died, my husband died unexpectedly of further complications. Our entire family was in shock.
In a very short period of time, I had lost two men that were very dear to me. I was alone and scared. I felt helpless and I was angry. I did not want to get out of bed and my self-care diminished. Daily chores seemed insurmountable. My son and his wife moved in with me to assure that I was cared for.
One day, a little voice that had haunted me often told me to go to Mass. The Mass enthralled me, and I was inspired by the songs. I found myself longing for the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I went to confession and was then able to receive the Eucharist. I had died to grace but had been born again.
With my spiritual healing came physical healing as well. During the next two years, I had both knees and shoulders replaced. I could not only move better, but I was able to drive again. I was able to live independently again.
When I was 62 years old, my daughter’s family had to move to Texas. They asked me to move in with them. Their children were 7 and 3 years of age and they needed my assistance. I had lived in Alton all my life. It was a huge decision.
I spent the next seven years in Texas. I loved my surroundings, the community, and my parish family. I felt much satisfaction and fulfillment as I watched my grandkids grow and thrive. But as they grew, they did not need me as a grandmother as much as a taxi driver. I realized that some of my relatives in Alton were failing with age, and I longed to be with them. I returned to my hometown in 2018.
My youngest brother, Matt, had a stroke shortly after my move. My only other sibling, Dan, passed away in 2003. Matt was a fallen away Catholic. One day the nurse told me that my brother was unresponsive. I went to Matt and told him that I knew he was suffering and that if he had to go that I would watch out for his four adult children. I reminded him of Jesus’ love and forgiveness and that Jesus was waiting for him with open arms. I really think that he heard me because I saw tears in his eyes. I was the last family member who spoke to him. I truly feel that my words came from the Holy Spirit.
In March of 2020, COVID invaded our country. I was 71 years old. I have chronic kidney disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. I am obese. And to make matters worse, I have bipolar disorder, which predisposes me to anxiety, mania, and depression. All this, coupled with isolation recommended to avoid catching the virus, riddled me with fear.
I felt that death was at my door. Recognizing that I have anxiety from excessive loneliness and that I crave social interaction, the thought of staying home made me fear a relapse of my mental illness. I contacted a therapist. She began her treatment by directing me to this Bible passage:
“Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:6-8).
My therapist told me that fear was the opposite of faith and trust in God. She said that fear was the devil’s workshop, and we talked about God’s protection and love. We discussed my feelings of uselessness. When I was asked to care for my grandchildren and supervise remote learning, I agreed. I decided that if I was destined to die from the virus, I wanted my last healthy days to be spent with meaning.
Years ago, I was told by my friends that I would be put in a nursing home and die soon. With their prayers and the prayers of many others, they refer to me as a miracle. And because of God’s loving care, I know that I am. It is a miracle that each of us are here today. And I know that you have your story of God’s miracles in your life. Miracles, whether they be big or small, are blessings bestowed on us by our heavenly Father.
Marla Baker is a parishioner at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Bethalto. She says that if you are struggling with bipolar disorder and would like to talk with her, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.