I looked up at my friend who had just asked me a question. She had caught me off guard but I knew it was one that many others would ask if they had the opportunity to. In a moment’s flicker, I felt my answer swell up in me and put them into words. “No, I wouldn’t want to be living without a mental illness,” I told her. “Living with bipolar disorder has shaped me into who I am today, and I would never want to change that.”
As anyone without a mental disorder would be, my friend was surprised by my response but in all honestly, this struggle has been the biggest source of my own personal growth and transforming more into Christ’s likeness each day. Whether it’s a mental illness or a more common struggle, isn’t it true that our greatest challenges shape us the most?
Here are three ways I’ve seen my own unique struggle used to bring me further into God’s purpose:
Learning empathy for others who are marginalized
Experiencing mental health struggles has helped me to have empathy for others who suffer, whether that be mental health related or not. Personally, I grew up in an affluent family in a country where I had rights and many opportunities. Those of us who grew up in countries where we had opportunities at our doorstep may find it challenging to empathize with those less fortunate.
As someone with a disability, I can empathize with others who struggle with a mental illness, another disability or just unfortunate life circumstances. Given my upbringing, if I had not experienced challenges with my mental health, I think I would likely be more self-centered and judgmental. Christ wants to shape us to be closer to his image, he wants to mold us into people who care for others, especially those on the margins. In my case, Jesus has used my mental illness to help shape me into who He wants me to be. Understanding challenges that life may bring helps us advocate for people in the midst of them.
Learning how to rely solely on God
During the ups and downs of living with bipolar disorder, the one constant reliable source of hope and peace has been God. Family has been supportive, friends have been there for me, but Jesus is the one whose presence was always felt and who guided me through difficult times. In my most depressed state, it was God who kept me moving forward, even though I felt like giving into despair at times.
When you rely solely on Jesus and draw closer to Him, you grow to be more like Christ. Paul illustrates how weakness can be viewed in a positive light.
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians: 7-10)
Advocating for mental health awareness and dispelling stigma
Stigma around mental illness is a sad reality. Personally, I have experienced many cases of stigma-related negative encounters with people. Though this originally seems like a negative thing, there can always be a way to turn things around. I have had many opportunities to educate people about mental health challenges.
Using my own story, I can tell people about bipolar disorder. When people have negative reactions to me having bipolar disorder, I tend to view this as an opportunity to educate someone, rather than take it personally. It has taken a while for me to get here though. I used to take it very personally if someone didn’t want to be my friend based on me having a mental illness. Now I know that I have enough friends, and only want friends who accept me as I am.
Jesus combated stigma in his day; people with leprosy or who were disabled were outcasts by society. Jesus advocated for these people, and aligned himself with them. We can do the same as insiders, advocate for people who have a mental illness. Dispelling myths and fear around mental health challenges is doing work Christ would want us to do.
God didn’t put us on this Earth to have a comfortable life. He wants us to fight injustice and care for those struggling whether through direct ministry, advocacy or words of encouragement. Jesus wants us to align ourselves with those who suffer, and it is often easier to do this if we have experienced suffering ourselves. He wants us to rely on Him and trust that God will bring us out of situations that were difficult, but which helped shape us into being more like Christ.
After all, isn’t that the goal of a Christian, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and be His hands and feet to the world? Any follower of Christ can do this, but people with mental health challenges have a unique role and calling as members of a misunderstood people group: the power to change the opinion of those around us about mental illness and share how it has made us personally more like Jesus is especially unique.
So, the question Patricia asked me was, “If you could wish away your mental illness, and the struggles it has caused you, would you?” My answer remains the same, the person I am today is someone I am proud of.