This topic is close to my heart. I’ve spent many years wondering about the intersection, overlap, and difficulties related to mental health and faith. Through my own journey with depression, anxiety, and OCD I’ve asked a lot of questions about the strength of my faith, how God designed me, and how much healing is possible on this side of heaven.
It is such an honor to share Jen’s story here, as she shares her own questions about that intersection through her diagnoses of Bipolar II. Even if you don’t struggle with a specific mental health diagnoses, there are some rich conversation and prayer topics in this week’s Freedom Story for many of us. As we filter through our own feelings and hold them up to God’s ultimate Truth, we receive clarity about who He is and who we are in Him. Jen- thank you so much for sharing with us!
Here is Jen’s Freedom Story.
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Jen, thank you so much for joining me in this series. It’s an honor to share your words and your heart here! Before we get into your story, I want to know some of the fun stuff! Tell me about where you’re from, what you love to do, and anything else that will give us a little slice into Jen’s life!
Hey, I’m Jen from Barrie, Ontario, Canada, which may have something to do with the fact that I’m cold all the time. I lived most of my life about three hours away from here, but the Lord led us here just over two years ago. I’m on staff at one of the greatest churches ever as a Christian school music teacher, teaching all grades from Kindergarten to Grade 12, so my days are never boring! I also love to teach ladies Bible study at my church and to write at home. I’ve been married to my husband Michael for almost 18 years. We have three beautiful children and are in the thick of raising teenagers. My nickname growing up was Zuska. How’s that for unique?
Something else unique about me, after struggling with depression for many years, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II last year and now I love to talk about how my mental illness and my faith intersect.
I’m so glad you’re here, Jen! Thank you. So, Galatians 5:1 is a key verse for our FREEDOM STORIES. It says “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Therefore, do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” What was the old yoke you were living under? What was that slavery like for you?
I struggled with depression for many years, but I would not necessarily say the depression itself was the yoke of slavery I was under. God has not yet lifted that yoke off of me and I don’t believe that He keeps us in bondage.
I think that the slavery I was under was believing that I had to do everything myself. I didn’t see a counsellor, didn’t go to my doctor. I kept believing that I just needed to pray more or work harder. I saw depression as a defect that was up to me to fix. I believed in mental illness and have always believed that some people need counselling and medication. But for some reason, I didn’t think that applied to me.
After a few years, I started inviting Jesus in to do some of the hard work with me, but I still felt that it was mostly dependent on me. That I must not be working hard enough or be spiritual enough. When I would go long times without feeling depressed, I would assume that I had finally conquered it. Only to have it come around again.
In the midst of all of that, what were some of the old narratives you absorbed?
I felt a lot of shame around it. Unless I could talk about it from only a positive perspective, as in, here is what is working for me and it can work for you too. I didn’t want to become the girl who was known for talking about her depression and for many years fought against God telling me to write about it in my blog, even though I had written a Bible study on it previously. I just didn’t want to be “that girl”.
I also felt a lot of shame around what was going on inside my mind. Because I didn’t understand that I had Bipolar, I would have these thoughts and decision making processes that scared me and I almost felt as if there were someone else living in my mind at points.
But as always, I soldiered on. I kept trying to work harder and be more spiritual and work it all away. When I did tentatively reach out, it was to the wrong people and didn’t help.
What was the turning point? Was there a rock bottom or a point that you realized that you couldn’t live like that any longer?
I stopped needing to sleep. That’s what first caught my attention. I had been like that as a teenager, but once I had little kids, this mom could sleep whenever I had the opportunity! But now I had teenagers and was not quite so exhausted and so I couldn’t sleep again. That along with several other physical symptoms made me convinced that I had some sort of early onset menopause. When I described it to my doctor I said it was like I had bipolar. Yet I was still surprised when that was the diagnosis in the end.
I was devastated by this diagnosis. I had just recovered from the hardest year of my life the year before and was thrown by the fact that God would ask me to walk another hard road so quickly. I felt as though my world was spinning out of control.
That sounds like a huge turning point and a really challenging time… After that diagnoses, what changed? (What actions did you take/truths did you discover/community did you connect with to help you find move forward)?
I got a diagnosis one afternoon and was in a counsellor’s office the next morning at 9am. God had lead us to him for marriage counselling, so I already had someone to go to. I poured out the whole story through tears and then it finally occurred to me to ask him, “do you even do this?” He assured me that yes, he did counselling for bipolar and we started down the road of hard work to learn how to live with this new reality.
The hardest thing for me to accept was that I could no longer trust my thoughts. I viewed everything through the lens of bipolar and that lens often skewed reality. For someone who prided themselves on their common sense and independence, that was a really hard reality.
After a few months of hard work, I had a breakthrough. The Lord had been teaching me something in the Psalms months earlier. As I look back, I know that He had gotten this truth into my heart so I would be ready. The psalms often begin with really hard emotions. Even wrong emotions. Thoughts like, God you’ve abandoned me. It would have been better if I had never been born. I wish that I could fly away. The psalmists had these honest and raw conversations with God. Usually by the end of the psalm, they are praising God for His goodness and deliverance. I used to think that was just the end of the story. They were upset or in pain or in trouble and God delivered them. But then I realized something important.
In many of the psalms, the goodness of God is described in the future tense. As in, God has not done this yet, but I believe He will.
The psalmist were not afraid to lay it all out there. To acknowledge their feelings. They weren’t afraid to tell those feelings to God. But then they returned to what they knew. It’s like they said, this is what feel, but this is what I know.
That is so powerful! I will be chewing on that for a long time.
Tell me about your life of freedom. What does it look like for you now?
That phrase, this is what I feel, but this is what I know, has changed my life. I run to the only source of truth – God and His Word – and I filter everything my bipolar brain tells me through that phrase. And now I can identify what is truth and what is not. That’s not to say that it’s an easy process. Far from it. But there is a freedom in truth that cannot be found anywhere else. And that freedom is available for us all, bipolar or not.
Knowing that I can come to God with all my mixed up feelings, all the untruths I’m believing, all the times I just want out of life, and He is not scared of them, not offended by them, and even welcomes that honesty, that gives me the freedom to not be ashamed of who I am. And the truth of God’s Word tells me what I know, no matter what I happen to feel today.
There is a beautiful freedom in being okay with my feelings, but not having to live my life by them.
Do you still wrestle with those old struggles? What do you do on those days to fight for your freedom?
I wrestle most days still. And with my diagnosis, I probably will always have some struggle. And that’s why I have to continually remind myself of truth. I read my Bible, I talk to God, I print out verses for my fridge, I’m honest with my counsellor, I’m surrounding myself with an awesome group of friends. There are a few people outside of my immediate family who are not afraid to ask me if I’ve been sleeping, or how I’m doing. And I answer them honestly. It’s a beautiful thing to be getting the help I need.
Are there any key scriptures, quotes, or books that have been helpful for you on your journey into freedom?
Psalm 42 has always been a very important chapter to me. I wrote a Bible study on depression using this chapter long before I realized that it followed this format of, this is what I feel, but this is what I know. The psalmists talks about his soul being cast down. Cast down is a term referring to when a sheep has fallen on its back and cannot get back up. If a shepherd doesn’t rescue that sheep, it will die.
I have often felt like that. Like my soul has been cast down and I might die without help. Yet at the end of the psalm, the psalmist encourages himself by repeating what he knows. That God is his help and his hope. He is acknowledging how he feels, but relying on what he knows.
Thank you for sharing that image and the Psalm, Jen. Both are so relatable, no matter where we are in life or what specific circumstances we’ve been through.
Okay…last, because I’m a big believer that gratitude lists help us remain present and fight our battles, tell me 3 things you’re grateful for right now.
I’m thankful for my counsellor. He is leading me through one of the greatest battles I have fought. And he’s doing it well.
I’m thankful for gift cards – yesterday and today I got to buy books, get Starbucks, and go for a massage.
I’m thankful for sunshine. It’s been a dark and dreary winter so far here in Ontario but today there is fresh snow and the sun is shining on it. New snow and sunshine always seem to remind me that God’s mercies are new every morning.
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Jennifer Holmes is a wife, mom, Christian School music teacher, and writer who also happens to have Bipolar II. She’s exploring how mental health and faith intersect and invites you to share that journey. She loves to blog and share on social media, often at night all wrapped up in blankets. Follow along at jensnewsong.com and on Facebook and Instagram (her favourite) @jensnewsong.
P.S. Want to read more Freedom Stories? Find more stories of hope and freedom from others here. Also, special thanks to Alex Loup for the picture to accompany this post (via Unsplash; graphic created with Canva by Heather Lobe).