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Recovering & Rebuilding From My Mental Illness by Rev. Dr. James T. Stout

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Despair had set in; suicide neared.

Next to me on my motel bed I laid lethal dosages of two medications and a fifth of rum.  It would be painless.  Beside the pills lay a .357 magnum pistol.  My death of choice was, first, overdosing on drugs, and second, a pistol to my head.  I debated which to use.

Either way, my unbearable torture soon would be over!

I was a successful pastor, yet in the fall of 1988 I'd lost my desire to live.  I was exhausted from non-stop organizing, counseling and meetings.  I had been ravaged by a few dozen people from three of the five churches I'd served.  They'd broken financial promises, stung me with ruthless, unwarranted criticisms, and in one church I'd even received death threats on me, my wife and our two young sons because I was not a "loyal Presbyterian!"  But it's difficult for a pastor to defend himself.  He can't strike out at his critics or sue his church.

In 1986, I'd accepted a call to a large church in California.  Every program I started was appreciated.  I tingled with excitement!  But intermingled with my joy were severe depressions.  Days at a time I was immobilized.  Yet no one ever noticed the inner desperation behind my outward accomplishments.  I ached with Jeremiah the prophet who cried to God: "Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable?   Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails?"

Thoughts of ending my life blackened my mind.  I couldn't shake them off.  I just didn't care anymore . . . about anything or anyone.  My wife and two sons were precious to me.  My work was successful; I had everything to live for.  But I was miserable.

When I considered the effects my "exit" would have on my family and others, I could focus only on frightening, inexpressibly lonely thoughts.  I had to escape the pain of this all-engulfing depression!

Why would a dedicated pastor, happy husband and father, athlete, scholar, senior pastor of three large churches, currently serving on the staff of a renown 4,500-member church, want to commit suicide?

In college, I'd played on varsity football and wrestling teams, and boxed (winning Golden Gloves heavy-weight championships in Pennsylvania and Ohio).  For two college summers I'd done social work and coached football with teenage gangs in New York City.

While in seminary, I'd worked with Harvard, MIT and Boston University students, and had counseled with mental patients in the men's violent ward at Danver's State Mental Hospital.

During my 20-year ministry, I'd monthly counseled four to six men who were suicidal over their jobs and other crises.  I'd spoken at chapels for professional football and baseball teams.  I was listed in two Who's Who books and had earned both a Master's degree and Doctor of Ministry degree.

Intellectually I was knowledgeable about stress, burn-out and depression, I'd taught numerous Bible studies on these topics.  I was an expert!  I share these things about my background to show that anyone, at anytime no matter what his or her intelligence, ability or accomplishments, can get a mental illness like clinical depression, manic depression (bipolar disorder) or schizophrenia!

Yet in spite of all that I had going for me, I couldn't pull out of my emotional nosedive!  Starting in 1984 I knew I had been injured emotionally and was badly depressed, but I kept believing I could handle my depressions and anger outbursts.

Then, suddenly in November 1988, in the midst of a terrific ministry, my life fell apart!  My frequent despair and suicidal thoughts finally hospitalized me.

Some of the triggers of my mental illness have been: a chemical imbalance in my brain; emotional abuse by my mother, father, grandmother and uncle; severe sexual abuse by my mother and grandmother; vicious treatment by three churches I'd served as senior pastor; and the foolish, macho belief that I could solve my own problems.

What's happened since 1988?  In 1988-90, I spent six hellish months in two mental hospitals.  Diagnosis?  "bipolar disorder" ("manic-depression, rapid cycler").  Since then, I've lead a roller coaster existence with extreme, often dangerous, mood swings.  At times, I've been paralyzed with oppressive bouts of suicidal depression, enduring painful hopelessness for days, and as long as six months at a time.  At other periods, I've suffered manic episodes lasting as long as three months, with weeks of only two or three hours of sleep, and other weeks with totally sleepless nights or only a few hours of rest.  During those times, I vibrated with energy, optimism, extensive plan making, and, most often, extreme irritability.  That I'm alive today and functioning well with only occasional relapses is truly a miracle of God!

The agony of clinical depressions, and the torment of mania's cruel agitations and sleep deprivations have been almost too hard to bear at times.  My unpredictable mood shifts have forced me and my family to live continually off-balance much of the time.

Often I had to cancel half my appointments due to depressive isolations, manic over-scheduling, or exhaustion.  Because of my illness I've been able to work only part-time.  On top of this, I've had serious, ongoing conflicts with my denomination's insurance company!  Monthly I've seen my psychiatrists, and weekly met with my psychologist.  I've tried 38 medications.  Most causing intolerable side effects; a few with just temporary successes.  Finally, in 1997 my psychiatrist found a medication that stabilized me with very minimal side effects.

What have I lost due to my mental illness?   Some costly things: (1) My career as a full time pastor. (2) Many friends and colleagues who completely avoided me.  (Some condemned me of demon-possession, willful sin and lack of faith.

Some scolded me for being unspiritual in taking medications, seeing therapists, and because I battled bouts of depression or mania!)  (3) My wife and sons have at times withdrawn from me, afraid they'd trigger my anger, depression, or mania.  They've had to deal with the aggravations of my memory lapses, silent isolations, not doing my "fair share" of chores, sleeping all day or staying up all night, frequent refusals to answer the phone, periodic temper flashes, and countless other irritations.  (4) Family, relatives and many friends have often evaded discussing or reading about my mind illness.  Ed Cooper, in his book, When Even the Devil Deserts You, describes how he feels about the pain of being distanced from his loved ones:

"Do you know the hurt I feel when I look into my family's faces and see their fear?  Fear of me and what I have become.  I try to tell them I will not hurt them and to explain it is not their fault.  I try to reach out to them to ease their sorrow, but I fail to be a comfort because I cannot hide the agony of my soul."

Oh, how I agree!  (5) I've become far more sensitive to superficial or just plain phony "love."  (6) For nearly a decade God's comforting presence seemed totally absent.  (7) For years I attended few worship services, church events, and especially clergy meetings.  I avoided them because interacting with "church people" and many pastors was an emotional drain...and inevitably, church-related activities involved some stinging "judgements."  (8) I've been hurt or turned off by unbiblical theology about mental illness, suffering, and healing, coming from clergy, laypersons, worship services and denominational meetings.  (9) I've often raged at God and life for my losses, then felt guilty for my lack of faith.  (However, I've "processed" most of these wounds and am actively worshiping in a local church. My relationship with God has never been better!)

How have I coped with my mind disorder?  (1) I've got an awesome wife!  Time and again she's risen above her personal wounds to comfort and pray for me.  (2) One-on-one conversations with my wife and sons who've had to process the changes in the husband/father whom they once knew.  (3) Regular meetings with positive, encouraging friends.  (4) Having my wife, sons, close friends, and therapists who, while knowing of my on-going struggles, continued to believe in me... and have never given up on me!  (5) Joining a "Ladies Only" YMCA water aerobics class for eight years (with me as their "token male").  They warmly welcomed me, laughed at my awful jokes, listened to my manic chatter, and didn't judge my illness-caused absences.  (6) Practical tricks and never-ending jokes have provided outrageous fun.  (7) Several productive ministries I've undertaken during my recuperation.  (8) Speaking to church groups, psychiatric hospital patients and staffs, mental illness conferences/seminars, and various men's and women's groups.  (9) Counseling men, women, and students.  (10) Reading the Bible and recovery literature.  (11) Prayer.  (12) Co-leading "Comfort Zone," ... a support group for mentally-injured persons.  (13) Attending seminars and lectures on mental disorders.  (14) Devouring over 350 books and articles on mind pathology.  (15) Writing self-help articles for brain/emotion-damaged persons, their families and friends, and an autobiographical/self-help book titled Bipolar Disorder: Rebuilding Your Life.

Let's face it-if you've got mental problems, at times, you may suffer relapses, your doctors will fail you, your medications won't work, and people will let you down. But disappointments need not be defeats!

Successful recovery and rebuilding mean getting up again and again, giving your best shots, changing your perspectives, and using various recovery tools to fight your disease.

Here are some workable suggestions for managing your ups and downs (from a recovering fellow-struggler who's rebuilt a happy, productive life):  (1) Work with your doctor to find the best medication for you;  (2) recruit and meet regularly with affirming, helpful people (individually and in support groups);  (3) get talk therapy with a therapist and good-listening, hope-building friends;  (4) use your skills and experiences to help others;  (5) develop hobbies;  (6) exercise regularly;  (7) have a balanced diet;  (8) read the Bible;  (9) pray;  (10) laugh a lot;  (11) read twelve step/recovery materials and psychology books/articles;  (12) attend mental illness seminars/conferences to educate yourself, your family, and friends about your illness; and  (13) set goals.

Remember, it's your job to seek out and use these "helps."  It's your efforts that can help you live happily, positively, in spite of your mental illness.  You can make your life count in helping others!

Winston Churchill once said, "Never give up. Never give up. Never give up!"

So ... go for it!


Appendix 1 : Suggested Resources
Appendix 2 : Update

Rev. Dr. James T. Stout's web site : www.rebuildingyourlife.com

Story reprinted by HopeToHealing.com with permission of Rev. Dr. James T. Stout.  ŠJune, 2002 Rev. Dr. James T. Stout