The Advantage of Suffering – Part 1: Offering it Up

“Brothers and sisters, I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” ~ Colossians 1:24

Suffering is an unfortunate fact of life, and people with mental illnesses experience their fair share of it. The suffering is compounded for those with comorbidity (when a person has two or more illnesses occurring at the same time. e.g. Fibromyalgia often occurs in patients with mood disorders) or when personal tragedy strikes. There are no easy answers to the problem of suffering, although a number of excellent books have been written on the subject (Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft and The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis are two examples). There’s nothing I can tell you that hasn’t been said more eloquently and with better insight by someone else, but I’m hoping to offer you a way of looking at your suffering that allows you to make use of it to achieve something positive.

pexels-photo-326559First off, allow me to chuck a few assumptions out the window. I’m not going to elaborate on the idea that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” My friend and I have a joke that according to that rule we should both be able to bench-press semitrailers by now. It has some credence. Pain changes you, often for the better. But not always. Then there’s the saying that “pain is just weakness leaving the body.” To be blunt, I think that’s one of the stupidest sayings in existence and anyone who tosses it at me receives a withering glare. Pain creates weakness, not the other way around. I’m not talking about athletes and soldiers who have to physically push themselves to the breaking point to achieve a goal. That kind of pain does make you stronger, in a very literal sense. You become physically tougher, with better endurance and better abilities.

Mental illness doesn’t do that.

Depression leaves you curled in a ball of self-loathing pain on the floor, unable to even decide which clothes to wear and lacking the energy to put them on anyway. Hypomania takes your thoughts, shakes them up like a bottle of pop and makes it impossible to remain seated long enough to read one page of a textbook (which wouldn’t have worked anyway thanks to your racing thoughts), and if it progresses to full-blown mania you might get to spend some time in a psych ward. Anxiety gives you panic attacks that leave you paralyzed, unable to breathe, unable to act, so terrified and miserable that you’re afraid you’re dying. ADHD does the same thing to your thoughts as hypomania, except it’s 24/7, 365 days a year, and people blame you and make fun of you for struggling with a disorder that lots of them don’t even think is real. People with schizophrenipexels-photo-551588a suffer through hallucinations and delusions that very few people can even begin to comprehend. People with borderline personality disorder struggle with the lonely misery of alienating the people they love because of their behavior, which the disorder makes very difficult to control.

The list goes on and on, and outside of a Christian context, it can be difficult to find positive things within that mire of unpleasantness. There are some: You might develop coping mechanisms that give you strength. You might get used to your disorder and become more resilient to its effects. You might become more compassionate towards the suffering of others. Or not. Ultimately, mental illness makes life a lot harder than it would be otherwise, and to what purpose? How can there be an advantage to suffering? How can you possibly turn abject misery into something good? Unless you’re coming at it from a Christian perspective, I don’t think you can.

Now, when it comes to Christianity and suffering, one of the first objections to God that atheists and agnostics toss out is that very thing: why would an all-powerful, all-good and loving God allow suffering in the first place? I don’t claim to have the answer to that, but this post  by Tianna Williams does a lovely job of tackling the subject. For now, I want to offer some concrete suggestions to believers about how suffering can be put to good use. These will not take away your suffering. They will simply give it a purpose, and that can make it easier to bear.

There are two concepts in particular I want to discuss. One of them is Purgatory, and I’ll be attempting to tackle that in Part 2 of this post. As far as I know, Protestants don’t believe in it, so if you’re Protestant then that might not be of much use to you. But there’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding revolving around the concept of Purgatory and I might be able to clear some of that up for you, so I encourage you to check it out anyway. The other concept can apply to Christians of any denomination, without question, although I’m not sure if it’s something that is discussed much outside of the Catholic church. I’ll tackle that concept first.

keep-calm-and-offer-it-up-7If you’re Catholic, you’ve probably heard of the idea of “offering up” your suffering to God for a purpose. Or you might not have. A few years ago, I had heard about it, but for a long time I had no understanding of its value. I wasn’t close enough to God to feel inclined to try it, especially when I was in the midst of intense suffering. It was an airy-fairy sort of subject that sounded to me like a half-hearted consolation prize handed out by people who didn’t know what else to say to someone in pain. I’ve since revised that opinion. Part of my confusion came from not knowing how to offer my suffering up. It wasn’t as if I could grab it off a shelf and give it to God. I also couldn’t understand how offering God my suffering could have any value. Suffering was forced on me against my will. It wasn’t as if I was making any special effort to do something for God by experiencing it. And then there was the question “if I offer my suffering up, does that mean I can’t ask God to take it away?”

All of this conspired to keep me from exploring the subject. I also, deep down, still resented God a little for having to deal with the suffering in the first place. If you resent God for your suffering then it’s pretty hard to make any use of it at all. It took me a long time to accept the grace that allowed me to pull that deeply rooted weed out of my heart. But once it was gone, I received a whole new dimension to my world-view. Christ’s suffering and death redeemed the entire world. He died once, for all. But that doesn’t make all of the suffering in the world that’s come since his death obsolete and useless. Suffering has merit.

“Dear in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his devoted” ~Psalm 116:15

Other versions of the bible read: “Precious in the eyes of God is the death of his saints.” It means the same thing. God values our suffering. He understands deeply just how much we hurt. It moved him to send his only begotten Son to earth to die for us on the cross. It gave our suffering a purpose. Because Jesus opened up the gates of heaven for us, we can join our suffering to his on the cross and do something with it. I didn’t understand this idea at first. How can I join my suffering to Christ on the cross? For some reason the idea didn’t ‘click’ with me. Then I was given another way of looking at it: because Christ used his suffering and death to pay the price for our sins, we can now go to God with our suffering and say “you used your Son’s suffering to redeem me and the world. Please use my suffering too.”

God can make use of suffering. Don’t ask me how. I don’t know. But he does. When you’re praying for something, maybe for a loved one, or for the resolution of a problem of some sort, you can take whatever suffering comes your way and embrace it for the sake of that intention. You essentially put your money where your mouth is: “God, instead of resenting this bout of depression, I accept it willingly for the sake of my loved one who has turned away from you. Please make use of it to guide her home.” Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t pray for God to take the suffering away. You can. But by accepting it with patience for as long as you’re forced to endure it (or at least making an effort to do so; it isn’t easy) you gain great merit for yourself and for the intention you’re offering it up for. (You can also offer it up as a penance or mortification, but I’ll discuss that in a later post.)

This is one of those things that’s easier said then done. In theory, it’s an exciting possibility. God used his Son’s suffering to redeem me, so he must be able to use my suffering to accomplish something too! In the same breath, we have to keep in mind that we aren’t Jesus. He was a perfect, innocent human being without blemish (not to mention, he was also God). He didn’t deserve any of the suffering he endured on this earth, but he embraced it anyway for our sake. No amount of suffering on our part will ever come close to being worth that kind of merit. Despite being redeemed by his death, we are still sinful creatures. But our suffering can still have great worth when we attempt to imitate Christ by picking up our cross and following him.

This idea also plays into my discussion of Purgatory in Part 2 of this post.

Until then, take care and God bless!

Kasani

 

 

 

My Story – Part 2: The Aftermath

After the ship of my old life had been shattered on the rocks of hospitalization, I was dragged aboard a new, unfamiliar vessel, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. Fully coming to terms with my diagnosis would end up taking several years.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

While still in the hospital, after medications had grounded me once more in reality, my doctor tried to explain to me that in bipolar disorder, what goes up must come down. A depressive episode almost always follows on the heels of a manic one. But I was still hypomanic (the term for mild mania), and thus cheerful and optimistic and feeling great. I assured him that I was overall a very happy person and I was sure I’d be fine. And I wasn’t deluded in thinking this. I was going on experience. For most of my life I’d been a happy, well-adjusted person. Happy was my norm. I had no way of knowing just how radically that would change.

Not surprisingly, I did experience a depressive episode a couple weeks later. At the time, I thought it was the worst experience of my life, mainly because it contrasted so drastically with the euphoria of the preceding manic episode. But looking back, I can see it was pretty mild. It only lasted a little under two weeks, and I didn’t end up needing antidepressants. After that episode, God granted me 7 months of almost total stability. This allowed me to get back on my feet and start trying to live my old life again, but it did nothing to prepare me for the reality of my disorder.

d6uhuht-d7e8ebca-0a65-4cc5-9640-179e1bc594b1By the time August rolled around, I was completely adjusted to my disorder (so I thought) and not the least bit embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about it. It was a bit like a cool new label that put me in a separate category from most people– like a weird sort of bragging right (boy, did that ever change over the next several months…). My best friend, who had been diagnosed with ADHD within the same month that I was diagnosed with Bipolar (funny how these things work out), was amazed by my nonchalant attitude towards my disorder. She had been having a difficult time coming to grips with her own diagnosis without it completely destroying her self-esteem.

The difference between her and me was that she had been struggling with the effects of her illness every day of her life without fully understanding it, and now she was still having to deal with it every day but with the added bonus of having a label slapped onto her that essentially declared her “defective” because of it. There was no way to deny the reality of it. It was part of her life 24/7. The fact that she was a straight-A student, whom her friend’s thought the world of, did nothing to ease the initial sting of the diagnosis. She did eventually come to grips with it, and even met and befriended some fellow sufferers of the disorder, but adjusting to the diagnosis of a mental illness takes time.

For me, the fact that I had a mental illness hadn’t yet sunk in. While the events surrounding my hospitalization had been very dramatic, the disorder seemed to have vanished into thin air after a month had gone by. Once I stabilized, it was as if it had never happened. The only changes in my life were that I was now on medication and I had to monitor my sleep and stress levels to avoid triggering another episode. Other than that I felt normal. It wasn’t compromising my ability to function like a normal person. I didn’t feel the least bit embarrassed about it.

In the fall, that changed.

Part-way through September, 2012, I crashed into a depressive episode. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the start of what would turn into nearly two years of rapid-cycling. After September, I went on to have 12 more episodes over the course of the next year, and 6 the year after that. The first year of that very nearly killed me. From December 2012 to May 2013, I went straight from depressive episode, to hypomanic episode, to depressive episode, to hypomanic episode, with only a day or two of stability here and there. The depressive episodes typically dragged on for close to a month, while the hypomanic episodes usually lasted a couple weeks. If I hadn’t had an antipsychotic medication (Zyprexa) on hand as a PRN, the hypomanic episodes would almost certainly have progressed into full-blown manic ones, and I likely would have had to be hospitalized again. Thankfully that didn’t happen. But most of the hypomanic episodes were dysphoric. In other words, they were mixed episodes. So to say that they didn’t lead to euphoric happiness would be a very impressive understatement. I was miserable.

It was around this time that I began to feel very insecure about my disorder. When I was Disabledstable,  I had successfully taken several university correspondence courses and passed with flying colors. In 2013, I failed a university course because I was hypomanic for my midterm and depressed for my final. I began to think I would never be able to attend an actual university. If I couldn’t handle just one correspondence course, how could I possibly handle a full-time course-load on a real campus?

I withdrew from all my friends except my previously mentioned best friend (most of my friends at that time were not a very positive influence anyway). I muddled along putting one foot in front of the other, and stumbling into a number of pitfalls along the way. I came to have a very intimate understanding of why people self-harm, and thoughts of suicide were rarely far from my mind. As far as I can remember, my faith life did not deteriorate, but it certainly didn’t improve either. To be honest, I’ve forgotten large chunks of that period, especially some of the depressive episodes, and what I do remember is foggy at best. The only reason I know most of what took place in my head in the years of 2012 and 2013 is that I kept a journal. It was one of the coping mechanisms I latched on to.

The year 2014 marked the beginning of my recovery. It was a much stabler year, thanks to changes in my medication. The first mood stabilizer I was put on when I was diagnosed was Lithium. It didn’t work, and over time it began to give me alarming muscle weakness as a side-effect. Any muscle strain at all caused me to shake like a leaf. I looked like a caffeine addict whenever I so much as raised a tall glass of water to my lips, and walking up a single flight of steps left me gasping for air and utterly exhausted.

Thankfully those symptoms went away when I was taken off the drug. The next mood pills  picstabilizer I was put on was Lamictal. My doctor slowly increased the dose until I stopped popping regularly into hypomania, the process of which involved some strange side-effects until I adjusted to it (disorientation, lightheadedness, panic attacks). I also wound up on a constant dose of Wellbutrin (an antidepressant), which my doctor would increase whenever I got depressed, and would decrease again as soon as the increase popped me up into hypomania (which it always did). I also kept the previously mentioned antipsychotic Zyprexa on hand to take whenever hypomanic symptoms appeared. This combination seemed to work, and I was much more stable over the course of 2014 and 2015. However, at the end of 2015, my mother found out some very disturbing things about the medications I was on and after much research and debate, I decided to start weening off all my medications in 2016. You can read about that story here. (As that series details, I am now living completely med-free with the help of some wonderful supplements, and doing far better than when I was on psychiatric medications.)

December 23rd, 2015 marked the end of the fourth year since my diagnosis. A lot happened in those 4 years that I’m not going to try and summarize here. Some of it appears my other posts if it’s relevant to the issue I’m discussing. To wrap up, I am finally adjusted to my disorder. I’m back to living a relatively normal life. I’m happy again. Whether that will last or not is in God’s hands, and I’m content to leave it there.

One of the most important lessons my disorder has taught me is that we have to live in the now. The future is impossible to predict. Life is much less stressful when we let go of the illusion that we’re in control and instead trust God to take over the navigation of our vessel. He knows where we’re supposed to be heading, and he will give us all the grace and support we need in order to get there. We just have to be willing to accept it.

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Take care, and God bless.

Kasani