Mental Illness: A Personal Journey

[1] Mental illness can happen to anyone. Three years after my ordination as an ELCA pastor, I was diagnosed with an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in 1987. The OCD would manifest itself in washing my hands a lot and often checking to see if I had done everything correctly. It was controlled by medication and therapy.

[2] In August of 1991, I went off my medication when my husband and I knew I was pregnant. I wanted to do all I could for our precious baby to be healthy, even if it meant going off my medication. Under my doctors’ care, I went back on my medication at 7 months. Our precious and wonderful son was born on April 15,1992. He was healthy!

[3] In the years between 1992 and 2006, I cared for our son, served in various ministries and struggled on and off with the OCD. Then in 2006, I was diagnosed with depression. The depression involved feeling unbelievably down, anxious and angry. I also felt sad and just was not interested in life. I don’t remember many of the details of my depression.

[4] I do remember the anger. It was pain and frustration, ready to boil over. I think fear was also behind the anger, especially the fear of not doing things perfectly or right. Could I, a mild, gentle soul, get so terribly angry? Yes, I could and did. My anger came out only at home. I so badly did not want other people to see it. My reactions to various situations at home included yelling, banging my fist on the counter, slapping myself or breaking things around the house.

[5] Two of my worst times were the following. In 2007, our son was learning to drive. My husband was in the front passenger seat and I was in the back seat of our car. I had been having a hard day and I felt really bad in the car. Riding down the highway, I proceeded to first stick my head out of the window and then opened and closed the car door. This, of course, was very dangerous, but I was not thinking of that. I was just so frustrated and wanted some kind of release.

[6] On another occasion, in 2009, I was terribly upset and angry, standing in the kitchen. I took a knife out of the drawer and held it up to my wrist. Only our son and I were home and he came into the kitchen, grabbed the knife and put it away. Our son was a teenager at the time. Thanks to God, the right medication and therapy took care of this intense anger. After each of these experiences, I was admitted to the hospital.

[7] I was hospitalized four times: in 2006 at St. Lawrence Hospital in Lansing, Michigan for a few days, in 2007 at Mayo Clinic Mood Disorder Unit in Rochester, Minnesota for about a week one time and about a month another time; and in 2009 again at Mayo Clinic Mood Disorder Unit for about a week. It was very hard for me to go to these places.

[8] I went on disability in the fall of 2006. I do not remember the particulars of this time, but the loss of my career in pastoral ministry really saddened me. Although my ultimate worth is in that I am a child of God, I sometimes feel a sense of worthlessness because I don’t have a career in pastoral ministry.

[9] Because medications were not helping with the depression, from the fall of 2006 through the spring of 2009, I had 47 ECTs (electroconvulsive therapy). What the ECT involved was, when I was under anesthesia, a muscle relaxant was given to me and then a shock to my head was given, which induced a seizure. The seizure had the effect of increasing one’s mood. I believe these treatments were among the most difficult times in my healing. They did not hurt and helped to lift my depression and got me back.

[10] The ECTs really affected my long-term memory, which I lament to this day. But I would rather have some of my memory erased than live in the hell in which I lived. For example, I cannot remember vacations that my husband and I or my husband, son and I have taken. I also don’t remember many of the particulars of my depression, as I said earlier. Some of my long-term memory has come back and more hopefully will, according to my psychiatrist.

[11] A very painful part of my story concerning memory is that I cannot remember when our son was a little boy. My husband, also an ELCA pastor, tells me I was very involved with him at home, in school and in out of school activities. God blessed us with a wonderful son. I think he coped by my husband talking with him, cycling with his Dad and staying busy with academics, sports and music. In college now, our son continues to be a joy and a gift.

[12] One of my psychiatrists once said I just have “bad brain chemistry”. In May of 2009, I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. How much did I have to endure? I only had one hypomanic stage, early in 2009, and this was not horrible. I was happy, excited about life and on top of the world, but it did not last. The good that came from this mania was that I was able, thankfully, to see my Dad when he was dying and tell him I was better from the depression. I also had the privilege of preaching at his funeral. But then I crashed and the depression hit again. However, it was the diagnosis of bipolar II disorder that led to a medication change, which in turn led to the depression being controlled.

[13] Later in 2009, the OCD became hard to control. This time, I had a lot of what my psychiatrist called: pathological doubt. For example, I would have a conversation with someone and then when it was over I wondered what I said at a certain point, what he/she said, what does he/she think of me and on and on. It was very hard to focus on anything else until I had resolved these issues in my mind. There was also the checking: did I lock my car, did I blow out the candle, did I write the note correctly to talk with my therapist, etc. All of the above were anxiety producing and mentally tormenting.

[14] We then started talking with my psychiatrist about trying a different medication for the OCD. Even though it was complicated and risky, I started making a medication change in August 2011. I was scared, fearing that I might feel terrible or have to be hospitalized for monitoring the medication. What happened, thankfully, was that I had some hard times, but not terrible and I did not have to go to the hospital.

[15] In January of 2012 I felt really good. The OCD was being controlled. I did not have the intense obsessions and compulsions and was not preoccupied! This change took a long time and had its ups and downs, but I am so thankful that I, with my psychiatrist’s help of course, made the change. I still have times where I have to deal with the OCD, but it is nothing like it was.

[16] My OCD and bipolar II disorder are now controlled by medication and therapy. My medications have changed over the years, but I believe I have a good “recipe” now. I would rather not be on medication, but if that is needed, I will take it. I see my therapist every two or three weeks and my psychiatrist every six weeks.

[17] It is amazing to me how much one continues to learn throughout one’s life. Some of the things I have and am learning that helps with my illness are these: God always helps us, I can’t be perfect, I will not be right all of the time, I don’t have to do everything NOW, anything can happen to anyone and we don’t know why, exercising is important (A psychiatrist told me an hour a day is good for depression… I exercise about an hour, five days a week.), stay as busy as I am able, have personal support, have times of fun. And even if I don’t really feel like getting up in the morning, it is important to get up and get going anyway.

[18] By God’s merciful grace, I am healing. I ask myself what helped me through these 6 years. I am so grateful for the following blessings in my life. First of all, the grace of God in Jesus Christ helped and supported me unconditionally. I have passionately called out to God for help hundreds of times. Another blessing is that I have had very good psychiatrists, doctors and therapists. Effective medication and therapy are key to recovery! If one needs psychiatric medications, I would highly recommend seeing a psychiatrist, because that is his/her specialty,

[19] Other blessings throughout this whole ordeal are many. I have been blessed that even when I did not realize it, I had God’s support and healing and the support, prayers, and visits of family, friends and our congregation. I have also been blessed to have a wonderful husband and son, who have supported and sometimes simply put up with me. I have been blessed by our families, both out of state, through prayers, telephone calls and visits.

[20] I have also been blessed by the Church in supporting me in my journey with mental illness. I attended worship regularly, even thought I did not always want to be with people. The people in the congregation were very supportive of me: expressing their care to me through a hug, an encouraging comment or their tears. A couple of times, when I was not feeling well and my husband had a meeting at church, a woman from our congregation came over to be with me while he was gone. The congregation prayed for me in worship for a couple of years. This was a humbling experience, as I had always been the one doing the praying for others! Recently, I have preached a few times at our congregation and the people were so supportive and happy! Two women from out of town in other ELCA congregations told me that they prayed for me daily. Our Bishop would make regular visits to our home to see how I was doing.

[21] When I went to Mayo Clinic Mood Disorder Unit, we were blessed in that our congregation graciously gave my husband the time to take me and be with me. Another blessing is our ELCA Health care. For example, when I was hospitalized in Mayo Clinic Mood Disorder Unit for a month, our only out of pocket expense was $100 because we had reached our maximum out of pocket.

[22] In my years of really struggling with the mental illness, I did not read a lot. Books I did read were: selected chapters and verses from the Bible (Psalm 121, Joshua 1:9 and Luke 1:30 were very helpful) and “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat,” by John Ortberg. My husband found the following books helpful: “Depression Fallout: The Impact of Depression on Couples and What You Can Do to Preserve the Bond,” by Anne Sheffield, “Shock: The Healing Power of Electroconvulsive Therapy,” by Kitty Dukakis and Larry Tye and “Undercurrents: A Life Beneath the Surface,” by Martha Manning.

[23] Sometimes I ask why this happened to me… the question that many people at one time or another ask, but a question that often cannot be answered. Ultimately, I do not believe that God caused my illness or even let it happen. Life is broken and we all are broken in some way. This is not to say I did not have anger toward life and God at times. I did.

[24] To shed a tiny bit of light as to why this mental illness happened to me, like one of my psychiatrists said, I just have “bad brain chemistry.”

[25] My life as a young adult and beyond has not been easy. Even though it is much, much better, I continue to live with a sense of loss…of my long-term memory, of my career and of my self-confidence. Even now though, I do not give up hope! A little of my long-term memory has come back and I hope much more will come back. I hope to serve in part time ministry in some way and my self-confidence is coming back.

[26] My Christian faith has really grown over the years of my illness. What the illness added to my faith was a much more personal, though not private, relationship with God. Looking back, I see God’s presence and healing through the power of the Holy Spirit, through people and experiences. I know God loves me and I love God. The healing of Jesus gives me great hope. The power of the Holy Spirit empowers me. Thanks be to God!

Miriam M. K. Bunge

The Rev. Miriam M. K. Bunge is an ELCA pastor currently on disability. Her husband is also an ELCA pastor and they have one son.