Friday, April 4, 2008

Understanding my confusing past

One of the greatest advantage of my diagnosis with proneness to bipolar disorder or manic-depressive illness last March was that it helped me to understand that it is a medical condition that can be treated with medication and other helps. These have helped to relieve or shortened my suffering and enabled me to be more functional.

The other greatest advantage was it helped me to understand my confusing past.I have had some 10 or more episodes of severe depression over the last 20 years or so, prior to my diagnosis. And my life was like a big mess.

Whenever I am well, I am slightly manic and I will have more energy. I have many happy thoughts, able to accomplish many things and can be very creative. I like to make others happy by making small gifts for them like bookmarks and cross-stitch. I will also write to my friends to let them know that I am thinking of them and praying for them, especially those who are suffering in some ways. I enjoyed my family, my church, friends and work very much. I loved being with people, and I tend to be very talkative and overly friendly, even to strangers. Some friends said they find me very warm and friendly at such times. I am also a very excellent worker when I am manic and I alway take pride in whatever I do. I am some kind of a perfectionist and so I can do even a very small job very well. I do all things as unto the Lord, and will not mind even menial or boring jobs. I can be a great motivation to others who lead a mundane life by being very enthusiastic in whatever I do.

But whenever I am severely depressed, I am totally the opposite. I will be so slowed down that I can hardly wake up in the morning and I dragged myself through the day. My mind which used to be very positive and cheerful, filled with ideas and projects, suddenly seemed to have turned against me. My thoughts are all negative and self-condemning. My mind condemns me for all my past sins and failures. It kept playing back my past mistakes and weaknesses. It mocked at me for all my enthusiams and foolish plans. It no longer found anything interesting or enjoyable or worthwhile. I can't concentrate in anything I do or read. My thoughts turned time and again to the question, "What is the meaning of my life?". I can't enjoy prayer, reading the Bible or church. I can't enjoy my family, friends, work, hobbies or anything in general. And I simply can't find anything meaningful to do or worthy to live for. I often wished that the Lord will take me home quickly as every day is a living hell for me. As my depression usually lasted at least 3 to 6 months, or sometimes longer, you can imagine how challenging it will be for me to face that annoying question "What is the meaning of my life?" or "What is the point of living?" daily. It drained me.

Actually, in some sense of the word, Rob is right when he pointed out in my last post, that people only have the luxury to think about the meaning and purpose of life when they have no other more urgent problems. During depression, I don't have the energy or desire to do anything. So I did have plenty of time on hand and the luxury to ruminate over the meaning of my life. The only problem is because I was severely depressed, all my thoughts were negative and self-condemning. So I naturally can't find any meaning in my life during such time.

By the mercies of God, in January 2007, through the help of a Christian lady counsellor, Sarah and her team, at Counselling and Care Centre in Singapore, I have embarked on a new journey of self-discovery, of knowing God, myself and others better. Sarah counselled me for 9 sessions between end January 2007 to April 2007. These were life-changing sessions for me. Sarah uses a method of counselling or psychotherapy that is called "Cognitive Behavioural Therapy" (CBT).

CBT is a form counselling with a focus on understanding how our thoughts affect our behaviours. Bipolar alternates between 2 extreme mood swings ie. mania and depression, and our thoughts and behaviours are shaped by these mania and depression episodes which can at times be very confusing. CBT helps to make sense some of these confusions, and help to pick up skills to manage these mood swings so that one can be more functional. Through CBT I discovered some faulty or unhelpful thinking patterns I have been having which either can trigger off an episode of depression or can make it worse. These are still great challenges to me now.

CBT helps to make sense of my confusing past. In my first 2 sessions with my counsellor, Sarah, I recounted to her my past relapses of severe clinical depression in the last 20 years. Sarah noted at the end of my second session with her that there is a phrase I keep repeating and that is during every depressive episodes I will wonder "What is the meaning of my life?". Sarah felt that there is a necessity for me to explore this question and to see how I can get a more realistic and biblical view on this question as that will have an impact in my recovery.

Through my counselling sessions with Sarah, I realized that the question "What is the meaning of my life?" recurs only when I was depressed. It is part of the symptoms of depression as well as the effect of depression. Whenever I am well or manic, I do not have problem with this. I always find life meaningful as I live for the Lord and serve Him. I love life because God has given it to me, to know Him, love Him and serve Him.

Maybe not everyone who experience depression or prolonged severe depression, struggle with this question on the meaning or purpose of their life. Sarah suggested that one possible reason why I contantly struggle with it whenever I fall into depression, could be because I am a very purposeful person. I do things with purpose in my mind. I thought through why I choose a certain path or why I do a certain thing. I do no just go through the motion or follow the crowd and do things because everyone is doing it. I think she has got a point. I am not someone who likes to join the rat race in the working world. I do not work just to earn money but I want to enjoy what I am doing and to make significant contribution to my work. When I make friends, I don't just make and keep them for my own enjoyment or benefit. I seek to find ways to help and encourage my friends and be a blessing to them.

Sarah helped me to understand that the meaning in my life is found not just in having something meaningful to do although that is important and gives meaning to my life. But the meaning in my life is also found in having a meaningful relationship with God and with others in my life. I found that life is only meaningful to me when I have a right relationship with God. I cannot imagine my life now without God. Life is definitely meaningless to me if I do not have God in my life. The ability to pray, to read the Bible and to go to church is very important to me. I will be very saddened and discouraged whenever I am prevented from enjoying these when going through severe depression. This is one of the greatest reason why I will conclude life is meaningless whenever I am depressed.

I found that life is meaningful to me not just in having a meaningful relationship with God. Even if I enjoy God on my own and have all the knowledge of the Bible and doctrines, something is still missing in my life if I keep these to myself. I found meaning in my life when I am able to share my life with others. I love to care for people. I have been a care giver of my parents for the last 15 years until my father passed away in 2001. I am still the main care giver of my aged mother who battles many illness. I have a wonderful relationship with my siblings and nieces and nephew. I am my nieces and nephew's favourite aunty. Sometimes when we go out, people thought that my nieces and nephew are my children because they will cling on to me :-)

I have may wonderful friendships in my life among my church friends and other friends. I value friendships a lot as I am someone who feels very deeply. Friendships make my life very meaningful. I can give up many things for my friends. Many times I will not buy many things for myself but I readily buy those things for my friends. I like to make people happy by giving them gifts and cheering them up. I like to spend time with people who are lonely and needy. I enjoyed serving in the elderly ministry in my church together with my church friends in which we reach out to a group of poor and elderly people in my church neighbourhood. I enjoyed the friendships with these elderly when many people do not enjoy it. They too seemed to enjoy my friendships and they remembered me though I have not been able to be actively serving in this ministry since my relapse of severe depression in December 2006. I missed them every now and then and it is still a joy for me whenever I get to see them.

I am finding meaning in my relationship with God and all these other relationships in my life, and in my service in the church and my work. These all make my life worth living. My life is no longer a big mess or a confusing one. It is fill with meaning and purposes, and I look forward to each day the Lord has given me so that I may spend it for Him and others. I look forward too to the day when my tasks here are completed, and I can enter into my eternal rest and enjoy God in worship and fellowship forever more, never to be hindered by sins or sicknesses anymore. Until then, I continue to run the race that is set before me, looking unto Jesus the Author and Finisher of my faith. Praise God.

What about you? Do you also struggle with a confusing life due to bipolar or depression? Have you found something helpful to cope?

"Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." James 4:14

"....I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." John 10:10

"Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?" John 11:25-26

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