Healing from a breakup and breakdown … and hope in the highs and lows of bipolar disorder
On World Mental Health Day (October 10), Salt&Light recognises all those struggling with mental health.
by Christine Leow // October 8, 2021, 8:41 am
The shame of being a Christian struggling with her mental health and the guilt of not being happier even though she had God made Claire* unable to talk about her suffering. Until she had a meltdown and sought help. Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels.
Trigger warning: This story contains material about suicide ideation that some may find distressing.
At her lowest, Claire*, then 22, locked herself in a room and refused to emerge for two weeks. She did not eat, hardly drank and refused to shower.
“It felt like my whole body had shut down. I was just being alive and breathing,” Claire, an early childhood educator, now 26, told Salt&Light.
She was then living with an old friend from school because she did not want her family to see her downward spiral.
The episode had come after a particularly trying season. Claire had just broken up with her boyfriend. They had been dating since she was 16.
She was shattered when she found out he had been seeing someone else for a year.
“It felt like my whole body had shut down.”
It affected her whole self-worth.
“Why was this somebody better than me?” wondered Claire.
Around that time, her maternal grandmother passed away after a period of illness.
Claire had been very close to her. In her primary school years, she would go to her grandparents’ every Friday after school and would stay with them till Sunday evening.
When her grandmother was hospitalised, Claire would visit regularly and act as the go-between for her family (who did not speak much English) and the medical staff. She was kept so busy that after her grandmother’s death, she felt empty.
The image of her grandmother breathing her last also haunted her. “I couldn’t let it go.”
Everything culminated in the meltdown.
Her friend eventually brought her to the hospital when she realised “something was not right”.
Feeling down was something familiar to Claire as she was growing up.
“I always felt like I was not enough and it led to feelings of low self-esteem,” she said.
She had high expectations of herself and when she failed to meet them, she would descend into self-doubt.
She also often felt like she trailed behind her sister who was two years older.
“I was secretly dying inside day by day, wishing I was never born.”
“My sister was always doing very well in school. She didn’t have to study very hard but she always got better results. Relatives always compared us.
“She went to a better school. She was better liked by friends. She always moved around in large groups while I moved around in small groups.”
By the time she reached secondary school, the socially awkward Claire “wasn’t a happy child”.
“I had a hard time connecting with people my age. Those I could click with were older. Maybe because I was used to hanging around my cousins who were all older.
“Even in church, I had only one friend my age.”
Secondary 4 was her toughest year because the older friends she had grown close to through Co-curricular Activities (CCA) had graduated.
“I felt lonely but I never told anyone. I was secretly dying inside day by day, wishing I was never born,” she said.
From inexplicably heavy to invincible
By the time she was in her early 20s, Claire would suffer bouts of “inexplicable heaviness” every six months or so that would last a month or two.
“There would be some periods where it was hard to go to work or to go out and meet people. I felt like running away from everything. I just wanted to sleep. Even small things would get me down,” she said.
“I didn’t like the highs because it just meant that the lows would come.”
To counter her low moods, the early childhood educator who has always loved working with children would load herself with work.
“Working with children did help because they are quite sweet.”
Still, there were instances at work when she had to hide in the toilet to cry before she could carry on.
Even when things seemed to be working, like when she got promoted, she would still feel an emptiness within.
“I would ask myself, ‘Now that I have reached this goal, what next?’”
During the highs, which never lasted as long as the depressive moods, Claire would be energetic and feel invincible.
“I could complete more work over the same period of time. I got motivated,” she said.
“On a high, I would work 24/7 without rest and only sleep on alternate nights.”
“No matter what happened, even if I faced a challenge, I would feel I could overcome them easily. I was less affected by things.
“I also found myself easily amused and would always laugh at even simple things.”
Not a risk-taker by nature, Claire “never did anything rash”. Still, her highs could be personally destructive.
“I would work 24/7 without rest and only sleep on alternate nights. I didn’t like the highs because it just meant that the lows would come and it always caught me off guard.”
When Claire landed in hospital after the meltdown, she was initially diagnosed with depression. “The psychiatrist I saw said I had too many obsessive thoughts and worries.”
But as their sessions continued, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The mental health condition is characterised by extreme mood swings of emotional highs where a person experiences euphoria as well as depression marked by a sense of hopelessness and a disinterest in life.
She never thought it would be something that would happen to her.
“It felt like it was a taboo topic no one wants to address. If you get it, you get labelled,” she said.
Raised in a Christian family and a regular at church, Claire found it particularly difficult to reconcile the diagnosis with what she felt Christians should be like.
It did not help that some people asked: “You have God. Why don’t you have joy and peace?”
“I questioned if I was a good testimony. Christians would think, ‘You should be joyful. You have Christ.’
“I felt so undeserving of God because He is such a perfect being. So, there was a lot of escaping where I didn’t want to pray or face God,” she said.
“I was so ashamed I couldn’t face God.”
It did not help that some people around her asked: “You’re a Christian. You have God. Why don’t you have joy and peace?”
Claire said: “I was told many times that I have depression because I didn’t pray enough and I didn’t trust God enough. They didn’t understand that I didn’t choose depression,” she said.
In the end, she left the church.
During that period, thoughts of suicide assailed Claire.
“Sometimes, when I felt down, I would ask why God was not taking me away yet. Why was it not time for me to be with Him yet?”
The guilt and shame also prevented her from telling her parents about her breakdown until three years had passed.
It was not that they did not have a good relationship. It was precisely because she knew how protective they were that she wanted to spare them the pain.
When Claire eventually told her parents three years later, their response surprised her.
She said: “My dad is quite old-school. When things happen, his response would be, ‘You didn’t pray hard enough. If you have God and God is so great and you really believe in Him, you shouldn’t worry, you shouldn’t be feeling down because God is good.’”
She felt that she would not be able to cope with what she perceived would be their response. “If I told them, I would have to deal with their emotions, too. It would be having one more stressful thing to deal with.”
When Claire eventually told her parents, their response surprised her. They were shocked but did not say much.
“They responded in quite a calm way. My mum would send Bible verses that cheered me up a little.”
Coffee and prayers
It took several weekly counselling sessions with her psychiatrist and medication for Claire to learn to manage the mood swings that came with the bipolar disorder.
“I still have my ups and downs,” she said. “We are aiming to meet the optimal where even with down periods, I wouldn’t hit such a low.”
Claire also read up about her condition and realised that she is not alone in her struggles. She returned to her church and, this time, found the faith community rallying around her.
In time, assured that there was no judgement from her church community, Claire confided in them.
“I never really told them about my condition but they observed that something was not right. They made the effort to take care of me.
“They would come to my door and drag me out for coffee. They just wanted to be there for me. They didn’t pressure me to talk. They just let me sit there quietly.”
In time, assured that there was no judgement, Claire confided in them. “They didn’t react. They just said, ‘Thank you for sharing.’
“They know I don’t like the attention. They just said that if I wanted to share more, I could. I found that very helpful.”
They would pray regularly for Claire as well.
“They didn’t just say they would pray. They asked me how they could pray for me. That, to me, was very powerful.”
As Claire returned to the church and to God’s Word, the bitterness she felt towards God abated.
“They asked me how they could pray for me. That, to me, was very powerful.”
“I used to think: If this is a life God has given me, why is it so full of suffering? If I have to go through this, then take me away.
“I was angry because God didn’t ask me for my permission for me to be born. I questioned God a lot.
“Now, I know that no matter who I am or what I am, I am still a child of God and that He still loves me. The more I read His word, the more I serve, the more I love Him.”
Claire is quick to add that she has not come out of the other side of the tunnel yet. But she has overcome enough to see “His beauty in it”.
She has seen that, when put through trials that she could not go through on her own, God had always been there for her.
“I learnt to trust in His timing,” she said.
Breaking the breakdown
God’s timing revealed itself in other ways.
When Claire had the breakdown, she had been on track to further her studies in early childhood education.
But she had to give up the opportunity.
“I was very sad. I questioned why I couldn’t embark on my studies, why it had to happen to me.
“It was a difficult opportunity to come by. I had to be nominated by my supervisor. It was not something just anyone could sign up for. And every year, there are limited vacancies.”
She feels “more at peace” furthering her studies now, even if it has meant waiting.
As she railed against God, she sensed Him telling her to “take a break”.
“In general, I love to rush things. I always have plans of when to finish my diploma, my degree. But my body could not take it at that time. I was breaking down.”
This October, after a five-year delay, Claire will resume her studies.
She feels “more at peace” furthering her studies now, even if it has meant waiting. It was not something she felt five years ago.
“If I had done it then, I wouldn’t have been able to cope.”
The delay also gave her time to serve as a cell group leader.
“I see God’s timing. It is better than what I have in mind. I am learning about obedience and trusting in God.”
God matched two lefties
During the break from her studies, Claire also saw God’s plan unfold in another way. She met the man she would marry.
“After the breakup, I was thinking, I don’t want to be married. But every time my plans get stopped, God has a better plan for me.”
A year after her breakdown, Claire signed on to a dating app. On her profile, she made clear that she was suffering from bipolar disorder because she did not want “people who would judge me or not accept me for that”. Living with someone with bipolar disorder is also “harder”.
“Instead of being reactive and unreasonable when something happens, I find out why it affects me and what it means.”
“I had been praying for God to give me someone,” she said.
She and her future husband bonded over being left-handed. On their first date, he took her to his church. They tied the knot three years later.
Their weekends are often spent at the hospital where she goes regularly for counselling. Her husband arranges his schedule so that he can be with her at every appointment.
“He has been very supportive of me.
“When I am down, he lets me cry it all out. He just stays by my side. He tells me he doesn’t really know what to do.
“When he feels helpless, he prays for God to take control and give him wisdom to know how to help me.”
During her highs, he is there to remind Claire to rest. When she is plagued by insomnia, he stays up with her so she “doesn’t feel so lonely and frustrated”.
“His being there matters.”
Present for each child
Living with bipolar disorder has helped Claire become “a better listener” and be present for people around her who may be suffering.
Her own childhood experience has made her more sensitive to the children in her charge as well.
“When parents ask me how their child is doing compared to the others in the class, I tell them that every child is unique and that every child develops at his own pace. They all have their strengths.”
Claire is working to create awareness of mental health in young children, believing that just because children cannot express themselves well does not mean they cannot feel.
With counselling, medication and support, stretches of normalcy last much longer. Claire’s bouts of dark moods now last a week at most. The manic episodes also do not follow as quickly.
“I am now able to dissect my thoughts. Instead of being reactive and unreasonable when something happens, I find out why it affects me and what it actually means – and if it is reasonable for me to feel this way or that way.
“My doctor has trained me to develop a logical train of thought,” she said.
On her worst days, she reminds herself of God’s goodness.
“God has never forsaken me. I hold to the truth that He loves me.”
*Names have been changed at the request of the interviewee.