Mental Health Awareness Month: Carl’s Story

I continue to bring you stories of Christians with mental illnesses during this awareness month of May. This week I had the privilege of participating in a community panel discussion sponsored by the Department of Mental Health. The participating agencies were secular, yet they reached out to me along with a church member who is active in the mental health community in our city. Why would they want to hear from people in the church when talking about mental health treatment? I am proud to say that it is because of the bridge-building work our church has done to partner with our city to make life better for everyone. We have gained their trust and in doing so we have gained a voice. The church member, who I’ll call “Carl,” shared his story of mental illness and faith. I am excited to share it with you now, in his own words:

“Recovery has been described as a deeply personal, unique process of changing one’s attitudes, values, feelings, goals, skills and/or roles. It is the process by which a person overcomes the challenges presented by a mental illness and/or substance to live a life of meaning and purpose. I want to talk about the supports I have received at my Church.
But first, a little background…
I have a dual diagnosis. I am a recovering alcoholic (sober 3 years, 10 months, and 18 days, but who’s counting) and have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I grew up in the Bronx (home of the greatest team in Major League Baseball history!). I come from a healthy and nurturing family environment, I was fortunate enough to receive a good education, and I had a pretty good career going up to my late thirties. Then, at that time, my bipolar symptoms
presented themselves and, as a lot of people do, I went undiagnosed for many years. The only treatment I tried was self-medication with alcohol, and as a result by my late 40’s I was homeless, very ill, and a pretty good (i.e. bad) alcoholic.
I eventually climbed back into society somewhat, with the help of the Salvation Army Rehab Program, but was not really successful in dealing with either problem completely. I do not wish to go into the details of my ‘illness’ story,
so suffice to say that my life from my 30’s to my 50’s could be summed up in one Clint Eastwood movie … ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.’
About four years ago, just as I was beginning to get sober, I met Pastor David as he was handing out flyers in the city. We talked and prayed, and he invited me to come to East Coast International Church the next Sunday. I went, and it was the day that changed my life. I remember that first day as if it was yesterday. The welcoming feeling from Pastor Josh and others. The praise and worship music that I had never heard before. And the message from Pastor Kurt that felt like it was written for me. That was the first ‘support’ I felt. I felt like I had found a home.

I soon became involved in various service activities, such as the cleaning team, street outreach team, the food pantry team, and the greeting team. I was also responsible for a long time for being the ‘Chairperson’ —  I was responsible for lining up and measuring the rows of chairs before Sunday services. I joke about it, but it was important and I took it seriously. In doing all these things, I realize now that in addition to helping in some small way the church community, I was being supported in a very significant way by becoming part of that community.

Another aspect of the support I have received at church is in what I would call ‘Christian peer support.’ This is available in many forms, whether it be at Tuesday morning Recovery Group, Wednesday night discipleship and men’s small groups focused around Bible Study and prayer, or the wonderful praise/worship and discussions that took place at the various retreats I have been on. Trust and vulnerability are key ingredients to any kind of successful group support. And I have found these elements to be more readily available in my church groups than anywhere else. I was also baptized at the beach two years ago, and I was grateful for the support of the church community as I did that. The pastors held me under the water for a few seconds, then pulled me back up. I was very grateful for that support. Finally, I wanted to talk about some of the things I have learned from my time at the church that have given me great comfort in my recovery journey. I am by no means a biblical scholar or a pastor, but there are certain things that have resonated with me and stuck with me:
Three things will last forever – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians13:13)
I feel this love whenever I am in Church. There is no more powerful support.
The fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23).
These are the new guidelines by which I try to live my life.
When troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. (James 1:2-3)
Anyone in recovery can identify with the troubles part of that quote, but it took me a while to be grateful for the opportunities they present.
He alone is my refuge, my place of safety … He will cover you with His feathers and shelter you with His wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection. (Psalm 91:2-4)
My church and my faith are ultimately my place of safety.
I am leaving you with a gift – peace of heart and peace of mind. And the gift I give is a gift the world cannot give. (John 14:27)
This is my ultimate goal, and perhaps the ultimate goal in recovery: peace of heart and peace of mind.
I believe I have made significant progress in my own recovery. It has been a deeply personal and unique
process. My attitudes, values, feelings and goals have all changed. For the better. And I know I could not have done that without my East Coast International Church family.”