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By Marilee Stephens

I was age 20 when I met Gary Hebden, the man who would be the spiritual leader of my life.

I was a young mother of two children, and he was the youth pastor of Valley Open Bible Church in Spokane, Washington (now called The Intersection Open Bible Church).

After a miscarriage, I went to Pastor Gary for counseling. My six-year-old marriage was fraught with troubles. The loss of a baby exacerbated those issues. Over the next few years we called upon Pastor Gary as we would a fireman, trying to put out the fires that were destroying our family. I suffered from bipolar disorder. That illness and the fractures and failures of both my husband and me proved too much. Ultimately the marriage ended in divorce.

I was devastated. I felt betrayed by my husband and by God. I thought I had done what was required by marrying a Christian man, having children, keeping the home, and staying in church. Then Pastor moved to another church out of state. In short order I lost my husband, my family, and my pastor and church.

During the next ten years my behavior spiraled out of control. Yet my disorder blinded me to consequences. I did not understand that my actions affected others or even that they had a lasting impact on my own life. This may seem odd to a normal, rational person, but the mind of a bipolar person is self-centric. (That is not to say that all people suffering from bipolar disorder are narcissists but that they honestly feel like they are living life in a bubble. This is why they have such a heightened sense of injustice.) I married two more times. Both marriages ended miserably.

Cecil and Marilee married on Valentine's Day in 2000.

Cecil and Marilee married on Valentine’s Day in 2000.

I wandered from church to church trying to find that intimate connection that Pastor Gary had given – not just in words or actions, although those were ever present, but in spirit. He simply had a Shepherd’s heart. It bled for his flock. I was a lamb without a shepherd for a decade, wandering, hurting, and lost.

Then one June day while I was at the Department of Motor Vehicles office, there was Gary. I couldn’t believe my ears – that same calming voice calling my name! After a brief conversation he told me he was back at Valley.

Then he said, “Marilee, I have prayed for you always. You have never left my heart, and I can’t shake the feeling that God wants you to come home.”

I was so ashamed of my life at that time that I dismissed his comments with “Oh, I have a church…” which was sort of true. I had never stopped going to church, but I had never found a purpose in doing so either.

Marilee's son, Josh, with his sons, Anthony and Tristan.

Marilee’s son, Josh, with his sons, Anthony and Tristan.

During the next six months I ran into Pastor and his wife, Arlene, two more times. Each time he greeted me with the same love and dedication, reminding me that I needed to come home. None of that persuaded me.

However, a two-foot snowstorm on a Saturday evening in January changed everything. Unable to get to my regular church, it dawned on me that Valley Open Bible church was only six blocks from my home. I knew I was welcome there. I walked in and it’s been my home church ever since.

Not once over the course of the past twenty-plus years has Gary implied that my past or my psycho-emotional disorder dictated my future or my service to God. I remember Gary praying over me during an altar call one Sunday when he stopped and said, “Marilee, God has written on your heart. Would you like to know what He has inscribed?”

Locked in the shame of my disorder, I lowered my head and responded “No.” How sad.

But Gary knew what God had inscribed. Perhaps that is what kept him praying for and mentoring me. One day Gary revealed he had kept every single verse and poem I had written in a file in his office. Poetry was my favored means of expression for a long time, and Gary was my only audience. The mere fact that he kept my work gave me a sense of value.

Gary repeatedly encouraged me to become involved in lay ministry. I repeatedly refused, thinking the church would not listen to a woman who was so sinful, broken, and damaged.

Then nearly seventeen years ago Gary officiated over the final marriage of my life. In a private moment before the ceremony Gary shared that he had prayed for years that God would send a good and godly man into my life. My husband, Cecil, certainly fits that bill!

Ten years ago Pastor allowed me to start teaching classes that were predominately focused on behavioral disorder and accountability. I don’t speak to large groups, but if I can give hope to even one person who is dealing with bipolar disorder or knows someone else who is, then I have reached the audience God wanted.

Gary epitomizes the Good Shepherd of John 10:11-16. He is a true shepherd, not a hired hand. Gary exemplifies grace, mercy, patience, faithfulness, and forgiveness. He draws in people of all backgrounds because he sees them as Jesus sees them – growing from glory to glory (Matthew 18:10). Like the shepherd in verse 12 who goes after the one lost sheep even though there are 99 other sheep, Pastor Gary went in search of me when I was lost. He sought me out and kept me in the fold of God’s sheep. Others may have questioned his judgment, but I am forever grateful.

If you are a pastor and a congregant is exhibiting bipolar behavior, I suggest you talk with my pastor, Gary Hebden. I have no idea why he hung on, but I am grateful that he did.

Marilee's daughter, Tina, with her daughter, Veronica.

Marilee’s daughter, Tina, with her daughter, Veronica.

I would encourage each of us to be open and honest with fellow church members about our struggles and failures. Recently I talked to a young twenty-something woman who suffers from bipolar disorder. Although she is from a family of faith, she wasn’t going to church because “They’re all too holy for me.”

This young girl, who needs God more than ever to work out her faith and future in Christ, wasn’t meeting with fellow believers because we (the Church) failed to be vulnerable with her.

Sometimes I wish that our outsides were clothed by our insides, that our messy, unkempt, and crazy life was exposed in the clothes and smiles we wear. Most of us would come to church looking like we came out of the dirty clothes hamper, but at least we would realize that we all are grabbing the best we can out of that hamper. We are flawed, helpless, and broken. Let’s demonstrate the gift of naked faith before one another and draw those in who, like us, need Jesus every day.

If this article has caused you to think that you may suffer from bipolar disorder, here are some suggestions:

  1. If you are on medication, DO NOT stop taking your medication. There are hundreds of thousands of people who function just fine on medication and that should not change. In fact there can be very serious consequences of “bouncing” off your medications. Don’t do it!
  2. Accept that God loves you. STOP thinking that you are unlovable or unredeemable based on your disorder. Neither can be further from the truth. God did not make a mistake, and you are not damaged beyond being useful to God.
  3. Accept that grace and mercy are real and let God heal you. The worst part of bipolar disorder is that the devil continually accuses. It is time you take control of the dialogue that plays in your head and rebuke the devil in that argument.
  4. Know the promises of God that validate His love, plan, and purpose for you. I spent years learning the Psalms and Proverbs. They became the foundation not only of God’s promises but also of His character blueprint for my behavior and growth (especially Proverbs!).
  5. Find someone professionally and personally that understands bipolar disorder on a spiritual level that can pray and mentor you. This will be the hard part.
  6. Read Battlefield of the Mind by Joyce Meyer. This is perhaps one of the most important books written about Satan’s attempts to undermine our mental and emotional health. This book is pivotal in the beginning of knowledge. I believe this book should be a staple in every small group.
  7. Participate in prayer and devotions. God has an amazing way of speaking to you if you will just take the time each day to read and pray. I find a direct correlation between a lack of prayer and devotion time and the times my mind gets most muddled.
  8. Be accountable. If your bipolar disorder causes you to sin, then you must work on overcoming and refusing that sin. Period. A diagnosis is not a prescription for bad behavior.
  9. Assume the problem lies within you. I had to accept that my diagnosis meant that when I was at odds with people, the problem most likely was not with what they were saying or doing but rather how I was hearing or interpreting their words and actions. Besides, Scripture says, “A kind word turns away wrath,” so if you don’t believe me, try Scripture.

If you believe that someone you love suffers from bipolar disorder, try these tips:

  1. Don’t judge. If you confront someone with bipolar disorder who has not already been diagnosed, you will essentially be hitting a hornet’s nest with a stick. Until they want to deal with their behavior, they WON’T.
  2. Pray for them. I am utterly convinced that prayer makes the biggest difference to effect change in behavior. And COMMIT to praying without ceasing, expecting God to answer that prayer.
  3. Set normal boundaries of behavior. You can without ever raising the word “bipolar” expect reasonable and healthy dialogue with a person dealing with bipolar disorder. Remember, to them the world is all about and only about them. So when they become extreme in their behavior, you have the right to point out that what they are doing is unacceptable and to set boundaries of speech and behavior. Boundaries may be hard to define because the person has been involved for so many years in toxic and unhealthy dialogue that has become part of his or her daily life. Manners matter. Unless we set the boundary, we cannot expect the behavior to change.
  4. Don’t buy the threat. If you set a boundary on a person dealing with bipolar disorder, their next move is often a threat to “leave,” “take the kids,” or “never talk to you again.” Sound familiar? You have to accept the fact that whatever they threaten might actually be the outcome of setting healthy boundaries. But the truth is that your life is being corrupted by unhealthy and sinful behavior. You can love without living in that chaos. It is not your expectation that is unreasonable. Threats are never healthy or reasonable.
  5. Read Battlefield of the Mind. Whether you or someone you know is exhibiting bipolar behavior, this book is pivotal in the beginning of knowledge.

*Marilee does not claim to be a professional counselor. She shares ideas that have worked for her based on what God has said in His Word and through her prayer life.

Marilee and Cecil Stephens

Marilee and Cecil Stephens

MSG-Stephens-Marilee-authorboxMarilee Stephens has been in the financial services industry for 24 years. She and her husband, Cecil, live in Newport, Washington, and help with animal rescue. The couple are active members of The Intersection Open Bible Church in Spokane Valley, Washington. Marilee is a mother of two adult children and grandmother to three grandchildren.

About The Author

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