Lynn Hamilton said the depression seemed to descend out of nowhere; it was unlike anything she’d ever experienced. She felt as if her world had caved in.
When her doctor diagnosed bipolar II disorder, a form of mental illness characterized by moods cycling between high and low, she initially fought the diagnosis. This couldn’t be happening to her, she thought. But the signs were there.
Eventually she came to accept the diagnosis, and with it the fact that her life would never be the same.
“I’ve learned that you are up and down when you have bipolar, but
I’ve learned to ride the bumps,” said Hamilton.
She also learned the importance of speaking publicly about her illness.
“I learn a great deal by sharing stories with other people, by letting them know there is no need to be afraid of mental illness,” Hamilton said. “If you are not willing to explain what the problem is, how are you going to help anyone?”
In presentations at her church, Brighton (Ontario) Fellowship Christian Reformed Church, Hamilton says mental illness will only get worse if you try to keep it secret. “Other people can give you support, helping to make mental illness less frightening.”
She said she was motivated to speak about her illness partly through her participation in two initiatives connected to her church. One of these was a four-week Bible study called “Let’s Talk: Breaking the Silence Around Mental Illness in Our Communities of Faith.”
Developed by the CRC’s Office of Disability Concerns in collaboration with Faith and Hope Ministries in Ontario, the Bible study is available to churches.
Hamilton said she gained strength and confidence by discussing biblical reflections on aspects of mental illness when meeting with others with similar experiences.
After completing the Bible study, she started a support group for those who wanted to continue to share their experiences of everyday living and encourage one another.
Also helpful has been her involvement in Faith and Hope Ministries, which partners with congregations in order to help people get the mental health services they need. The initiative is supported by Classis Quinte, east of Toronto.
Hamilton said both initiatives, along with the support group, highlight the need to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Last year, Hamilton addressed Classis Quinte about Faith and Hope Ministries. She spoke of the many struggles she has encountered—from hospitalizations to suicide attempts—in dealing with the disease.
Even though she had been a nurse for more than 30 years, Hamilton said she couldn’t identify why the depression that came upon her in 2001 was so intense.
She had been a mom who hardly needed sleep, baked cookies, and sewed costumes for the school plays. Her bosses came to her when they needed someone to work a double shift.
But by 2001 those things were slipping away. Her children had grown, and she was downsized out of a job.
Hamilton said she sees now that she had kept the illness at bay by staying busy. Constant activity was her medicine.
Although her husband was right there at her side, she said, she went into a free fall. “I did a crash and burn. All of a sudden, I had no interest in things.”
She visited her family doctor, who initially prescribed Prozac, “which elevated my mood into a state of high energy and well-being,” she said.
The medication put her back on top and she started flying along. But her doctor worried because the antidepressant lifted her depression into mania.
Aware that some antidepressants can make bipolar disorder worse, he prescribed a different medication. He also told Hamilton that medications can help control the disorder, which has a strong genetic component, but not cure it.
Hamilton says his comments about genetics led her to start thinking about her mother and aunt in a new way. She recalled how they had acted and the pain they had gone through and put others through.
“My mother and aunt showed signs of mental illness much of their lives, and both ended up committing suicide,” she said.
Hamilton knew that she wanted to get better. Once she decided this, she started the difficult journey back, progress coming in fits and starts.
“Trials of successive mood stabilizers were ineffective, mostly because of intolerable side effects,” she says. She got discouraged, finding it hard to remember herself as happy, active, and hopeful about life.
She wanted to give up, but kept her feelings hidden from her family until she tried to take her own life, an attempt that landed her in the hospital.
When she got out, she did fine for a while, but then the depression hit again. This time she entered the hospital for a round of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a treatment that sends pulses of electricity through the brain.
ECT was helpful, she said, as were group therapy sessions, which taught her stress management and the significance of rest, exercise, and good nutrition. She also realized the significance of talking about her condition.
These self-care elements, along with psychiatric treatments, put her in a position for the next important phase of recovery.
Seeking a quieter life, she and her husband moved from a city to the small town of Brighton, Ontario. After not attending a church for a while, she and her husband fell in love with Brighton Fellowship CRC. The first time they visited was on Friendship Sunday, a day that celebrates Friendship Ministries, a program for people who have cognitive impairments.
Watching these men and women participate in the service, she remembers thinking, if “members of Fellowship CRC can accept Friendship people, maybe they will also accept the likes of me.”
From that day, she said, the church community, with its strong sense of inclusiveness, has meant a great deal to her and her husband and has played a significant role in her recovery.
Attending worship services, taking care of kids in the nursery, pitching in at vacation Bible school, mentoring in the Friendship group, attending the “Let’s Talk” Bible study and Women’s Coffee Break, and volunteering for Faith and Hope Ministries have all been satisfying and enriching.
She recalls how, one morning, her small group leader took her aside and quietly asked how she was doing.
"My low energy and a sad countenance were apparent. I disclosed my bipolar diagnosis. This lady shared her own experience with depression and offered to pray for me,” said Hamilton.
“This concept of support, understanding, and prayer was entirely new to me. Over the next year, I shared my diagnosis with each woman who noticed my sadness and was met with support.”
In this way, she said, she truly opened up to others and received many blessings in return.
Participating in a women’s retreat allowed her to share a long-time spiritual emptiness that the church was now helping to address.
“Our pastor spoke often about the suffering of those with mental illness. I found strength in reading the psalms,” she says.
She returns to the psalms often as she continues to experience difficult bouts with the illness, reminding her that this is lifelong condition requiring ongoing vigilance.
Looking back, Hamilton said she really had no idea what mental illness meant or how it felt to live with it, even though she had seen its effects on others in her family.
“My silent response to the depression at first had been to ‘snap out of it,’” she recalls. Once she had accepted the diagnosis, another reality set in and she began to wonder, Why me? It didn’t seem fair.
In attending Brighton Fellowship CRC, she came to understand that God has a purpose for her life, said Hamilton. “Perhaps sharing my journey and knowledge of mood disorders and providing the support and encouragement that I had received may be part of that purpose.”
Speaking Out on Immigration
For the past several months, the CRC’s Office of Social Justice and its Office of Race Relations have joined to speak out for immigration reform at congressional hearings and meetings, at church events, and in a variety of other settings.
They have advocated in other ways as well.
Last fall, when the U.S. Senate was debating immigration reform, the offices sponsored a call-in program asking people to contact their legislators, especially lawmakers who were on the fence on the issue, and request that they vote in favor of reform.
The Senate passed immigration reform. But the issue still must be dealt with by the U.S. House of Representatives, whose members have been more skeptical of passing reform.
“We have been working very hard on immigration reform, and we will be doing the same in 2014,” said Peter Vander Meulen, director of OSJ. “This is our top priority.”
OSJ and Race Relations are doing this as part of a mission to continue to carry out the recommendations of the 2010 synodical study committee on migration. These recommendations called for church members to
- welcome the “stranger” (who may actually be our fellow church member and neighbor) without regard to immigration status;
- educate ourselves on the complexities of immigration issues;
- promote fair and compassionate treatment of immigrants in our communities and churches, whatever their status; and
- become advocates for a more just, humane, and workable U.S. immigration system.
Pray for Unity
Lord God, in a world filled with indifference and intolerance, help us to reflect attitudes that are revealed in your kingdom.
Help us to look at ourselves no longer from a worldly point of view but from a kingdom point of view.
Help us to manifest your character.
As there is unity in the Godhead, may we live that unity. Amen.
Pray for Justice
God of the stranger, you remind us that we were once foreigners in Egypt.
Help us to hear your call to love the foreigner, for we are all created in your image.
Guide our leaders as they work to bring reform to the broken immigration system.
Guide our efforts as we advocate for laws based on just and humane treatment of immigrants, migrant workers, refugees, and asylum seekers.
May your true light shine through. Amen.
Pray for Safety
Safe Church Ministry helps equip churches to more effectively prevent and respond to abuse.
- Pray for the Lord’s blessings of wisdom, strength, perseverance, and collaboration for more than 300 volunteer Safe Church team members across Canada and the U.S. These team members work in their congregations as a resource and to increase awareness about abuse.
- Pray for efforts to form new Safe Church teams where none exist.
- Pray for pastors and church leaders to resist the temptation to misuse the power and authority entrusted to them. Pray that they, empowered by the Holy Spirit, will follow the example of Christ, who humbly submitted to others in love.
- Pray that all church leaders bring honor and glory to the Lord as they follow his way.
Pray for Recovery
Ask God to give grace, strength, and recovery to people with mental illness and their families.
Pray that churches can be safe communities where people affected by mental health issues can find love and spiritual nurture.
Pray that God will bless hundreds of disability advocates as they serve Christian Reformed churches and classes in their ministry with people who have disabilities.
Enjoyed this article?
Don’t miss this week’s must-read articles:
- Feature: Tending God’s Creation
- Exposing Harassment of OSJ Raises Questions, Hope for Humility
- Book Review: Something’s Not Right