For the last sixteen months I have been occupied with the task of survival.
I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar II, and the odds against my continuing to live are steep. Fifty percent of people with my condition will attempt suicide at least once. Fifty percent. That statistic is utterly daunting, not least because I have often felt the urge to do away with myself. I admitted myself to the hospital a year ago when I knew that I could no longer keep myself safe. I stayed there for one hellish week.
And if I keep drawing breath? The reason that I have felt the compulsion to kill myself is that my life can be utterly miserable for long periods at a time. I know of no reliable measurement for the pain felt by someone who is mentally ill, but I do know that if I consider my life not to be worth living, it is because I am suffering immensely. Suicide is only an attractive escape for someone who simply cannot bear the pain of existing any longer.
But yet there is hope. There is not only hope that the depression will end and that life will again be pleasant, but hope that my existence in this world is fulfilling some critical purpose—a divine appointment of sorts. I use the word divine because neighbor-love, Christ’s second great commandment, can take the form of mere existence. Crucially, my continued survival is not primarily about me, but about the ones who I am called to love.
My wife, Laurie. My family. My in-laws. My friends. They tell me that the world is a better place with me here. And when I look into their eyes I see the sort of love that would grieve if I no longer existed. When I tell Laurie about my thoughts of suicide, she tells me, “You can’t do that to me.” Of course, she is right.
From time to time I see myself in the image of Christ crucified. Today I see myself stripped of the abilities I would like to have. I want to work, I want to be able to make appointments without worrying that I will have to cancel because of a panic attack, I want to be able to attend to others’ problems without being so preoccupied with my own. In short, I want to be less vulnerable—less contingent.
But contingency is my lot as a creature and particularly as a bipolar patient. I cannot change this. What I can do is to make the choice for life over and over again. I write “over and over again” because I find myself repeatedly in such dire straits that the choice to live is no longer passive and unconscious, but active and pressing. And as long as it is pressing, the primary way in which my love for others is expressed must be the choice to draw breath.
The ultimate expression of love is the sacrifice of one life for another. To see the plight of another and to trade your life for theirs—this is the love of Christ. But now I am called to another love—not the relinquishing of life, but the courageous fight against death. When misery has penetrated my being and the task of life feels torturous and unnatural, it is in choosing to live that I love others. This choice is mine, but it is not about me. It is about those who love me.
My lot in life is bound to the well-being of many others. It is for their sake that I choose to breathe, over and over again.
Henry Williams graduated with a degree in philosophy and German from Wheaton College in 2017, and blogs about faith and mental health at roadcalledhope.com. He is also the author of the newly released book, A Bipolar Gospel (Luminare Press). He is the husband of Laurie Harris and lives in Newberg, OR.
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