In which the dynamics of mental health issues within a family are explored…
Here’s a name you won’t easily forget : Flavil Yeakely (long “a” sound on both names).
Flavil Yeakely is a psychologist who visited the Boston church circa 1983, and, to Kip’s later regret, administered the Myers-Briggs Personality Test to almost all of the 900+ church members, including the top leaders, staff, and ministry interns. He asked that we take the test three times: first, as we would’ve answered five years ago, prior to becoming ‘disciples’; then, as we currently thought; and finally, how we’d anticipate answering the questions five years in the future. Most of the members completed at least two versions of the test, and among staff and interns, I believe there was 100% compliance. Flavil’s intentions? He wanted to investigate whether our personalities had changed under the influence of the discipling process.*
Once the results were tabulated, the answer was strongly in the affirmative: the majority of members showed evidence of evolving or changed personality types, moving closer to that of our leader. (According to Myers-Briggs, personality type is as fixed as the color of our eyes, and influencing change is like forcing a left-handed child to be right-handed: it’s difficult, unnatural, and can lead to deeper issues further down the road). In fairness, many of the current and future evangelists (among them many future World Sector Leaders) appeared to have started out with similar personality types. But others had undergone great changes over the five year period. I was among the few on staff (Kip’s wife, Elena, was another) who was on the opposite end of the spectrum, and had remained so. Then Flavil further analyzed his data among the staff, focussing on two particular couples.
Kip and Elena were almost polar opposites on the Myers-Briggs scale, drawing a collective gasp from all of us. “But”, Flavil teased, “there is one other couple who are as opposite on the scale as it’s possible to be. And they’ll have an awesome marriage one day, if they don’t kill each other first!”
Guess who that was? Yup, me and my polar-opposite honey-bear, Henry. And we have almost killed each other at various times during our tumultuous 32-years-and-counting marriage. It’s been a wild ride of love, adventure, passion, anguish, absurdity, and panic – Six Flags has NOTHING on the Crazy Kryptonic Rock-em-Sock-em Kriete Couple-Challenged Coaster of Life (limited edition)!
Here are the touchstones that have kept us together. Foremost is the grace of God and our tender vows before Him to marry for life, sight unseen. Secondly, our love for God, each other, people and the ministry, all of which drew us together in the first place, have remained central over the years. And of course, having children we love beyond measure also constrained us to endure even through the hardest of times.
But our marriage has never been easy (beyond the first honeymoon-quality year), and Flavil was right: it must be so much easier to coexist with someone who communicates and experiences life much the same way. Henry and I will likely never know that easy, effortless harmony. But. We are hugely looking forward to that final, promised stage of our awesome union, after we’ve run out of Strong Opinions, Misinterpretations, and all the other communication faux pas that trip us up.
So in some ways the cards were stacked against us from the get-go. Our differences certainly intensified when each of us started struggling with our own mental health issues, and we needed extra grace as we suffered individually and together through that “better or worse, in sickness and in health” clause of our wedding vows.
Here’s some of that story.
For many years, we commended ourselves for the uncanny way we took turns being ‘up’ or ‘down’. We always alternated. On some level we must have known this was essential for handling life and the ministry together, and for a long time, it worked. The ‘up’ partner would give the downer space and grace to wallow a while, with a measure of empathy but an implicit expiry date. The real problems started when we both hit the skids at the same time. OUCH.
Henry has shared a bit on Gloriopolis about his fairly recent (four years ago) diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I’d like to clarify some of that disclosure. Henry has a variation of Bipolar II Mixed State, a less-common form called cyclothymia. This version is characterized by less-extreme highs and lows. For example, Henry has never had a classic ‘manic’ cycle that involves reckless behaviour like wild spending or infidelity/ immorality. He does, however, have the ‘highs’ of dreaming big and super-creativity (along with losing touch with the normal world around him), and the ‘lows’ of clinical depression. He is also a very rapid cycler; this means (untreated) his moods can completely change, without warning, several times during the course of a day or even a conversation. The manic side can quickly flip into irritability and anger, and no one, including himself, can predict which mood is coming next. Thus, the roller coaster analogy.
As for many, many people with bipolar disorder, it took years before Henry was correctly diagnosed and treated. What usually happens is that individuals with bipolar first seek treatment for depression. The heightened euphoria of a manic state doesn’t merit their concern – they feel great at most points of the manic cycle, regardless of the opinions and perspective of those closest to them. So they end up being treated only for depression. Disastrously, taking anti-depressant medication when bipolar only worsens the condition over time, to the consternation of everyone involved. By the time the real diagnosis is reached, a lot of damage and pain has flooded their lives. This is what happened with us.**
The diagnosis can be both a shock and a relief. Before the diagnosis, the personality of the bipolar individual is so intrinsic to how we’ve always known them that we miss recognizing the disease. After the fact, everything starts to make sense. Like Henry, these folks tend to be brilliant, creative and emotionally expressive. They come up with amazing ideas and concepts; they’re engaging and artistic and original. And we love them for it – until we can’t take the peaks and valleys, or the rapid-cycling, or the self-absorption (guilty as charged with unipolar depression, too) anymore. Once the puzzle is solved, the journey to healing is just beginning. It’s often very difficult for the newly-diagnosed to accept their condition. Sometimes denial and non-compliance with treatment goes on for several more years before acceptance comes. Only then can the first step of healing begin.
The treatment for bipolar disorder has no one-size-fits-all remedy: there are many combinations of medications, dosages, lifestyle changes and therapy to try before arriving at an effective treatment package. There are unwanted side-effects, of course, and the sad reality that creative highs will be forever blunted by the life-saving medication. There’s the understandable tendency to feel ‘cured’ after a while, and go off the treatment in a quest to be ‘normal’, or to re-experience the creative euphoria. There’s the hindsight of realizing how the illness has wreaked havoc in relationships and life, and the pain of being unable to go back and fix the past. Of course, there’s also the stigma of wearing the label “bipolar”, still a greatly misunderstood and maligned condition, fraught with baggage. There’s the sadness of letting go of certain dreams, and the sobering reality of having to live a scheduled, disciplined, circumscribed life from now on. And I’m sure those of you who’ve been touched by or afflicted with bipolar disorder can add many more stages, liabilities, and losses to my incomplete list.
So. What was it like living with an undiagnosed, rapid-cycling spouse? It’s a tired cliché, but it’s the best I know: like living in a barb-wired, booby-trapped minefield, with the lights down low. What was it like living with an undiagnosed, rapid-cycling spouse when I was in the dregs of my own clinical depression? Like living in a barb-wired, booby-trapped minefield, engulfed in suffocating darkness and endless rain. Throw in a teenage daughter with classic ADHD and her own mood disorder, and it’s like dropping three post-traumatic-stress-disordered guerilla fighters with unspecified alliances into the already explosive, adrenaline-charged scene. Add one more soldier: a young adult family member with his own history of losses, and you’ve got a full-blown psychological war, conducted by absent, misguided generals and fought between best friends.
So, yeah, it’s been unbelievably hard. Even Flavil Yeakely, thirty years ago, had no idea what lay ahead for the most mismatched – but potentially blessed — couple on staff. Yet against all odds, we’ve made it through. And we’ve learned some precious lessons along the way, in the hands-on, cutting-edge way that such lessons are usually taught.
Here are eight best lessons we’ve learned:
1. Everyone has his/her own journey of facing one’s personal limitations and mental health conditions, and deciding what to do with that knowledge. Pray and be patient. But it’s fair to point out, gently, how their actions are affecting the family dynamic. (See # 5)
2. Sometimes the best we can do is extend grace and acceptance to each other, wherever things are at, and hope for the same in return. (But don’t always count on it!)
3. All finger-pointing must stop.
4. Likewise with all reflexive, destructive and negative reactive behaviour. If your response is making things worse, stop doing it!
5. There are terrible times to initiate difficult conversations, and there are better times. Wait for a better time.
6. Mercy triumphs over judgement.
7. Above all, love one another deeply, from the heart.
8. Love covers a multitude of sins (and unintentional, dysfunctional behaviour).
If you’re a member of the millions of families affected by some form of mental illness, you’ll easily grasp what I’ve been discussing. I hope this is helpful, and that you’ll share your insights to encourage all of us.
If you’re lucky enough to be part of a high-functioning, highly compatible, emotionally strong and nurturing family, consider yourself richly blessed, and spare some compassion for the rest of us. Please don’t boast or brag about your good fortune, or make us feel like losers compared to your enviable circumstances – mercy triumphs over judgement! And remember that wise old saying:
There, but for the grace of God, go I.
Here’s a related link worth checking out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_with_bipolar_disorder
*You can read all about this study by Googling Flavil’s full name.
**Henry is doing great these days, as am I, with the help of the right treatment and the healing power of grace, love, and the Holy Spirit.