An Activist’s Preparation for the Challenges of Bipolar

Above: The Revs. Aaron Maurice Saari and John Freeman being interviewed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in front of First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs. 

My friends are going to laugh that I have the chutzpah to write an essay on self-care. You see, I am notorious for overworking and overcommitting myself. Sometimes that is the result of mania or hypomania, but most of the time it is simply because I am a passionate person. I lost a brother to mental illness, and ever since then I have felt that I am living for two people. That can be a blessing and a curse. Until I received a diagnosis and went on medication, I experienced fairly regular patterns of running myself ragged until I finally collapsed into what seemed like the flu, but was actually depression and fatigue. My bipolar (l like to actively claim and own my illness, so I hope this language does not rankle) manifests as rapid cycling, which can mean one or a combination of three things: One, that the period between depressive and/or manic episodes is short; two, that within a given period of time I can vacillate between manic and depressed inside of minutes; or three, that I can have sustained periods in which I have a long depression followed by a long mania followed by a long depression. Until medication, I never really knew stability, at least as I do now. Granted, I am still only 16 months into my diagnosis, but my bipolar is well-known to me.  

Also well-known to me is my ministry, which does not focus on trying to convert other people or point out the sin of someone else. It is rooted in justice work, most specifically LGBTQ+ and racial justice issues, and in being of service to others. My faith propels me into relationships with others and into spaces in which there is holy tension, the admitting of sincere and earnest differences while remaining committed to dialogue largely owed to religious conviction. I am an activist for social justice. Jesus brings me there, but I don’t need to talk about Jesus once I arrive. This work requires a great deal of energy and self-awareness. It also necessitates me being honest with myself and others. And that can be really frightening. At one point I feared that I was going to be unable to continue pastoring and engaging in social activism. I asked, “Can I be an activist with bipolar?”

That got me thinking. We are in an uncertain and quickly-changing time. Many of us feel compelled to act and to be part of affecting change, but we may worry that our diagnoses might preclude us from participating. Here are some things that I have done that help me to prepare myself and others for collaboration:

1. I assessed what activities require the most energy and give the least payoff. For me, that is large outdoor gatherings such as marches or rallies. I can do local rallies and marches, in the main, but events with over 200 people are incredibly stressful and counterproductive for me. So I don’t go and I no longer pretend that I will and then back out later. Think about what zaps you without producing a feeling of satisfaction and completion, and rule it out. It can be more than one thing; it certainly is for me.

2. I assessed what strengths I possess and the ways in which those can most fully be utilized and of benefit to an outcome about which I am passionate. In other words, think about what really matters to you. Then think about the work in which you are most fulfilled. How do those relate and do you have opportunities to bring them together within a volunteer or group activity? For me, I have focused my work to my immediate community, and only take leadership positions for short stints and for well-defined responsibilities. I only work on specific issues because I know that I cannot do everything. (Even with this, I try to do too much.)

3. I thought about ways in which I could set myself up for success. I started to say no. I quit about half a dozen groups and a job. I make it known that I do not have meetings before 10 in the morning or later than 9 o’clock unless scheduled far in advance or in the case of an emergency. I no longer commit to things about which I am lukewarm. I have a tendency to say yes and then to back out; in order to curb this, I try to only say yes to things I know I will power through a mild to moderate depression to attend. This makes me more reliable in the eyes of others.

4. I talked openly about my bipolar without apology, and without letting anyone say that a discussion about mental illness derails the purpose of the group. This is a tricky one for a few reasons. One, it is up to you and you alone how you talk about your diagnosis. So what works for me might not work for you. Two, this requires some deep thought and self-awareness. I am a white man; I am not going to insert a discussion of my illness into a space in which I was not invited or where I am asked to bear witness but not be an active leader. Three, this can create conflict between people who do not know how to negotiate mental illness and those who live with it every day. So you will be the authority on what situation is right for you. With that said, do not apologize for speaking your truth and inviting people to be in a dialogue with how your diagnosis might impact the group or your work. We all are intersectional people. We all have different aspects that influence our lives. People who will not affirm and listen to you when you have done due diligence to examine your own privilege are not people with whom you want to work. Yes, we educate others on mental illness. But we are not walking bibliographies and it is not our job to inform people about basic ways to discuss mental illness. Do not let people steal your strength or dismiss your needs. We are assets to spaces and have the right to be affirmed.

5. I have backup plans or contingency strategies in case I am unable to fulfill a duty that cannot be canceled. This is a tough one, too. It takes relying upon friends and allies or making a deal with yourself that you simply will not back out. Of course, it depends on circumstances. But I always have a backup sermon I can give to someone if I am unable to preach, and a Deacon in the church who will lead the service. If that’s not possible, I have arranged a hymn sing service with the musical director in case I am out of commission. In other avenues of life, I communicate as often as possible with people if I am having a rough time. It has required me to learn how to ask for help, which was hard for me, but since I have given myself permission to be human I have been a lot happier. And a lot more of an asset to the groups with which I work.

We can still live active, meaningful, significant lives committed to issues important to us and our communities. The more we help other people know how to live with and be of support to people with mental illnesses, the greater the chances that we will be able to do more as our environments are increasingly favorable to our needs. In the comments, share what works for you!

You can read more of Pastor Aaron’s writing on his personal website and see the rest of his IBPF posts here

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