Bipolar Disorder and God’s Providence

Western alumnus Micah Yarborough has published a book co-written with his wife, Bobbi Jo, entitled My Anchor Holds Within the Veil: Bipolar Disorder and God’s Providence. This is a unique book—one that integrates professional, personal, and theological perspectives. Transformed recently interviewed Micah about the composition and content of this important book.

Transformed: You and your wife are uniquely qualified to write a book like this. Can you introduce yourselves and those qualifications (both the education/job and the actual illness)?

Micah: I have a Master’s in counseling from Western Seminary and I’ve been conducting mental health research at the Kaiser Permanente Northwest Center for Health Research for 17 years. Over the many years I’ve been interacting with research participants I have primarily been doing assessments and qualitative interviews with people who live with illnesses like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or recurrent severe depression. I’ve had the privilege to hear our participants’ stories and learn about their lives—their illnesses, struggles, successes, treatments, losses, and, for some, how they have sustained long-term recovery. I spend a lot of time thinking deeply about these stories, trying to understand every aspect of them. I also spend a great deal of time reading scientific literature relevant to the work we do, which is wide-ranging. I’ve been fortunate to acquire knowledge through my work experiences, but I also have my own story of living with bipolar disorder. This book describes the period from my first episode of depression at age 14 through my last episode of mania at age 32, and the more than 7 years since during which I have learned to manage this illness and stay well. Bobbi Jo has a doctorate in psychology (PsyD), is a licensed clinical psychologist, and she leads our research team as we study how to improve care and health outcomes for people with serious mental illnesses. In addition, she has walked beside me through the chaos and struggle as my illness unfolded and through our pursuit of recovery and healing. This book is written from our perspectives as professionals and those with experience living and coping with a mental illness.

Transformed: This could not have been an easy book to write, to reveal all the details of your struggles to a reading public. What motivated you to write this book?

Micah: We’ve heard so many stories of heartbreak from both Christians and non-Christians who have struggled with mental illnesses, and also from the people who love them. We wanted to share our story of God’s providential care for us, distill all we’ve learned professionally and personally into a concise and practical read, and clearly proclaim the gospel. It was painful to look back over the more than 25 years I’ve lived with this illness. It was hard to allow myself to think of the suffering I’ve endured and even harder still to think of the suffering I’ve caused. But the burden of reflection fell heaviest on Bobbi Jo. When I look back on the first 8 years of our marriage, when my illness was at its worst, I can recall the crushing pain of severe depression, the frenetic euphoria and miserable irritability of mania, and some of the delusions and psychosis that happened throughout, but much of my memory is fragmented from losing my sanity so many times. That memory loss was somewhat protective for me but Bobbi Jo remembers nearly everything. She resisted writing anything for the book for more than a year after I started, and I understand why. I was motivated to write this book to help others from the start, but one of the things I think makes this book truly special is that Bobbi Jo eventually participated in the book because of her great love for me. It’s not that she didn’t want to help others, she was supportive of my writing, but the thought of reliving some very painful experiences from our past was too much for her. As time went on she recognized how important this book was to me so eventually she chose to return to those difficult times out of her love for me. I wanted this book to show how faithfully Bobbi Jo loved me for so many years when I was so hard to love. I want that picture of sacrificial love to be an encouragement to other couples and families.

Transformed: Discuss the target audience of your book: Did you write for the church, for those struggling with mental illnesses, or for families of those struggling with mental illnesses? What are your goals for each?

Micah: Primarily we wrote this book for both Christians and non-Christians who live with mental illnesses and for the people closest to them. For those of us who personally struggle with mental illnesses, it can be difficult to put our experiences into words, and some experiences are particularly difficult to relate to for people who are fortunate to have never lived through these things. Then there is embarrassment, fear of stigma, guilt, and shame that sometimes keep us from sharing our stories and further isolate us. As a result, there are a lot of misunderstandings about mental illnesses. I hope that by telling my story others with similar experiences will find something they identify with and be encouraged. I hope that family members and loved ones read about how my wife consistently and faithfully loved me and are inspired to persist in love, patience, and prayer. Finally, we wrote this book for the church because we know that people struggling with mental illnesses and the people who love them are hurting and they are in our churches. We also know that our churches are filled with people who are compassionate and equipped to pray and love these brothers and sisters but who feel unprepared and unsure about how to engage them. We hope that reading the book can be a starting place for them to begin to relate, understand, and reach out.

Transformed: In addition to understanding, what can local churches do to minister to people who are in the throes of mental illness?

Micah: First, I think we need to work hard to create a culture in our churches where people are comfortable disclosing their struggles without fear of abandonment or judgment. I think that begins with a willingness to talk about these issues. As pastors and elders publicly pray for the needs of the congregation, when they pray for the needs of people with mental illnesses they teach the church how to love its most vulnerable members. Then I think it is important for those leaders to model discipleship and encourage church members to build strong relationships with those who are struggling. We can’t show up in their lives when everything seems to be coming apart and expect to be any help at all without first having built a bond of love and trust. When people are in an episode of mental illness they need people around them who have demonstrated their love over time and can sit with them in the midst of their suffering. Brothers and sisters who can say, in essence, “I’ve been your friend and I’ve loved you when things were going well; I’m going to be your friend and love you in this current trial.”

Transformed: The gospel is clearly articulated throughout your book. Can you restate for this audience how the gospel enables you to persevere and live in such trying circumstances?

Micah: The truth of the gospel—that while I was an unlovely sinner, Christ died for me and gave me his Spirit as a sign and seal of my place with him forever—has been the one consistent reality of my life since I became a believer. During times when I had completely lost my sanity and my thoughts were confused and distorted I could always rely on God’s promises found in the gospel. I would remember Christ’s words in John 10: “… no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all. No one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” His promise in Romans 8 that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Verses like these reminded me that my salvation was secure in Christ; they were the standard of reality for me. The conviction that his Spirit resides within me kept me going through many dark days.

Transformed: You address the controversial (in some circles) use of drugs to treat mental illness in your book. Can you restate for this audience how you made your decisions regarding their use?

Micah: God has kindly allowed me to be a husband and a father. He also allowed me to get a graduate education and have a career in mental health research. I am also a member of my local church and I enjoy engaging in discipleship with young men in my congregation. Without psychiatric medications I would be unable to fulfill those roles that God has given me. I don’t mean that I would be unable to fulfill them as well as I do now, I mean that I would be completely unable to do them. Even with psychiatric medications it took me eight years to bring the pendulum of massive swings between depression and mania to a stop. Without medications, those eight years would have been dramatically worse and I couldn’t be where I am now. I know these medications allow me to fulfil my God given roles as husband, father, employee, church member and friend. Psychiatric medications are part of God’s providence for me. Calvin said that “God’s providence does not excuse us from due prudence” and that “God’s providence does not always meet us in its naked form, but God in a sense clothes it with the means employed.” Psychiatric medications clearly allow me to have a relationship with my wife, children, and friends, both Christian and non-Christian, that would otherwise be impossible. I believe that “due prudence” for me is to take the aid offered by modern medicine in the form of imperfect but effective psychiatric medication. I believe it would be foolish of me to reject that providence.

Transformed: How has your book been received to this point?

Micah: We have been really encouraged by the early response to the book. From people who have identified as living with mental illness we’ve heard that the message resonates. Some have expressed appreciation for the practical information that is provided. We’ve heard back from people who said that it helped them to better understand loved ones who were living with mental illness. Several people have mentioned that they have passed it along to encourage others. One person remarked that the book is not just about living with a mental illness but also about loss, grief, relationships, and hope. We are really excited to see how God uses this book.

1 thought on “Bipolar Disorder and God’s Providence

  1. I am amazed by God’s love to direct me to this post. Thank you to both of you for the courage to write your story. By God’s providence I came upon this blog post and I have ordered your book. Please, pray that God helps me to understand how to support my daughter. More importantly how to help her connect with God so whether or not I am able to be there she is relying on him.

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