The Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari
At my ordination service, a friend who is a biblical storyteller performed the story of the Gerasenes Demoniac as reported in Mark 5:1-20. To some it might have seemed an odd selection for an ordination, but my small claim to fame in academic circles is being an expert on both the historical Judas and biblical attitudes toward suicide. My book, The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide, records my experience of growing up with a schizophrenic brother, Stephen, his suicide, and my coming to faith as a result of the story of Judas and Stephen’s death. So at the time of ordination it seemed like a nice homage to my brother, this story about someone out of his mind brought into the fullness of relationship by Jesus.
But now the text seems appropriate to my own illness that just recently was given name.
In retrospect it seems so obvious it is almost laughable that no one saw it. I displayed classic symptoms. I am prone to depression after bouts of mania. I am hyper-productive for brief to moderate periods and then I fall into catatonia. My amazing wife Miriam is the only person I will let see me in the depths of that state; in previous relationships, I masked the depression with alcohol or workaholism. It seemed that I was simply overstressed, overworked, and the typical absentminded professor. But in the months leading up to my career change—after nearly a decade of serving on the theology faculty at Xavier University in Cincinnati, it had come time for me to move on—I missed more and more classes. I underwent years of tests for physical symptoms. I had scans and blood work, every –oscopy under the sun and still, nothing. Finally, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and went on meds. For a while I did better. I made a successful career change to bivocational ministry, serving as pastor to a small congregation in my hometown and also as a multifaith campus minister at Sinclair Community College. Eventually, though, the stress became too much and those around me encouraged me to get some specialized help. So to the psychiatrist I went, and the diagnosis was almost immediate. Bipolar disorder.
I felt a mix of relief, shock, and shame as I sat in the car, hands trembling, calling my wife to tell her the news. Our relationship has taken a lot of hits in the past two years, and while we were never close to splitting up I knew that Mimi had made more and more compromises to accommodate my unpredictability. My life had descended into working and sleeping. There was not much in-between; and being in the work of ministry means that I carry a lot with me that I cannot tell anyone else. Even when my mood was authentically impacted by my work, I couldn’t tell her about it. Throw in a chemical imbalance and you have a recipe for a very difficult interpersonal dynamic. So having a name for my ailment was good; it provided us for the first time a starting point. With prescriptions in my hand, I went to our neighborhood pharmacist and began my journey of treatment. I decided to only disclose to a few people; I felt fragile, uncertain, and terrified. Will people trust me anymore? Will they look at me differently? Will I be able to keep my job as a pastor, or am I damaged goods?
Talking to Miriam in the days following the initial diagnosis, I alighted upon a line that I use quite often when telling people: “Nothing changed with the diagnosis, I just have something to call what I’ve been dealing with for years.” Yes, the medication is incredible. Except for a few side effects, I am a changed person. My wife says that I am more engaged; I have much greater patience with myself and with others; I sleep and eat less; even when I am having an episode, I am able to express my feelings rather than shutting down. Things are not perfect, but I feel more myself than I have in my adult life.
What has arisen though are very complicated emotions. I think about my marriage that did not work and the ways in which I have shut out family and friends owed to my illness. I sometimes slip into a dangerous theology that has me questioning why my faith has not been enough to overcome my affliction. The other day we drove by a church sign that read “Jesus Cures Depression” and I nearly drove off the road owed to apoplexy. I thought about the people who would internalize the message, would not seek professional help but would simply pray harder, question themselves, question God, grow angry and become self-destructive. It was then that I knew I had to “come out” as having bipolar disorder.
This is not my first coming out. Although I am married to a woman, I identify as a bisexual man. I have been out since 1995; my sexuality does not define me, but it certainly is part of who I am: it is as much part of me as is being a bivocational minister and now being bipolar. I hate that description, though. I am not bipolar. I have bipolar. Just like I have long hair, earrings, and enough tattoos to make certain people wonder how I can walk into a church, more less lead one.
But this coming out seems more of a risk than did that first one. I have a wife. I pastor in my hometown. I am studying for a doctorate of ministry; I have gone all in with this minister thing and I have fears that people would have been more comfortable with me suffering in silence, like the people of Gerasenes were more comfortable with the demoniac being chained up at the outskirts of town. For years I have been thrashing myself up against the rocks, chained by the uncertainty of not knowing what was wrong with me. I cried out to God to fix me, to heal me, to comfort me, to provide me some insight into why I could spend days on end in bed with “the flu,” yet I had no fever and my symptoms would always go away in 3-5 days. When I received the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I felt like the Gerasene who Jesus brings into the center of town, the man who is in his right mind.
We should remember, though, what happens to him. And to Jesus. They are run out. The people don’t know what to do with someone who is transformed, someone they feel allowed himself to be overtaken by demons. I have that fear. I proclaim my truth but worry how it will impact my ability to do effective pastoral care because people might forever see me as unhealthy, an unbalanced, as having a defect that automatically rules me out as a steward of God’s word and a shepherd of God’s people. I fear that all the work I have done—all the work left to do—will have an asterisk next to it. He’s a good pastor, for someone who has bipolar disorder.
Much of these fears may be of my own making. I have a very good relationship with my congregation, and in the main people have been very supportive and helpful. I’ve had a couple negative experiences, but that is to be expected. There is a learning curve. I imagine that it is unsettling to have a pastor with a mental illness. Some people may wonder how much they can give to me without upsetting my health; they may wonder if the workload will be too much if I am moved from part time to full time; they may wonder a whole lot of things, and the secret is going to be working together to figure out what this relationship will be like. I don’t think much has to change, but what can end are the soft lies. The “sinus infections” or “stomach bugs” that are really my disease manifesting in physical ways can be expressed as just that: I am having a tough time today and might not be able to make the meeting, or I might have to send you an email rather than talk on the phone (I have a strange phobia of phones when I am in a depressed period). We’ll figure it out.
So I write this in hopes that it might land before someone who is deeply faithful but is struggling to know what is wrong with her or him. Someone who might suspect depression or another mental disorder but is terrified—petrified—of how that would impact his or her life. To that person I say, seek help. There is nothing spiritually wrong with you; for whatever reason, God has given you and I a different brain. And there can be wonderful things that come with these abnormalities. I truly believe that my capacity for empathy and compassion are directly related to my bipolar disorder. I wouldn’t change that for the world. But what I can change are the deep valleys and dizzying peaks that make a normal life impossible. There is hope and there is support. Don’t let anyone convince you that living on the outskirts of the village tied to rocks is any kind of life. It is not. God wants something better for you, and it starts with you asking for help. Let the people of the church say…
The Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari is Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs, and a Multifaith Campus Minister at Sinclair Community College. He’s also a Doctoral Student of Intercultural Studies at United Theological Seminary.