I am a Ruthenian Rite Byzantine Catholic. And I have also been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. That may not sound very profound but there are many people out their who view their mental illness as proof that God does not exist or that it is a “curse from Satan” or that their mental illness doesn’t exist and that it is something that gets in the way of their worship of God. Let me tell you. Mental illness is real, and if you have mental illness, you can live a fulfilling life within the Catholic Church.
My first indication that I might have a disorder was when I was 18 in my Freshman psychology class. The professor was going through slides on mental illnesses and when the bipolar slide came up, my friend whom I sat next to every class, looked at me and said “Dude, that’s you.” He wasn’t trying to be insulting or funny. He said it with a very concerned look. Now mind you, at the time (conversion to Eastern Catholic in later post) I was a Roman Catholic bent on going to the seminary, and I thought this would be the death of my chances. I refused to acknowledge it. However, even though I remained close to the sacraments and continued to push myself in my prayer life, my symptoms got worse until I forced myself to see a counselor. It was then that I received my formal diagnosis.
Bipolar is a mental illness that will never go away. It is with you for life, and you have to manage it. This mental disorder is indeed a cross. But I discovered Eastern Catholicism shortly before my mental breakdown, and throughout the following months, I became involved with Holy Synergy and started to learn more about our traditions as Eastern Catholics. We have many different prayers, and yet there are two distinct prayer styles. There is a calm, meditative prayer style known as Hesychasm. Hesycham literally means “stillness” and it calls us to calm our minds and bodies as we pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Have mercy on me a sinner.” It is known as the prayer of the heart, because it diverts our consciousness away from our minds and to our hearts, where it belongs. Our hearts are the ones that follow God. Our hearts know the truth. Our minds are the ones that rationalize why sins are okay.
But, the takeaway is that hesychasm calls us to interior stillness, and with a little practice, it can be achieved. We may not be experts on it like the monks, but we can certainly grow into it. The other prayer style is our active liturgy. We have the offices of the day (matins, vespers, etc.) as well as our divine liturgy. These prayers require a lot of focus and keeps our whole bodies active and engaged. Now the ideal state of prayer is to maintain that stillness that is achieved through Hesychasm while being active in the body, but again, that takes practice.
So how does this relate to bipolar disorder? Bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of mania and periods of depression. Mania is when you feel like you can do anything and everything. Depression (as an energy state) makes you not even want to get out of bed. This is a very simplistic explanation and in reality depression will make you lie down in bed not wanting to do anything because “what is the point anyways, I just wanna die” and mania is like “I’m going to do all the prayers and fast perfectly the whole week and go to 7 liturgies a day and etc.”
These prayers can help us. Hesychasm is good for the manic episodes. Hesychasm forces us to be still, and even the most energetic person can sit down for 5 minutes, pray the chotki, and feel calmer. The active prayer is good for the depressed person because it gets us moving and praising God. And plus, there is no better antidepressant out there than the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is EVERY Catholic’s prize, devotion, and need. It is only through the Eucharist that any one of us can be saved. We receive the Eucharist for the remission of our sins, and for the healing of soul and body.
So yes, mental illness, and Byzantine Catholicism are very compatible. We all need healing from God. Why would bipolar disorder be any different.