Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. (Heb 12:1 NIV)
Nitrogen fumes from the Shell premium gas Mike burned in his Honda CBR 1100 XX motorcycle drifted back to us, threading their way into our helmets along with the mountain aromas of cool granite, green laurel and fresh-cut grass. Family friend Jessica McGill and I kept pace with Mike and my daughter Mikeala on a borrowed BMW, railing the tight curves and slowing to a walk on the one hundred and eighty degree switchbacks of Georgia SR 180 as we wound our way up Brasstown Bald, the highest point in the State. It would be our last motorcycle ride together before he died on August 5th – and one of the best – climaxing as it did with a view of the world from 4,784 feet above sea level. He had already covered 200 of the 350 miles he would ride that day and wasn’t even tired. It stands as a metaphor to me of an even greater climb that the big guy made.
My older brother Mike, Uncle Fuzzball to my daughters, suffered from a chemical imbalance in his brain diagnosed as atypical bipolar disorder. In the mid nineties I watched this disease grab him like the imaginary monsters of childhood, shake him like a ragdoll and fling him to the ground.
Big Mike, his nickname in the neighborhood where I was born, stood over six feet tall from the time he was twelve years old. He was always bigger and stronger than me and most of my friends. He was also a spiritual rock for me when I needed him most. Watching him break into a thousand mental pieces was almost more than I could bear. But watching him climb up out of that psychological black hole, a place from which few men return, was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever witnessed. We talked about writing a book on it. I’m writing this today to encourage you and anyone else that you know who suffers from a mental disorder.
Mike’s climb back up the mountain toward mental health was marked by three things. The first was humility. He was a proud man, a strong man that submitted himself to hospitalization under the care of competent, professionals who prescribed medication and psychotherapy. Once out of the hospital Mike took responsibility for himself and worked the program. It took years. And like many bi-polar patients, along the way Mike decided he no longer needed the meds. This led to a relapse and another hospital stay. But the second time was the charm. He humbled himself by taking his medicine every day and visiting a counselor every week for years. Even when he no longer needed the counselor he stayed on the medicine and visited a therapist now and then just to keep a check on himself. He knew the monster all too well and as strong as he was knew he couldn’t handle it alone.
The second thing was his faith. In all the years of his suffering Mike never turned his back on Jesus Christ. I never heard him blame God or use his illness and disappointment as an excuse to quit worshipping or neglect his devotions or stop meeting with other believers. He wanted to be well and he knew that in the end, only walking with Jesus would give him the strength to get there.
The third thing that characterized his recovery was perseverance. Sadly, in twenty years of ministry I’ve known a lot of people who’ve given up, wallowing in the slough of self-pity, and let their illness define them for the rest of their days. Mike never gave up. Even after two years of fruitless searching for a regular job, something that spins many men down into depression, he kept up his courage. He was as healthy on that day at the top of the world as I have ever known him, enjoying the good gifts God gave, enjoying the ride, and discussing plans for his new business. No one knew that even though his mind had healed his body was diseased. He was working on a motorcycle in his garage on the day his heart stopped.