ON MENTAL ILLNESS Last Ride With Big Mike

ON MENTAL ILLNESS  Last Ride With Big Mike

Suicide and mental illness have been much in the news lately. In light of that, and by way of encouragement, I thought I would re-post this story about my brother, who in great pain considered taking his own life, but chose the better path.

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 drifted back to us, threading their way into our helmets along with the mountain aromas of cool granite, green laurel and fresh-cut grass. I kept pace with Mike and his passenger, my daughter Mikeala, on a borrowed BMW, railing the tight curves and slowing to a walk on the 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, 2010—and one of the best—climaxing as it did with a view of the world from 4,784 feet. He had already covered 200 of the 350 miles he would ride that day and wasn’t even tired.

My older brother Mike suffered from atypical bipolar disorder. This disease, or something like it, was not new to our family. Our aunt suffered for years before taking her own life. Our grandfather was also disabled by it. It hit Mike in his 39th year, brought on (we believe) by a reaction to a blood pressure medication.

Big Mike, his nickname in the neighborhood, was always bigger and stronger than me and most of my friends. He was also a rock 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 journey from the pit of despair back to mental health was marked by three things.

Humility. Mike 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 bipolar 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 disease too well and as strong as he was, knew he couldn’t handle it alone.

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 worshiping or neglect his devotions or stop fellowshiping 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.

Perseverance. Sadly, many suffering people give up and let their illness define them for the rest of their days, or take their life. Mike never gave up. Even after two years of unemployment due to his disease, 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 heart was diseased. He was working on a motorcycle in his garage on the day his heart stopped.

So, if you know someone who is struggling with a mental disorder tell them about my brother. Tell them they can recover. And tell them there’s a big guy in that great cloud of witnesses, cheering them on.

RENDEZVOUS WITH JESUS: Alpha 2017

A new friend sat across the table at the local deli, eager to tell me what had happened to him.

“On the third week, when Nicky Gumble led in prayer, I prayed with him and gave everything to God. I told God I couldn’t do anything without him and didn’t want to try. Up until then I had some good days and some bad days, well, really a lot of bad days and some OK days, full of anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression. All of that is gone. I felt this incredible lightness after I prayed. I’m sleeping the night through now, and I’m so happy.”

That was in 2011, about five weeks into our first Alpha Course, and conversations like it have continued to happen ever since. That’s the reason our church will offer Alpha in September for the eighth time since 2011. I’m writing today to ask you to pray for the course and for friends you might invite this summer.

Haven’t heard of Alpha? Wonder what it’s like?

The Alpha Course is completely apolitical. More importantly, it isn’t built around a sales pitch of the gospel. It is a course, Christianity 101 if you will, founded instead on two fundamentals: Process and Community.

Learning is a process that happens best when we are in the presence of friends. This is what makes Alpha so enjoyable and encouraging. No one is pressured to “buy” anything and all questions are welcomed in a community of friends who’ve gotten to know one another through shared meals and laughter.

Alpha is for everyone. People who have attended church all their lives will enjoy it. Those who’ve never entered a church or considered Christianity will also enjoy it and come away enriched, with new understanding and new friends.

The Alpha Course Team, the people who make the event happen each fall, consists of two parts: task force, and hosts / facilitators. The task force prepares the meals and handles logistics. The hosts / facilitators make  guests feel welcome and facilitate small-group discussions. The only prerequisites to serving on the team are to have attended the course at least once and meet a few times prior to launch for prayer and training.

One of the most important things our Alpha team has learned over the years is that the primary reason people attend the course is because a friend has invited them. So even if you choose not to serve on an Alpha Course team, your prayers for and invitations to friends really count. Of course you’ll also want to attend with whomever you invite.

The coolest thing in the world is to sit with new friends, see the peace and joy on their faces, hear how awesome it is to know that they are loved and cared for by the Creator of heaven and earth, and know that we got to play a small part in their rendezvous with Jesus.

Interested? Visit  http://alphausa.org.

BLUE CHRISTMAS Rx

Depending on whom you ask Christmas is either the best or worst time of the year. For some, “it’s those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call!” For others it’s anything but.

True, the oft-quoted myth that suicides peak during Christmas is just that, a myth. The rates actually go down.

On the other hand, WebMD reports that “Holiday blues are a pretty common problem despite the fact that as a society, we see the holidays as a joyous time,” says Rakesh Jain, MD, director of psychiatric drug research at the R/D Clinical Research Center in Lake Jackson, Texas.

In other words, we’re less likely to do ourselves in, but perhaps more likely to think about it.

Those of us who have lost family members, or been through the trauma of divorce are most prone to the Christmas blues. Reminders of loved ones gone come in as many colors as gift wrap, and the complications of conflicts with step-families and feuding parents are well documented sources of holiday unhappiness. Add to that the amped up expectations for joy, the stress of preparations, travel, shopping, lack of exercise and extra eating and it’s no wonder some of us get grumpy and sad.

So if Blue Christmas is your holiday hymn, here are a few ideas to help you change your tune.

Change your geography. We humans are creatures of habit and highly sensitive to our environments. When we do the same things the same ways in the same places year after year it can be difficult to associate Christmas with joy, especially if the people who were part of that joy are no longer present. Change your geography. Do Christmas in a new location, the beach, the mountains, any place, so long as it’s a different place that you enjoy.

Change your traditions for the same reason. Change the routine. Drop some old traditions and build some new ones. Never baked Christmas cookies? Try it. Tired of baking? Stow your cookie sheets, send the kids to the store and tell them to be creative.

Change your attitude, about grief that is. Grief is like the tide; it comes in and goes out on its own schedule, unpredictable for us. We don’t think it’s appropriate for the holidays so we try to restrain it, but that’s the worst thing we can do. Like an ocean wave, grief has energy and that energy will find an outlet, even if we try to suppress it. Anger, bitterness, resentment, depression can be the results. Better to adopt a new paradigm for dealing with grief, to ride the wave rather than stand against it. When we do that it can take us to new places of healing and yes, joy. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they will be comforted.” We can’t be comforted if we refuse to mourn.

Finally, change your theology. Remember that the first Christmas wasn’t all angels singing, shepherds kneeling and Magi giving gifts. It was also Joseph doubting, Mary wondering, Rachel weeping, and the family fleeing into Egypt. They were stressed out by Christmas too.

And while you’re remembering that, remember this: The true joy of Christmas can’t be found in the food, the gifts, the family and friends. These are only the celebrants and the elements of the celebration. The true joy is in the Christ child who came to “save his people from their sins,” and in the knowledge that God on high has declared “peace on earth to men on whom his favor rests.”