To Be One Self

Though committed to sharing divine truths with others, Krista Bontrager refused to accept one about herself—that being honest about mental illness could save her life.

Driving my friend, Krista Bontrager, to the airport makes me happy. She jokes as she tosses her duffel bag in the trunk and climbs into the passenger seat, eager to get there with plenty of time to make it through the TSA obstacle course. Flying cross-country by herself, staying in a strange hotel, and representing a Christian nonprofit at homeschool conventions may not seem like a big deal for some, but for Krista, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

Our friendship started several years before she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition that affects nearly six million people in the United States today. Also known as manic-depressive illness, this brain disorder causes extreme shifts in mood and activity levels. People who have the condition experience episodes of extreme energy followed by deep, depressive ones that last for weeks, months, or in rare cases, years. And Krista was no exception. During good times, she made me laugh, challenged me to think, and demonstrated almost superhuman energy. So it broke my heart to watch her struggle, as if she was wading through dense fog where life felt unbearable.

I wanted to see all that good override the bad. So I made a commitment to accept the periods of taking off and landing that seemed to characterize her existence. She could soar above the clouds in terms of productivity. But then warning lights would start to flash as she spiraled down toward a crash landing. With a moment’s notice, she’d call her husband Robert, who’d have to leave work to care for their two daughters. Before long, trying to meet everyone’s needs became so overwhelming that he told her he couldn’t take it anymore.

When Robert said things had to change, Krista’s entire life whirled out of control. Anguished, she wondered why her impulsive comments and actions caused such chaos. And she had every reason for deep concern. Though she didn’t know it at the time, 90 percent of people with manic depression get divorced. Equally troubling is that a correct diagnosis can take decades to reach, long after a once loving relationship has been broken beyond repair.

Fortunately for Krista, she’d already discovered the value of pursuing truth. Her quest began in college when a professor posed a disturbing question: “What would the world be like if your dad were made God for a day?” Krista wrestled with her response until she realized that abandonment issues created by her parents’ divorce had colored her view of the Lord. Still plagued by intense emotional pain, she decided that her perspective of God must be separated from childhood experiences and that her faith should be rooted in sound theology. “I started pursuing a better understanding of who God is and His attributes, based on the Bible,” Krista told me. Using her mind also helped manage the chaos and heartache that sometimes washed over her.

“No longer was God some capricious random distant being I couldn’t know—He takes care of me and loves me. He’s a Father who will never leave me.”

While she was earning two master’s degrees in theology, her commitment to truth deepened and her view of the Lord changed. “Seminary was definitely a turning point,” she said. “No longer was God some capricious random distant being I couldn’t know. The more I studied, the more I realized He is the God who is there for me. He takes care of me and loves me. He’s a Father who will never leave me.”

With her family’s well-being at stake, Krista sensed God’s guidance into another pursuit—this time, the truth about her own erratic behavior. She began attending counseling sessions and seeing a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with long-term clinical depression and prescribed antidepressants.

Revitalized, she began compiling a supplemental notebook of materials for her seminar attendees, and Krista turned 30 pages into 80 within days. The potential for helping homeschoolers better comprehend a biblical worldview made the hard work worthwhile. Yet, no one realized these extraordinary efforts weren’t just a renewed sense of purpose. They were symptomatic of a manic episode. That painful breakthrough came a few months later when she suffered a serious meltdown.

Alone and afraid, Krista would wander around the house for hours at night, unable to sleep, unable to focus, and terrified of the future. “The world felt black,” she said. “There was an incredible darkness in my spirit, beyond emotions—like being in an abyss that seemed impossible to crawl out of.” Though she had no idea of what was happening, Krista was sure she was in deep trouble.

Many people in such a dark place hear voices screaming in their head day and night, provoking suicidal thoughts and intense desires to harm themselves. So Krista’s therapist insisted on swift medical intervention. Krista accepted the truth, heaved a great sigh of relief, and checked herself into a psychiatric hospital.

She admits that while there, she was scared of the unknown. Trust in Jesus sustained her, but it was still a lonely time. Robert had his hands full with work and trying to maintain the home front, and her mother was doing all she could to help their girls. That left little time for visits. But God didn’t abandon Krista. Together, they walked through the difficulties, and she prayed for answers.

After Krista was finally diagnosed with type II bipolar disorder, she started on a course of treatment that could provide long-term stabilization. New coping tools gave her hope and reinforced the need to continue learning about destructive personality traits she could change. Acknowledging potential triggers and figuring out ways to work around them built her confidence and helped her repair broken relationships.

However, staying in the truth hasn’t always been easy. A couple of years ago, Krista decided to show everyone that she didn’t need her medications anymore. So, without telling anybody, she simply stopped taking them. For a while, she seemed fine. But when she started descending down that black hole again, she learned a memorable lesson about trying to live life her own way.

It was still a lonely time. But God didn’t abandon Krista. Together, they walked through the difficulties, and she prayed for answers.

Rather than operate on the lies that sometimes pop into her thoughts, she must remain open and honest with the people God has placed in her life and heed their input. She has to acknowledge the truth—she has a serious physiological problem that, left untreated, can impact her in disastrous ways. “It’s hard to accept that being bipolar means I struggle with a potentially deadly disease,” she told me. “Christians need to understand this is not a moral problem. It’s not that if a bipolar individual has a strong enough will, she can be different. The brain doesn’t function in a normal way, and this means we sometimes need help.”

For the rest of her life, Krista will need professional aid—medication, psychotherapy, or both. Having a strong support system that involves family, friends, and colleagues also helps her remember that she’s a work in progress, just like the rest of us.

As a member of that support system, I’m learning a great deal too. Understanding my friend’s needs and remaining consistent can be challenging, and sometimes I fail. But Krista’s example of accepting the truth about herself makes it easier for me to do the same. And every once in a while, as I drive her to the airport, I’m reminded of how far we’ve both come.

Related Topics:  Sickness

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