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Mental Health Disorders:  Is There Meaning in Suffering?

 by Patty E. Fleener M.S.W.


Having a mental health disorder spells suffering. Not only for those of us that have these disorders, but many times for those around us.

Recently many of you may remember that I have undergone a spiritual crisis when I came out of denial that my bipolar disorder would not quiet itself just because I was well medicated and that I will most likely be experiencing what I call "breakthroughs" of mania and depression in my future.

Coming out of denial has destroyed the meaning that I had placed on my past suffering due to my mental health disorders. This meaning had given my life purpose and much peace of mind. 

I am going to be speaking of spirituality. I do not wish to show disrespect to anyone's thoughts or beliefs so for the purposes of this newsletter I will discuss spirituality the way Alcoholics Anonymous does and use the term "Higher Power."

I had thought that my Higher Power had caused my past suffering and that purpose was to gain what I needed internally to help others. Imagine how awful life might seem to have suffered without purpose. Now that I am trying to help others through my Higher Power, from my past sufferings, it does not seem logical that there be a need to continue to suffer, would it? At least it did not to me. In fact, as an after thought, it seemed like a wonderful gift from helping others to at least look forward to a future free from mental health disorders. Why would one continue to suffer when what had to gain from it had already gained?

Do you see how getting out of denial crushed the above theory? Not only did it crush it, I became afraid. The rock that I stand on, the foundation that I live on is my Higher Power and that I have at least some rough sense of what and who that is and what that means for my life.


How could I live in a world where one could suffer so much and so long for no reason? Who is my Higher Power? Does this mean "He" is limited in "His" abilities? If "He" is, then I feel much less safe. If my Higher Power is not in control that what or who is?

So, I went to the bookstore. I read "When Bad Things Happen To Good People" by the Rabbi Harold Kushner.

This author had lost his son at an early age through a disease and he found himself asking why bad things happen to good people. He was a godly man. His son was an innocent boy and it did not make sense for his son to die. 

I consider myself a "good person." I wonder why I am cursed with these mental health disorders. Why me? My cousins don't have these disorders and they are no more "good people" than I am. Someone explain all this to me? Why all the suffering all my life?

I highly recommend this book if you have ever asked any of these questions yourself. His thesis is that "God does not cause bad things to happen to good people." Because of man's free will, things happen haphazardly at random for no reason. This book made much sense but did not give me the peace of mind that I needed.

It was not until I read "Man's Search for Meaning" by Victor Frankl that I was able to find peace once again.

I recommend this book to anyone who has endured suffering. Surprisingly the book is a very easy read and Frankl discusses his experiences in the concentration camp during the Holocaust. The book is not designed to make you sad or to shock you and he does not attempt that in his writing. What he reveals about his experience is that though one can be denied so much and be in such an intense situation - daily and hourly questioning whether you will remain alive - one can still find meaning. 

Victor shows us how he finds meaning in his experiences and how each of us can find meaning in suffering and that it is different for all of us. It is at this point that I realize that at least for myself that perhaps there was no divine purpose or meaning given to my suffering due to my mental health disorders. However, I can give my experiences meaning myself by what I do with this experience. As he says in the book, this is different for everyone. 

For me, I can take this experience and attempt to reach others. I know the pain of abandonment in a borderline. I know the depths of despair that depression can take us. I know feeling tremendously out of control mania and I know fear quite well. 

This last recent manic episode I experienced was the worst episode that I have experienced in my life in regards to mania. I never knew my mind could go that fast and truly I lost touch with reality briefly and that was extremely scary. The feeling of "losing one's mind" is a very horrible experience and I am extremely grateful for the medication that brought me back to reality. 

I hear a lot of flack about neuroleptics (anti-psychotic medications). I hear they cause brain damage, etc. I know myself that they have affected my cognitive abilities but as I have stated in previous newsletters, we must weigh each and every thing on a scale. If I live 10 years less by taking the medications that I do, I am grateful to live the life that I am able to experience due to these medications. By the way, there is no data that I know of, of these medications cutting off life years. I am only using this for an example.

I have felt quite "normal" for several weeks now that that experience seems like decades ago. 

Do you ever feel that way? When you are experiencing depression, you feel that you experience this most of your life - that this is your general mood? Yet when you are in a stable mood, you seem to feel that this is your general experience in life? We seem to forget those "horrible times" and I think this can be a dangerous time for some of us as many of us decide we are "all well" and we go off our meds only to be met by "the monster" again.

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