Acceptance has been an ongoing process for me. Not just overcoming denial or stigma but owning my diagnosis and allowing others in to help me. I had been a high achiever, a perfectionist. Accepting that I have a mental illness has involved accepting myself as broken, as imperfect, as fallible, as human.
To that extent, acceptance has allowed me to forgive myself for not living up to early life expectations. I quit UCLA after my freshman year. Took a semester off. Attended community college part-time before transferring to UC Berkeley. I never became a doctor or a lawyer. But I did get my bachelors, a master’s in psychology, and much later even attended seminary twice after my hospitalization, but never finished my religious studies.
That I attended seminary twice AFTER I had been hospitalized indicates that my sense of calling never quite died. The psychologist I saw after my hospitalization asked me about my sense of calling. She had been raised in a convent by nuns, so she understood what I meant by sensing that I had a calling, a higher purpose, that maybe I was supposed to go to seminary and preach. That feeling had been validated over the years. I had been told that I had a gift for preaching.
At times, I was shocked that I could persuade people in debates. I enjoyed the challenge of debating the “wrong” side of an issue and convince people that what I argued was true (even when it was clearly wrong). In junior high, I persuaded the class that we had been visited by aliens. Whether or not we have been, our scientific evidence of such a visit is lacking. In high school, as Scarlett O’Hara in a theatrical debate, I convinced the class that slavery was right. It’s NOT! That I can convince people of falsehoods scares me.
Similarly, given my history of mental illness, I’ve questioned my sense of religious calling and whether I was suited for ordination and pastoral ministry. Still, after my psychiatric hospitalization, which I discussed openly with my pastor, he recommended me for seminary. I attended part-time for a year. While at Fuller Seminary, I wrote a Mental Health Ministry manual. As I explored what my calling was, it became clear that I was called to a mental health ministry.
My studies went well until we moved to Eugene, Oregon. The move to a rainy overcast climate amid pines which blocked the sun triggered a depressive episode during which I slept throughout the day and had to set an alarm to pick my son up from school. I withdrew from seminary and focused on my mental health recovery.
We decided to move back to California – what my Eugene psychiatrist called the “geographic cure” – for my mental health. Later, when stable, I reapplied to seminary, this time to study theology for a career in academics rather than my previous studies in divinity for ordination as a pastor. I did well academically and enjoyed studying Hebrew. Then the recession hit, my husband lost his job, and we had to move to the Mojave Desert for employment. When I decided to withdraw, Fuller Seminary reached out to me to offer financial assistance. I explained that the issue wasn’t just financial – the stress of unemployment and moving made it untenable for me to continue my studies. I tried to continue my religious studies online but found that overwhelming when struggling with bipolar depression.
Now, I don’t even go to church. My husband and I talk about attending local small congregations but end up cocooning on Sundays. When I become involved in group activities, like attending church, I get overstimulated, overwhelmed, and overextended. I tend to volunteer to do too much. I do better with solitude. Praying alone or with my husband. Both my religious and my mental health recovery journeys have led to acceptance. Acceptance is essentially a spiritual experience. Whatever your faith, whether you believe in a higher purpose, to accept yourself is to love yourself.
I am not weak. I am vulnerable. I am not perfect and flawless. I am loved, lovable, and loving. My life has meaning. My life experience gives me purpose in helping others. I am grateful that I can write and speak to share my journey with others, hoping that it inspires others to accept themselves.
– Excerpt from Kitt O’Malley’s upcoming memoir Balancing Act: Writing Through a Bipolar Life