Hi Malinda, thank you so much for being vulnerable to sharing your journey with bipolar disorder. Mental health in the Church has been a subject that is rarely discussed or mishandled. I would love you to share your experiences with my readers, so they can get a deeper understanding and know how they can support people who suffer from mental health disorders.
First, tell us a little bit about yourself and your faith background.
It’s so good to meet you! My name is Malinda, and I am a full-time children’s ministry director and author. I grew up in the Church as a pastor’s kid and have been growing in faith ever since. The journey has been full of mountains and valleys, and I’m thankful that God walks with me every step.
You shared with me that you also live with bipolar disorder. What is that like?
Bipolar is a little different for everyone who experiences it, but it definitely disrupts life and brings many challenges. It’s a mental illness characterized by periods of extreme highs (mania) that can include racing thoughts, excess energy, and elevated emotions. And then extreme lows (depression) with sadness, hopelessness, lack of energy or interest in anything, and even thoughts of self-harm or suicide. I do okay with manic periods, but the depressions are pretty difficult to navigate. It’s challenging to keep up with work, relationships, and daily life tasks when a mood disorder takes over my brain.
How does being bipolar affect your relationship with God?
Sometimes, especially during depressive episodes, it’s challenging to feel His presence. It’s almost as if He’s hiding behind a black fog, and I’m grasping but can’t find Him. I pray and know He must hear me, but I can’t see, feel, or hear Him. In those dark times, I am depleted of the hope of Christ. Yet, at the same time, my desperation leads me to cry out to Him and rely on Him to survive. My faith is strengthened as I try to believe what I’m not experiencing. I couldn’t do this on my own, but looking back, I realize that God Himself upholds us in our great needs.
Wow, that sounds like St John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul! How has the Lord helped you through these difficult situations?
He’s been so faithful throughout my life that I could probably fill another book with our story. One example is when I experienced my first hospitalization. I was terrified when I found myself in that unfamiliar environment during an intense depressive episode. As I tried to find my bearings, I noticed that someone had scratched “Jesus loves you” on the wall near the door to my room. I remembered that the Lord was there, too. I could not go anywhere that He would not be with me for even a single moment. A friend brought my Bible the next day, and I focused on His Word to ease my fears and get through the days until I could return home.
Additionally, serving in full-time kids’ ministry while being bipolar comes with challenges. I need to be energetic and fully engaged with students no matter how I feel, even if I’m in a depressive episode. Periods of intense mania can lead to more mistakes, carelessness, and difficulty communicating. Keeping up with responsibilities during depression takes so much effort and sometimes assistance. The only way to maintain it all is with God’s help and the support of my church family.
This must be really challenging. What observations have you made in the relationship with the Church and mental health? Have you experienced any stigma?
I’ve seen a wide range of reactions to my bipolar disorder from Christian friends, family, and fellow church members. One extreme believes that all mental illness is spiritual and requires more faith or even deliverance from demons to overcome it. This prevents someone from seeking the professional care they need and heaps so much destructive shame upon them. Other times, we are accused of seeking attention or having a character flaw, therefore being the cause of our mental illness and expected to control it on our own.
However, I’ve also been blessed by people who’ve taken the time to learn more about mental health. They can apply God’s love while providing help with knowledge and supportive tools. They realize that we need professional care, including therapy or medication, alongside the nurture of our church family. In the past few years, I’ve seen more and more churches move away from the destructive stigma surrounding mental illness, look for educational resources, and listen to the people who struggle. It’s encouraging and lets us feel more secure in our church homes rather than trying to discern what we can share safely.
That is so important, listening to people. How has your community supported you, and how can we love the people with mental health struggles in our lives?
The most loving thing my community has done is not given up on me. People walked alongside me even when I felt most unlovable. Their care had come in the forms of meals when things were hard, taking walks when I was isolated, praying with me, and simply being present but not scared of the hard stuff. They ask not only how I am but also to learn more about bipolar and understand the experience. They recognize that it’s an up-and-down cycle, and they are patient even when I feel frustrated at being right back to a place I thought I had overcome. They’ve reassured me that I’m not too much when I’m worried I will push them away with my mess.
That sounds wonderful, walking the journey with you and not giving up on you. You mentioned that your therapist gave you an assignment with painting. So, tell us more about that. I am a great believer in therapeutic Art as a means of help and healing for the heart and mind.
My therapist gave me homework a while back: paint something that expresses my mood. I sometimes have difficulty finding words to articulate my feelings (and I’m a writer! Make it make sense.); perhaps an image would help me communicate. This has become a weekly assignment that I’ve come to enjoy, even when it’s a challenge. The process of creating is sometimes soothing and other times cathartic. I can’t always explain how a piece describes my state of mind; sometimes, it just feels right. Here’s one of my pieces, a watercolor from a particularly cheerful but busy week.
What would you like people to understand about helping people with mental health issues? How can they best support you?
Please don’t stay away out of fear or overwhelm. Because we are scared and overwhelmed sometimes, and your loving support can anchor us to God’s care. You can hold onto His hope when we don’t have any left. The more you listen and learn, the more you know how to specifically encourage the people in your life who struggle with mental health challenges. Even something as simple as your presence has a significant impact. You indeed are the hands and feet of Christ to us.
I hope my readers take note it is a challenging journey, but we are called to bear one another’s burdens.
You are also an author and have written a book called “The Other Three Sixteens.” Can you tell us a little about it and why you wrote it?
Yes, “The Other Three Sixteens” is a discovery of God’s deep love by exploring each chapter three/verse sixteen in each book of the Bible. It began with my curiosity, and as the Lord revealed so many treasures through the study, I knew I needed to share the good things I found. My prayer is to encourage anyone who is looking to connect more with our Heavenly Father.
How can we continue to connect with you for more about this?
I’m on social media and write regularly on Substack. While I focus on the many things God is teaching me, my bipolar is only a small part. I always invite you to reach out with any thoughts, questions, or prayer requests! I would absolutely love to hear from you.
Substack (newsletter/blog): https://malindafugate.substack.com/
When she isn’t writing, Malinda Fugate serves full-time as the Children’s Education Director at a church in Southern California. She earned a communications degree with a theatre emphasis from Azusa Pacific University, then worked behind the scenes for Christian radio stations in Los Angeles. Her writing includes The Other Three Sixteens, published by Ambassador International, and the self-published activity-filled devotional, Bible Time for Active Kids. Additionally, she has been a commercial copywriter and has written various faith-based stage plays. Malinda lives by the beach with her pup, Yoshi, where she often creates Art, reads, or explores the many adventures in her neighborhood and beyond.