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Rejoicing in our suffering

By Jack Smith

Before I left my home for Houston and treatment, my 14-year-old daughter wrote me a letter. I folded it and placed it in my Bible. I slid it out of my Bible, unfolded it and wept as I read it on the plane. I share it here, just as she wrote it, with her permission:

Dear Daddy,

Tonight is the night before you leave for Houston. I know this is the best thing for you to do right now, but I still don’t want you to go. A whole month seems like forever thinking about it right now, but I’m hoping it will fly by without a second thought.

So many people love you, including our whole family. They’re going to be supportive throughout every step of this whole thing. Memaw, Mimi, Pop, friends, neighbors, Uncle Joel and Uncle Bill, I could go on an on. The point is that all of those people who I just mentioned and more absolutely love you and want you to get better.

I’m so thankful that you’re alive. You were given a second chance at life. Not everybody is. There’s a reason you didn’t have enough pills, and there’s a reason you’re alive reading this letter right now. God is not done with you. Once we make it through this tough little patch, He is going to use you in absolutely amazing ways. Your testimony will inspire people everywhere.

Right now, you just need to do what’s best for you and get better. Houston will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you. You’re going to make unbelievable friendships. You’ll be able to meet and talk to people who have the same situation as you. You will learn how to cope with this disease and have a happy and joyful life.

I’ll be praying for you every single day and thinking about you constantly. I’m so proud of you for doing this. It’s going to change all of our lives for the better. I love you more than words can describe.

Love, Sutton

At the very bottom of her letter, Sutton wrote a verse of Scripture that not only changed my perspective. It changed my life.

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)

Sutton’s letter touched my soul in its deepest and most vulnerable place. Here was a young teenage girl offering her insights into suffering and her understanding that, at least while fighting for my life, I had to be selfish. I had to put myself first and treat myself with kindness and compassion.

I also found comfort knowing that she was as much a part of my recovery as I was. “Once we make it through this tough little patch,” she wrote, “He is going to use you in absolutely amazing ways.”

She also reminded me that countless friends and family loved me. I learned the love and support of our friends and family doesn’t make real human suffering go away, but it gives hope to our hearts and helps light a path out of the darkness.

It also struck me that she was mature enough to understand that not only was I hurting. I was suffering. The scripture she shared inspired me to read the entire book of Romans in a new light.

I came to know Paul better, to understand on some level his suffering. More deeply, I began to understand the way true believers cope with suffering. In Romans 5:1-5, Paul writes about how he turned suffering into hope. I share the verses below because they may be the most profound words ever written on the subject of suffering.

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the Glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

As my NIV study Bible points out, Paul does not say we should rejoice “because of” our suffering, but “in” our suffering. Paul doesn’t write that we must ask God for suffering or praise God because we are suffering, we should praise God even as we suffer.

I don’t accept suffering as easily as Paul. I still have questions. Why does God allow children to suffer? Why would a God who can do any miracle he wants to do allow children in third-world countries to starve or live in squalor? Why must any of us suffer at all? I don’t believe it is God’s “intentional” will for us to suffer, as Leslie Weatherhead states in “The Will of God.” Rather, God allows us to suffer through his “circumstantial” will.

As Genesis tells us, God created the heavens and the earth, he separated the land from the sea, and he created light from the darkness. God never took his hands off his creation, but once he set the world in motion, he didn’t take away the darkness. He didn’t create a world without death or destruction or natural disasters.  He didn’t plan for any of us to suffer, but with the fall of man, which separated us from God, suffering began.

If we believe in an all powerful God, then we have to believe God could have created a world in which there would never be no flood or famine, pain or suffering. He didn’t.  In my limited understanding, that must mean God even had a plan for suffering. If God allowed suffering and we are to be faithful, then we must rejoice despite our suffering.

Rejoicing in our suffering and using it to spread the love of God surely cuts the enemy down at his knees. He wants us to give up hope, abandon our faith and wallow in our misery. I know this because I have felt it and experienced it. When I am deeply depressed, I want to give up. I want to isolate myself from people and from the world. I listen and believe the voices that tell me I will never feel good again, that I am not good enough and that God doesn’t want me to have the life I hoped to live. All of those thoughts and feelings come from a dark place, not a place God created. That’s easy to remember when my illness is in remission. It’s just as easy to forget when I am sick.

Paul tells us that when we persevere through our suffering, we serve as an example and inspiration to others. Paul even used his suffering to spread the gospel. He was imprisoned in Rome when he wrote his letter to the Phillipians.

“Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” (Phillipians 1:12-14)

In no way am I comparing my blog on bipolar and depression to Paul’s ministry, but those words ring true. As I have shared my stories and my pain, countless people who have suffered in silence have told me they wept when they read my story because it sounds so much like their own. They have been encouraged to speak to others or seek help for their problems.

The words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “Confession and Communion” are really about sin, but his words could just as easily be about suffering and shame. One could substitute the words “suffering” or “shame” for “sin” and Bonhoeffer’s profound thoughts tell us a lot about how to deal with suffering.

“In confession the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted.”

I have found that what Bonhoeffer wrote about sin has been true in my battle with mental illness as it relates to suffering. It is indeed a “hard struggle,” until we can tell our story, ask others for prayers and support and break free from the chains of shame. When those of us who suffer from mental illness talk openly about our pain and suffering, our secrets and our shame, we begin to understand that our disease lies to us. It tells us something is wrong with our character. That is a lie. It tells us God must not care about us. That is a lie. It tells us we are not good enough. That is a lie. It tells us we will never get better. That is a lie, too.

A breakthrough moment for me came while flying to Houston for my three-week stay at The Menninger Clinic. While I felt relieved and encouraged knowing I was going to a place where I might get some answers and some help, I was also scared. My biggest fear was coming home the same way that I left or failing to find a treatment plan that made me better. I even put pressure on myself to make sure it worked since family and friends had become so invested in me. I didn’t want to let anyone down, a pathological problem I’ve had all my life.

Flying on a peaceful night on a quiet plane, my views on suffering and my prayers changed when I read my daughter’s letter.

For as long as I can remember, I had prayed for healing. Like Paul asking God to remove the thorn from his side, I had asked God to cure this cancer of the mind that had caused so much suffering and despair.

My prayer changed that night. For the first time, I didn’t pray for God to heal me. I just prayed that His will be done, no matter what that meant for me. If it was God’s will that I suffer, so be it. If it was God’s will for me to go through storm after storm so I could help others, so be it.

When I stopped asking for healing and started praying for the discernment to understand God’s will for my life, an interesting thing happened. I started feeling better. I got better during my time at The Menninger Clinic and kept improving when I returned home.

My story doesn’t have a fairy tale ending, not yet at least. I relapsed for several weeks about two months after returning home. The black cloud of depression came out of nowhere and rained pain and misery on me again. I began to ask all of those some questions again. Why me? Why now? While it was a nasty bout of depression, I never lost hope. I kept moving. I kept hoping. I kept praying. And the black cloud went away.

I am not naive about the chronic nature of Bipolar Disorder. I know it’s a battle I will fight for the rest of my life. But knowing I have a support team of friends and family pulling for me, and a God who will give me hope if only I ask for it, makes all the difference.

This excerpt comes from a draft of my book about my journey through mental illness. More to come from the book, which is nearing completion.

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Tick, tock toward more hopeful New Year

The antebellum house where I grew up was never really quiet. Cars swished by and trucks roared past as they traveled our busy road night and day.

There was the usual hustle and bustle of three boys living together, the sounds of my mother cooking in the kitchen and the quiet tumble of the washer and dryer.

My grandfather's clock, with portrait of my father looking on.

Our grandfather clock, with portrait of my father looking on.

Yet when day turned to night and all had gone to bed, one haunting sound echoed through the heart pine floors and the house’s high ceilings. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

There was a chorus of ticks, tocks and chimes because my father loved clocks. They hung on the walls of our living room and dining room, in the den and even in the kitchen.

Dad loved big clocks, small clocks and imperfect clocks that didn’t always work right. His favorite was a beautiful grandfather clock built by my grandfather. Granddaddy even cut the timber for his work of art from family land in rural Alabama.

I remember when he delivered it to our home in Eufaula, proudly presenting it to my mother and father. I was fascinated by the chains,  the weights, the glass case and the shiny pendulum.

Dad quickly learned how to pull the chains, which he deftly did every day on all of our clocks throughout the house. He would often whistle as he walked around the house doing what was one of his favorite chores.

When all of the clocks were wound, there was a strange symphony of slow ticks and tocks, gongs and strikes. The chimes were more elaborate on the hour, shorter sequences chimed every quarter-hour.

Lying in the bed at night,  I remember staring at the ceiling, cursing those clocks and the eerie sounds they made as everyone else slept. I suppose the cars and the trucks and the clocks are one reason I still sleep with a box fan. That or the fact my first nursery was in the laundry room.

While at home with my mother over the holidays recently , I noticed something strange. The house was silent. No ticks. No tocks. No chimes. I asked mom if they still worked, and she said they did. They just hadn’t been wound in the four years since my Father passed away. I suddenly longed for the slow ticks and tocks, the piercing sound of the chimes reverberating through the foyer.

I walked to the cozy library in the front of the house to look at our grandfather clock. My eyes were drawn to something just above the face of the clock. It was a globe set into the clock’s face with the words “Tempus Fugit” scrolled across it. I’d never noticed it before, and had no clue what it meant, knowing only “tempus” was probably Latin for time.

Instead of reaching for the expansive set of encyclopedias on the tall book shelves behind me, I pulled out my Iphone and Googled it. Tempus Fugit. It is indeed a Latin expression, literally meaning “time flees.” More commonly translated as “time flies.”

Making this little discovery in the clock I’d looked at many times before was in some ways a revelation, a sobering yet strangely hopeful reminder of something I needed to remember.

Time doesn’t stop. It doesn’t stop for the most joyous moments in our lives. It doesn’t stop for our most difficult trials. No matter how badly we want it to, time doesn’t magically freeze as our children grow up too fast.

We can wish time would slow down during the good times, even if just for a little while. We can wish time would march along faster through our struggles. But time is the one measurable thing in our lives that we are powerless to control. She steadily and methodically marches on, no matter what we do.

I am glad 2013 has faded into the past. I will accept it. I will learn from it. I will one day appreciate it. But I will never miss it.

Looking toward 2014 with a hopeful heart and a vow to be a better husband and father, I will try to remember the words of the great modern-day philosopher,  Ferris Beuller. “Life moves by pretty fast. If you don’t stop and take a look around, you might miss it.”

Happy New Year, friends, family and visitors alike. Your love, your support and the grace of God made it possible for me to see what 2014 has to offer.

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Why are the holidays so hard?

By Jack Smith

Some say the holidays are hard because we expect too much. We hope for Norman Rockwell and end up with Clark Griswold.

We cook too much. We clean too much. We shop too much. We spend too much. We drink too much, eat too much and expect too much.

Those things are probably true. But my guess is what makes the holidays hard for some of us is we carry too much weight into the season of giving. And it’s exhausting.

0a5301f66fbf9b544fd851c1da927206We carry our burdens and resentments, our hurts and disappointments that have accumulated in our hearts and minds. We carry our failures and our bitterness, our  pain and our anxiety about what the future may hold.

With the end of the year approaching, it feels like dragging an anvil across a finish line we can’t really even see.

Only dragging our hurts to the New Year doesn’t make any of those problems go away. It can even make us feel worse when Auld Lang Syne has been sung, the confetti has fallen and the last drink of the year has been consumed. Because none of those traditions solve our problems.

Holidays are hard for those who’ve lost loved ones, too. Loss is not easy on a Tuesday in February, either, but when those who were a part of our holiday portraits are suddenly wiped off the canvas, those holiday traditions we cherish are never quite the same. They even hurt for a while.

Holidays are hard for those who’ve lost a job, gotten a divorce or been diagnosed with an illness. I suspect the holidays are hard for them because peace is elusive even though they know the Prince of Peace is on His way. We know that should make us feel better. When it doesn’t, it only makes us feel worse.

Holidays are hard for recovering alcoholics because once deer season ends, cocktail season begins. We fool ourselves into thinking a glass of wine or three always made it all easier, even though it really never did.

Holidays are hard for alcoholics because nearly everything about the holidays revolves around alcohol. Those early in sobriety even feel a sense of self pity, wondering why we can’t have a drink like everybody else.

Holidays are also hard for those  of us who are utterly incapable of being the recipients of kindness, gifts or grace without feeling guilt or the need to give back in equal measure that which we receive.

John Wesley, father of Methodism, had something to say about this. “Nothing is harder for capable people at Christmas than to simply come and receive.”

This year, I’m hoping to change where I am going. As a friend told me about a sermon he heard Sunday, isn’t that what the Magi did?

It’s one of the more profound parts of the Christmas story. Manger scenes remind us they made it to the babe, but we often forget they had to change directions when they left to go home. They went home a different way, but they were forever changed.

I’m hoping to go home a different way, to leave 2013 behind me as a changed man. That would be the greatest gift of all.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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Relapse really is part of recovery

By Jack Smith

My doctor told me two things the day I left The Menninger Clinic: I may never outgrow bipolar disorder, and relapse is often part of recovery.

My first six weeks or so at home, I felt renewed and refreshed, hopeful and content.

I awoke every day at 5 am, read my Bible, made a gratitude list and enjoyed the silent comfort morning brings. I experienced something that has eluded me for much of life. Serenity.

My naive hope was that my illness was behind me. Maybe I finally had found the right combination of meds and mojo, therapy and attitude.

Yet somehow the train recently came careening off the tracks, and I couldn’t stop it. I pulled the emergency brake, but it didn’t stop. I did all the things I was told to do.

I prayed. I exercised. I mentalized. I took deep breaths. I told myself the paralyzing anxiety that triggered obsessive and ridiculous thoughts would pass, that feelings are just that. They aren’t facts.

Yet the depression came back like a slow-moving, dark cloud, consuming my soul and distorting my thoughts. The stubborn cloud hasn’t moved.

Depression is a liar. It tells me my life is unraveling. It tells me the pain and suffering might never go away. It tells me I’m not worthy of the blessings I’ve been given. Worst of all, it makes me forget how blessed I really am. This disease is cruel and cunning, relentless and unforgiving, exhausting and maddening.

It tells me it’s not even worth the fight. It tells me to fear my emotions, all my emotions, because I might launch into mania or slide down the slippery slope of misery.

Today, I used all the strength I could muster to try and climb out of this dark and dreadful abyss. My fear is slipping into the pit of agony again as I scratch and claw my way out.

As difficult and discouraging as these days have been, I have not given up hope.  I can’t give up hope because it’s all I have.

I do not believe God has forsaken me or left me alone in the bitter cold and darkness of winter. I believe he has a plan for me, a reason for my suffering. I just don’t yet know what it is.

I have asked God to take this burden away from me, but I can accept it if He doesn’t. At least then the suffering will not have been in vain.



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Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday


By Jack Smith

Thanksgiving was my father’s favorite holiday. It may have been his favorite day of the year.

He would rise early, whistling with gusto and singing silly songs in the shower, while mom did all the work in the kitchen.

Dad loved Thanksgiving because it was the one day of the year he was sure to see almost all of his Smith kin, most especially his five brothers and sisters. They were an unusually close set of siblings, their relationships forged by fire with the tragic early death of their mother, who died when the youngest was just an infant, and the premature death of their father, who died when my father was in college after living for years with a broken heart, never remarrying or even dating.

Every Thanksgiving morning, after watching Big Bird, Kermit and others float through Manhattan, we’d pile up in the station wagon and motor through the Wiregrass toward Geneva, home of my namesake. Uncle Jack and his sweet wife,  my Aunt Mill, hosted all the Smiths  every year. They fried up the best hand-breaded chicken fingers you’ve ever tasted and put out salty Apalachicola bay oysters before any of us even arrived. I ate more fat oysters on Saltines, dripping with tangy cocktail sauce, than one could count. Continue reading

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CPAP mask makes for restless nights, so far

By Jack Smith

Imagine you are dressed up as Darth Vader for Halloween.  Only your mask is too small, it fogs up when you breathe,  your lips are chapped and you are claustrophobic to begin with.

Now you have to slide into bed, hook a garden hose up to your mask and try to go to sleep.

That’s how my first week with a CPAP mask has gone. It’s been a sleepless train wreck. It’s a good thing I don’t operate heavy machinery for a living. Heck, driving and typing (not at the same time) have been hard enough. Continue reading

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Manic patients aren’t mad, just different

By Jack Smith

With a presentation to 50 people a few hours away, I had more energy than a cocaine user on his highest high. Only it was 4:00 a.m. and I had not yet slept.

I felt larger than life, drinking beer after beer while listening to music in my hotel room. I was traveling alone and enjoying a party of one.

Thoughts raced through my mind as the alcohol warmed my blood. I would leave my current job and conquer the world. I would become a high-flying consultant to big companies and write a book. I would be rich and would retire at 50. I might even become famous.

I ordered room service and more booze, giving the waiter an absurdly high tip. I partied alone and plotted my future until 6:00 in the morning. A couple of hours later, on precious few hours of sleep, I walked into the conference room and knocked it out of the park.

The reviews participants left were some of the best I received in my short consulting career. They said they liked my energy and enthusiasm. Some said it was one of the best presentations they had ever seen.

bipolar-symptoms-400x400Later that day, I drove three hours to another city for another gig and did it all over again. I remember being amazed I wasn’t tired after that presentation, which also got good reviews.

Another time I was alone in a big city with no real work obligations. I stayed up most of three days, meeting strangers with ease, buying rounds for people I didn’t know and making repeated trips to the ATM so I could keep gambling, which isn’t something I even know how to do.

That episode ended with a spectacular crash. I was reduced to sobbing on the sofa, calling my wife and confessing what I’d been doing. I so quickly descended into depression and panic, we had to call a friend staying at a different hotel to come and get me. The next day, I made the long drive home, devastated by depression and anxiety.

Continue reading

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