Markku Kostamo reflects on finding a sanctuary in the Church
My odyssey into mania culminated on my 48th birthday when friends intervened and took me to the emergency room. I was admitted to the psychiatric ward and diagnosed with mania and bipolar 1 disorder (formerly manic depression). For a few days I pushed against the diagnosis and hospitalization in a manic-driven sense of grandeur until I started listening to fellow patients and identifying with them. I saw how their misperceptions of reality mirrored the misconstrued narrative my mania had created. This band of fellow patients became my temporary community.
At the time of my diagnosis, I served as the president of a Canadian Christian ministry. You can imagine how a manic episode impacting a CEO might be hugely disruptive and disorienting for an organization’s leadership team and board, not to mention the leader them self. One example of my grandiosity was when I tried to purchase additional land because of an "entrepreneurial" desire to generate revenue. This type of behaviour led to significant tension and conflict with colleagues and board members.
The immediate impact of this experience of mania was life altering and dramatic, but the slower burn of living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder for over 20 years proved to be the most damaging to relationships, particularly the most intimate ones in my life. For years I publicly acknowledged my struggle with seasonal depression, crediting my hypomanic highs and sustained energy to the "normal and ideal" Markku.
Little did I know how damaging this successful and hypomanic Markku was when I engaged in overwork and did not attune myself to the people around me. I began my recovery by making amends and reconciling with the people I had hurt, including family, friends, colleagues and the board. This recovery will take time since it requires the step-by-step process of trust building on the path to reciprocity.
I now know it is possible to live well and even flourish with bipolar disorder.
Like many people living with bipolar disorder, suicidal thoughts have been part of my experience. My first memories of such thoughts are as an eight-year-old, living in the aftermath of the trauma and abandonment I felt when my parents sent me to boarding school.
My eighth year was also the first time I acknowledged I wanted to follow Jesus. My journey as a Jesus follower has taken twists and turns, like the Himalayan mountain paths I grew up walking as a missionary kid. Remarkably, I never gave up on Jesus. More importantly, I profoundly felt Jesus never gave up on me.
Living and flourishing with bipolar
My experience of faith has been mystical – the experience of being beloved by God. Through sermons, Scripture reading, conversations with friends, contemplative prayer and experiences in creation, I hear the clear voice of Jesus say to me again and again, "Choose life." Deuteronomy 30:19–20a has become my motto:
Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life.
This motto is both literal and metaphorical, grounding my daily choices to live well with bipolar disorder.
I have found the people of God, as the Church, can be a safe place – a sanctuary – for those experiencing mental health challenges. I am so grateful for my own faith community, which seems to be well ahead of many churches on this front. They have accepted me, treated me with dignity and listened to me well. One-on-one conversations have been particularly redemptive as have invitations to share my experience in the context of my faith community.
This acceptance is not always true among Christians. I have also experienced significant stigma, since misunderstanding mental health challenges can lead to prejudice. For example, it’s easy to believe behaviour brought on by a mental health crisis is the result of a character flaw.
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But rather than framing mental illness as a moral or spiritual failure, it is better to understand it as a health issue like cancer, heart disease or diabetes. A test in our congregations might be if we can add a mental health issue to the prayer chain just like we might add our friend’s cancer diagnosis.
Shortly after my bipolar diagnosis, I learned about Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries (www.SanctuaryMentalHealth.org). Sanctuary equips churches to support mental health and well-being through free resources like The Sanctuary Course, an eight-week study guide for small groups designed to raise awareness and start conversations in local churches.
Remarkably, I never gave up on Jesus. More importantly, I profoundly felt Jesus never gave up on me.
Sanctuary CEO Daniel Whitehead invited me to volunteer with the organization, and a couple of years later I joined the team. It is a privilege for me to serve with Sanctuary and help them have a broader impact.
Though I am still learning from many who have gone ahead of me, I now know it is possible to live well and even flourish with bipolar disorder. I am learning to have a new style of work that includes healthy boundaries. I have also committed to taking my medication regularly and making healthier lifestyle choices such as regular sleep routines, activities that decrease stress, going to weekly therapy and monthly spiritual direction sessions, reading, pursuing relationships, daily contemplative prayer and being active outside.
I can now choose how to respond rather than just react. I now understand the necessity of balance and realize I don’t need to control everything. I experience hope in and through my community of family, friends, faith and colleagues. I am also grateful for meaningful work that gives me a sense of purpose. Most of all, I am thankful for this net that caught me and kept me safe – the knowledge I am beloved and I am enough.
Markku Kostamo, MSc, is director of development with Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. He has served as an executive in the nonprofit sector for two decades, and is passionate about seeing organizations grow and develop in executing their mission and impact. Watch a short video on his mental health journey at vimeo.com/566713562. Photo of hands on knees by Kelly Sikkema.