I stopped trying to go to sleep at 3:30 a.m. I felt too excited to waste my time lying in bed. I’d go to my college classes later that day, and I always wanted to make a good impression there—especially since I was only a sophomore in high school. What’s a little sleep lost? I thought. I’ll make it up later.
That morning I got a call from the nursing home where I played the piano. They wanted me to play some uplifting music for the residents. My classes weren’t until the afternoon, so I agreed.
I burst through the doors of the nursing home.“Dave, you need to slow down,” my mom said as she caught up. “Your father and I have been watching you for the past couple weeks, and you’ve been moving really fast, almost out of control. And remember, you haven’t been sleeping well . . . ”
“Mo—ther,” I said, stretching the word in exasperation. “Why do you have to worry about me all the time? I can take care of myself.”
She just looked at me as we entered the nursing home’s common room.
The activities director greeted us. “We’re so glad you could come; your music will really cheer up the residents.”
“Yeah, they’ll like it,” I replied offhandedly. “They always do.”
She paused. “Would you lead us in the national anthem?”
“Sure, that’s a no-brainer to play.” I scribbled out some chords on a notebook. I have perfect pitch; I don’t need to check these first, I thought.
I glanced over my audience and began playing. The residents joined in, “Oh, say can you see.”
Ha, they’re off pitch.
Right away I hit some wrong notes in the accompaniment. Stopping, I went back a measure and played them again. Then the residents’ singing faltered.
They’re off, and they can’t keep up with me. Forget them; this piece is boring anyway. Might as well spice it up.
I began improvising and hitting strange-sounding chords. Everyone stopped singing; some older men walked out of the room. In the corner of my eye I saw my mom apologizing to the activities director, but I shrugged and kept on playing.
What’s wrong with everybody?
The rest of the day went by in a blur. My classes were intense. I failed a quiz. I missed the city bus and got home hours late. It was as if I were inside a video stuck on fast-forward, and there seemed to be no end to the tape.
I finally turned in for the night at 11:00. Dropping my books, I collapsed onto my bed and waited for sleep that didn’t come. My body was exhausted, but my mind wouldn’t let it rest.
I should wake up early tomorrow and start writing my paper. Maybe I’ll write two and turn in whichever is better. My topic should be chronic insomnia and how to prevent it. I probably have it. Why can’t I sleep?
I kicked back the covers and picked up my notebook. If I can’t sleep, I might as well write.
Words jumbled onto the page at a furious rate. I scrawled out random ideas for papers, song lyrics, letters to old friends and poems. The faster I wrote, the more ideas flashed into my head.
It was 3:30 a.m. when I tried to sleep again. I watched my ceiling fan wobble for an hour, my mind doing a similar spin all the while. What if I don’t sleep at all? Will I stay awake in class tomorrow? I thought. I only have four hours left before morning.
I began trembling. I couldn’t stop the barrage of questions in my mind. What’s wrong with me?
I was worried.
Fear engulfed me, forcing air out of my lungs. My whole body shook. Silent tears burned down my cheeks. I heard a voice rambling feverishly, then I realized it was my own, cursing and praying in the same breath.
My parents rushed into my room, and I grabbed my dad. “I want you to give me an exorcism right now!” I said wildly.
He shook his head and gently pushed me back onto my bed.
“‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:9).*
As my mom and dad each read from the Bible, I breathed slower. Their voices reading God’s Word comforted me. My nightmare was over for the moment, and I drifted to sleep.
In the following weeks doctors diagnosed me with bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression. That meant there was a chemical imbalance in my brain that made me alternate between deep depression and irrational mania.
My doctor told me, “If you take the right medication, the problem can be controlled.” But then I had to wait two weeks to see a psychiatrist who could give me a prescription. In those two weeks I felt both ends of bipolar shoved against me.
For a while depression pinned me to the floor, squeezing out all the enjoyment I’d normally have in my life. I didn’t want to do anything but lie down and wait for the day to finish.
As soon as my energy returned, I could function normally, I thought. But my manic tendencies prodded me to move and think faster and faster. Eventually my body and mind raced so fast that I collapsed into depression again.
As I waited the two weeks and learned more about bipolar disorder, I became all the more frustrated that I couldn’t control myself. I felt as though I were stuck on a bridge made of ice that was slowly melting. I could see the pit of insanity beneath me, and whether or not I moved, I was about to plunge into it. Looking down at the puddles forming around my feet, I had only one question. Why did God let this happen to me?
Even after I started taking the right medication and could think clearly again, I still questioned why God was putting me through all this. I had changed. When I was manic, I said and did a lot of things that I regretted afterward. I caused my family quite a bit of pain, and it was difficult for my friends to understand why I was acting so strangely.
Since I couldn’t stop myself from becoming manic or depressed, I questioned God even harder. What’s Your point? What are You trying to teach me?
Those questions lingered in my mind for the next two years.
Eventually my life went back to normal—some days I even forgot I had bipolar disorder. Then one day, as I was reading the Bible and praying for insight, I came across Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” I’d heard it a hundred times before, but that day God said, “Hello, I’m talking about you here!”
Leaning on my own understanding? All my life I’d prided myself on my intelligence and abilities. I’d skipped grades. I’d gone to academic summer camps. I’d taken the SAT twice to boost my score. I’d even taken college classes while in high school. Despite God’s warning against pride, I’d let my brain, well, go to my head.
So God humbled me. He let mental illness run its course, taking away the abilities that I prided myself on most. He taught me that I shouldn’t rely on my own mind to get me through life, because it won’t always be able to solve all my problems. Instead, I should take His advice: “In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:6).
It was a hard lesson to learn, but it’s comforting to know that God leads us through life. He promises to send the Holy Spirit to teach and even remind us of what God has said (John 14:26). And no matter what happens in our lives, nothing—not even mental illness—will separate us from His love (Romans 8:38, 39).
So even though I still struggle with bipolar disorder, I can take comfort in God’s promise that He will keep me on the path to heaven so that I can be with Him forever.
*David Stone is a pen name.
This article originally appeared on Insight Magazine, September 2012.