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About Pastor Dan

Monday, July 12, 2004

A pastor comes out of the closet: No, not as a gay man. (Sorry for the teaser.) Lord willing and the creek don't rise, I'll remain happily married to Jen for many years to come. Instead, I came out as someone with mental illness. (Bipolar 2, as many of you already know.)

Still, it feels at least roughly analogous to the public announcement of a sexual orientation, though I'd be the first to say that the judgment encountered is much, much less.

The principle point of contact, I think, is that I simply feel much more free to be who I am. Like many "closeted" gays, I haven't exactly kept my mental illness a secret; it's just been something that I have not shared very widely. My family knew, of course. Jen in fact diagnosed me about four years ago. My closest friends in and outside the church also knew, but we hadn't spent much time talking about it, mostly because I was still learning about my disease and how it affects me. Now, having named the "problem" in public, I feel like I am much more able to talk about how I struggle with it sometimes, how it affects who I am. In that way, I am becoming more fully myself, a feeling that is surely familiar to anyone who has stepped out of the closet. "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free:" even routine discretion and a non-confrontational quietness can do invisible damage to the soul.

Why come out now? In this particular case, because I'd made a couple of mistakes in my professional life that needed to be explained. They weren't high-profile, nor did they do serious damage to the life of the church, but they irritated and disappointed some people who deserved an explanation of what had happened. In the course of trying to understand just what had happened, I began to realize that the bipolar was having a greater affect on my memory and judgment than I'd realized.

So I took aside the committee that I'd offended and explained the situation, and what I intended to do to offset my limitations. As I did so, it became clear to me that what I was saying to them needed to be taken up with a wider audience. Again, like many closeted gays and lesbians, I came out a little bit at a time, with progressively larger groups of people.

Unlike many of my queer friends, however, I did this fairly rapidly: Wednesday night with this committee, Thursday with the Consistory (our Church Council), Sunday morning with the congregation at large.

The response has been positive for the most part. Some folks slipped out the other door without saying anything, which is their right. A couple of them looked absolutely baffled as I spoke, which I had expected. Several people mentioned a friend or relative who was also bipolar, or had some other diagnosable condition.

The reactions I appreciated the most were a bear hug from the big gruff fundamentalist boyfriend of one our members, who's ordinarily difficult to connect with, and the quiet ability to commiserate with a man who's fought his way back from two devastating aneurysms, and is missing about a quarter of his skull as a result of his experiences. I'm sure I'll receive a few cards and "thinking of you" phone calls in the next few weeks.

One or two people wished that I had told the congregation when I arrived a little less than two years ago; they felt that it would have gotten me a little more slack from some of the more judgmental types in the church. How to tell them that we shouldn't be judging one another, even without a label? How to say to those who told me, "Well this explains a lot" that not all my troubles can be laid to rest at the feet of bipolar disorder? Sometimes, I'm just a dumbass, and sometimes I just plain screw up. Other times, there have been interpersonal conflicts in the church that have had nothing to do with me and my busted brain. You'd like to think that the bipolar pastor is the sickest person in the church, wouldn't you? Yet there are emotional illnesses and maladaptations more devastating than any chemical imbalance I've ever been privy to.

The point is that I don't want my disease to become a convenient crutch for us to lean on, an unspoken third party onto which all the blame and difficulty of our relationship can be transferred. I like being able to joke that I'm crazy, and I like the freedom to ask for some assistance when I need it. But life together is irreducible and unending in its difficulty--and therefore its reward. To simplify it down to the level of saying "Oh, the pastor just needs to adjust his meds again" would be to take away some of the sweetness, some of the mystery, of a group reconciling itself to reality and a new kind of relationship.

Well, I'll keep you posted as this story unfolds. In the meantime, I wish you all the best and the most accepting and tolerant of communities around you, whatever closet you may be in or have stepped out of.

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