Note: This is the second half of the excerpt from my book, The Hero Doctrine, begun last Tuesday. It is the conclusion of that story. My story.
For the last six or seven months preceding that week in June, things had been getting worse with my depression. It had fully emerged as clinical bipolar disorder and I was living with a particular type called “mixed state” bipolar. People with typical bipolar disorder swing back and forth from extreme mania (high energy and optimism) to extreme depression (sadness and low energy). But mine did something else: both extremes would hit me at the same time. This meant that at night, my mind raced so fast that I couldn’t sleep (the manic side), and it raced with horrible, miserable, self-hating thoughts (the depressive side). It was hell. I found ways to cope with it temporarily, but it was getting worse. The depression fed the sin, and the sin, of course, fed the depression.
But as I said, God had a plan. I first received word of it in church one Sunday in late spring. A voice told me: get medication; when you get medication, everything else will fall into place.
I don’t know if the happy and hopeful feeling I felt in church that day was the Spirit or my mania or both, but I now, finally, had a ray of light to follow. Later that week I called my psychiatrist, who I had not seen in a very long time. (Years ago I had been on some medication but in my pride I rejected it because I didn’t want to be dependent on something artificial for my health.) Unfortunately, my psychiatrist didn’t answer the phone and I had to leave a message. One thing about my psychiatrist is that he didn’t call back very reliably if it wasn’t an emergency, and this was no exception. Weeks went by without word from him, and I returned to my previous state of mind.
But then came the Wednesday of that miraculous June week, and I got a call. He had an opening that day, within a few hours, and would I like to come in then? I certainly would, and so I did. Miraculously, the first medication we tried turned out to be exactly what I needed. So many poor souls dealing with mental disorders have to try several different medications until they find the right one, and that journey can be stressful and full of unexpected emotions and other issues. But I found the right one on the first try. Getting that medication was miracle number one.
Then that next Sunday, a friend of mine, the only one with whom I had ever talked about my problems, issued a direct order: “Go talk to the bishop or I’ll beat the hell out of you.” The change that was being wrought in my brain at that time made this idea suddenly so…possible. Utterly terrifying, yes, but also utterly necessary. Completely unlike the past six years had been. And so I made an appointment with my bishop that very day, and confessed my sins to him a couple of days later. That caused miracle number two.
Somehow, with those miracles (and a few other small ones I won’t go into here), my chains…were broken. I can’t tell you why that week, out of all the time that had passed, was the week, but that past Thursday, the day after getting on medication, was the last day of indulgence. The addiction was cut off (though, as with alcoholics, I confess it will never leave me totally in this life). I gained control over my life, control over my soul. Though some might say I was freed by medication, I know who was responsible for putting me on that path.
After three weeks of worthy living, I took the sacrament again, for the first time in years. And because of that fact, I now truly understand the sacrament. It became the most important part of the week, the reason I went to church, and still pretty much is: to appreciate the sacrifice of Christ, to be grateful for it and to always remember Him.
I began other changes immediately. I started exercising, and I took pleasure in it, eventually losing about sixty pounds. I also switched from glasses to contact lenses. All cosmetic changes, to be sure, but reflective of the change inside me, and as a result I gradually stopped hating myself.
LDS author and BYU professor Brad Wilcox says in his talk “His Grace Is Sufficient,” “The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can be cleansed and consoled but that we can be transformed.” This is what happened to me, inside and out. A friend who left on his mission while I was in my previous state, came home and literally did not recognize me for a moment, my countenance had changed so much. My previous life, defined by self-hatred, stagnation, and failure, was transformed by the power of Christ, by the power of the Atonement. I shed the natural man and was reborn spiritually. Christ had healed me. Had transformed me.
Within a few months I was ordained an elder and received the Melchizedek Priesthood. (It is a bit of personal trivia that I was never ordained a priest; I ended up going directly from teacher to the Melchizedek Priesthood.) At that point I wanted to try to repay the Savior for what He did for me, and very soon I knew it was finally time to go about preparing to serve a mission.
This I discovered in an unexpectedly concrete way. Related thoughts had been slowly bubbling up in those days, and one day I wrote in my journal the words, “I want to serve…” and stopped. For a moment I pondered what words should follow after: did I want to serve “a mission” or did I want to serve “God”? Both would have worked fine, but as an aspiring writer I wanted to use just the right words. I ended up scribbling, “I want to serve God and go on a mission.” This word choice may seem inconsequential to most people, but for me it proved significant. When I looked up D&C Section 4, the quintessential missionary scripture, it repeated back to me the phrasing I knew was influenced by the Holy Ghost: “Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work” (D&C 4:3, emphasis added). Reading that verse and taking note of that exact word choice I was inspired to use was confirmation to me that I should start working on my missionary papers. And so I did.
They were officially submitted by that next May, and like every prospective missionary I looked forward to finding out where I would go. My guesses were either Canada or Chile, where each of my namesakes (Elder Maxwell and my Uncle David) were sent. But the weeks passed, and the call didn’t come. A few months went by, and finally my stake president inquired as to what was going on. He discovered what has become one of the greatest ironies of my life: the medication that I take for bipolar disorder, the medication that saved my life and helped put my soul in such a state that I could be worthy to serve a mission, caused a red flag to go up in Salt Lake; those who take that particular medication are generally not allowed to go on missions because of the conditions they take it for. And so, after months of patience and quiet work and prayer, I was asked by my stake president how I felt about not going on a mission and moving on with my life.
Someone else may have taken this news as a wonderful excuse not to take two years out of their life and work their guts out slaving away in some backwoods village for people he didn’t know. But I felt something different in those guts of mine. Because of what God did for me, because of the healing I had received, I took that news and continue to take it in the exact opposite way: instead of merely serving the Lord for two years, I was filled with resolve that I must serve Him throughout my entire life. He healed me, and freed me. What else could I do but help Him heal and free others?
I believe that is the mark of true healing—gratitude that is shown, not just told. Joseph Smith once said, “Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive. God does not look on sin with [the least degree of] allowance, but … the nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.” Thus, as the Atonement takes its effect, and we are gradually brought to be one with Christ, we become like Him, and see God’s children from His point of view, and seek to retrieve those eternally important souls back from the abyss, to place them in the arms of Jesus, where they can be, as I was, healed and transformed.
Stephan Peers elaborated on this point. He told me once that “One of the great aspects of the Atonement is not so much that Jesus takes on our sins. It is why he does and what he asks us to learn from it. Basically, we try to do what he does: lift burdens. As he did, you see the burdens of others which much more clarity when you have experienced your own… When we are in the depths [of pain and despair], and we look up and the Lord says, This is how it works. Whom do you want to be? THAT is when we get bold and strong and learn to lift others, and have discernment, and learn to carry burdens, magnificently most of which are not ours.”
I understand how hard and awful and miserable it can be to be locked in a perpetual grapple with sin, and how a person struggling with addiction can really and truly be good at heart. I remember how despite my inner lust, I also could not bear to tell a lie. The fact that a person is struggling, and not complacent, with addiction, is proof that they are not inherently bad; we addicts are simply in the devil’s hands and so must do what he wants us to do. Our agency has almost entirely been stripped away, and manacles been placed around our wrists. The first choice may have been ours (though often made in ignorance), but the rest usually are not.
And so I ask you, if you do not know this fight firsthand, not to look down on those of us fighting against this enemy. What we need is love and understanding, the knowledge that we are not alone and not repulsive to you. We need to know, and you need to know, that change is possible. In the mighty words of President Thomas S. Monson, “Men can change.”
We cannot change alone, that is true, but then again, remember that we are never actually alone. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland wrote, “Brothers and sisters, one of the great consolations of this Easter season is that because Jesus walked such a long, lonely path utterly alone, we do not have to do so. His solitary journey brought great company for our little version of that path—the merciful care of our Father in Heaven, the unfailing companionship of this Beloved Son, the consummate gift of the Holy Ghost, angels in heaven, family members on both sides of the veil, prophets and apostles, teachers, leaders, friends. All of these and more have been given as companions for our mortal journey because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the Restoration of His gospel. Trumpeted from the summit of Calvary is the truth that we will never be left alone nor unaided, even if sometimes we may feel that we are. Truly the Redeemer of us all said: ‘I will not leave you comfortless: [My Father and] I will come to you [and abide with you].’”
The mercy of Christ is all well and good to be known intellectually. But that knowledge of the Savior’s love is nothing compared to the actual experience of it. You cannot know Christ from simply reading about Him. To know Him is to feel His eternal love, and experience it in all its capacity.
Brother Wilcox said, “The older I get, and the more I understand this wonderful plan of redemption, the more I realize that in the final judgment it will not be the unrepentant sinner begging Jesus, ‘Let me stay.’ No, he will probably be saying, ‘Get me out of here!’ Knowing Christ’s character, I believe that if anyone is going to be begging on that occasion, it would probably be Jesus begging the unrepentant sinner, ‘Please, choose to stay. Please, use my Atonement—not just to be cleansed but to be changed so that you want to stay’… The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can go home but that—miraculously—we can feel at home there.”
The Atonement’s healing powers can purge those parts of us that are worldly and mortal, that are of the natural man, and replace them with divinity. For when we deny ourselves of all ungodliness, what then remains?
Though The Dark Knight is a very dark and violent film, about evil’s encroaching and pervasive presence, it concludes on a note of hope—earned hope. The very last image we see in that movie is Batman, having taken upon himself the burden of the sins of Gotham, riding up onto an on-ramp with an unseen light up ahead, blocked from view by Batman himself. Though it is night, in the absolutely final frame, his cape whips in the wind, allowing just a single ray of light to shines out into the darkness.
That light is hope. An emblem of the Savior, He who is “the light that shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not” (D&C 6:21). The hope that anyone and everyone can access the power to overcome the darkness that envelops us. Though we all have been sinners, though many of us may currently be played as puppets in the devil’s hands, our strings can be cut and we can become more like Jesus, even, one day, a being like Him, perfect in all things, and most importantly in Christlike love. That ascension is our great hope, our great potential.
We owe Him so much—not just a tithe of ten percent, but a consecration of everything we are and possess. Let us show Him our gratitude for His infinite sacrifice, His infinite blessings. Though we can never hope to repay Him completely, we can show our appreciation by doing what He did, becoming like Him, and helping others access the freely offered gift of salvation, of healing, of heavenly transformation. There is, in Christ, hope, and help, for all of us.