Written by Mike Bonikowsky

Finding life in a community of broken people

Shortly before I left for college, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Born and raised in a tiny rural Ontario town, I was preparing to leave for a Christian college in Calgary. The college acceptance package included a medical form asking that I disclose any diagnosed conditions.

Wishing to begin my career in Christian academia on a note of transparency, I described my new diagnosis in a letter and sent it west. Two weeks later, I received a note informing me that my acceptance had been revoked.

It was now August. I had applied to only one other school, another small Christian university, this one in my home province. For lack of any other option, I registered, keeping my mouth shut about my diagnosis and its corresponding medication. September came and I left all I knew to enter that noted incubator of mental and emotional wellness: the college dorm.

It was a converted Jesuit monastery in the grand tradition of 1960s austerity—a fluorescent-lit cinderblock low-rise, with monastic cells converted into dorm rooms. The classic freshmen combination punch of exponentially increased freedom and correspondingly increased consequences played havoc with my already-fragile mental health.

At night I was rigid, filled with anxiety, and struggling with insomnia. By day I was too exhausted to focus in class, which lead to declining grades—feeding my anxiety. My moods became increasingly erratic, swinging between manic euphoria and near-catatonic depression.

I alternated between gorging and starving myself. I went a month without showering. I began to cut myself with increasing frequency. One night in February I walked along the banks of a nearby river, debating whether or not to attempt a Virginia Woolf-style drowning. It appeared to all intents and purposes that the Calgary school had made the correct decision in not accepting responsibility for me. I was increasingly abdicating responsibility for myself.

But I was not alone. The school’s acceptance policies had welcomed other misfits—most of whom seemed to end up on the same stretch of cinderblock hallway as I did. One by one we emerged from our cells and began getting to know one another: pastoral candidates who were years deep in crises of faith, worship leaders in the grips of addiction, closeted gay youth-pastors-in-the-making, and alcoholics who were aspiring counselors.

Everywhere young men and women cast upon the strange shores of post-adolescent mental illness, their bodies bearing the unmistakable signs. Most, like me, had no real sense of why they were there, except that they had followed some undefined, unnamable calling, and had found the door open to them.

My cellmates in that hallway were not afraid of me. Their broken hearts were open. They listened patiently to my rantings and put up with the smell of my unwashed, uncared for body. They looked without fear on my self-inflicted wounds and gave me tips on how to keep them clean. They forced me to eat when I would not. I was nocturnal, but I was part of a nocturnal order, passing together the long watches of the night on the borders of adulthood.

The Calgary school had rejected me based on a well-founded fear that it would be unable to take on the responsibility of my care. The Toronto school, in what can only be described as an act of mercy and of faith, took on that responsibility, and the responsibility of many others like me. In other words, it chose to be the body of Christ, and not just a school.

The acceptance I received there became a turning point in my life. I was teetering on the edge in just about every way, and the choice before me was quite literally between life and death. Looking back, it seems clear to me that had I not been shown that acceptance, my choices would have been the rejection of Christianity and spiritual death or the ending of my own physical life.

Mental illness is a frightening thing—for the friends of the sufferer as much as for the sufferer themselves. The acceptance of those who suffer so is an act of faith. My school made that act of faith. It opened itself up to the possibility of shame and embarrassment on my behalf. It chose to love me and make time and space for me to find myself again.

And the strange grace that was given to the school, and to all of us who made it up, was this: that by opening its doors to those rejected by others it created a community who took care of one another in a way no administrative body could have orchestrated. The school made of itself a place in which our wretched little family, our wretched little church, could be what it was and do the work it was called together to do. We chose life for those who could not make that choice for themselves, until at last, they could.