The Opposite of Denial by Karl Shallowhorn


written by Karl Shallowhorn

For by grace you have been saved through faith.
And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
Ephesians 2:8

When I think back on the course of my life and the fact that I’ve been living with a co-occurring condition of bipolar disorder and addiction for more than 37 years I am in awe of how God has been at work in helping me in my recovery. I truly struggled for years with the highs and lows of this condition accompanied by episodic psychosis. But as the scripture from Ephesians says, I’ve been saved by God’s grace.

Primarily, what I had to come to was a level of acceptance with my condition before I was able to see any kind of change. This was quite humbling in that I realized I could not manage on my own. I needed help. I vividly recall coming home from a support group meeting early in my recovery and getting on my knees to pray. I was ready. I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had to surrender. And when I say surrender I don’t mean simply giving up. What I’m trying to say is that by “raising the white flag” I had to acknowledge that I have an illness that has caused chaos in my life and if I didn’t accept this fact then my life would continue to spiral out of control.

It was through this active process of surrender and acceptance that I came to realize that a better way of life was possible. Mind you, I had to do the work, but God prepared the way. By practicing my faith, I was able to take what I choose to call “healthy risks.” It was these experiences that collectively affirmed what I had been taught as I had been taught growing up in the church. God is real and God loves me – NO MATTER WHAT.

I could go on and on and share with you the many times I’ve seen God working in my life and in my recovery, however I will share just one.

It was 2007 and I was working as Associate Director of Graduate Admissions at a Buffalo area private college. The school had a modest international student program and we actively recruited students from China. In my tenure there I went to China to recruit students on two separate occasions. This entailed 14-hour flights from the U.S. to Beijing and returning via Hong Kong.

First and foremost, I’ve never been able to sleep on a plane. So, these trips were extraordinarily difficult for me. Having bipolar disorder didn’t help things either.

For the return trip from my second visit I arose at around 5 a.m. China time (all of the country is one time zone) and prepared to leave from the city of Nanjing. From there I took a short flight to Hong Kong. Once in Hong Kong I transferred to a United Airlines flight scheduled to go to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

Things were going great until I arrived in the Windy City. And on this occasion the city
lived up to its name. I had arrived mid-day having not slept a wink on the trans-Pacific flight. Shortly after my arrival there was an announcement at the airport that all flights in the Northeast were cancelled due to a tornado watch. I began to panic.

Somehow I met two people who were traveling to Buffalo, one of whom was a regional rep for Bally fitness. She was able to secure rooms at a nearby hotel for the three of us. By this time, it was around 9 p.m.

When I arrived to my room I realized I had made traveler’s error “numero uno”. I had left all my medication in my stow away luggage. It was then that I really panicked. My brain had kicked into high gear and my mania was rearing its ugly head. I was so wired.

In a fit of desperation, I opened up the bedside table and there lay a Gideon Bible. I picked it up and randomly opened it. My eyes landed on Matthew 11:28, “Come to me all ye that labor and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

It was at that moment that a sense of peace came over me like I cannot truly describe. It was if God was saying to me, “It’s going to be ok.”

I closed the Bible and turned on the TV and watched Larry King on CNN. I didn’t sleep however I was able to rest comfortably. I eventually arose, took a shower, and made my way back to O’Hare.

The brief flight home was uneventful (Praise God!) and I was greeted at the airport by my wife and two daughters. I was so relieved to be back in Buffalo.

I immediately went home, took my meds, and crashed.

This experience has taught me so much. First of all, always take your medication in your carry-on luggage. But more importantly, God is always there to protect me and guide me to where I need to be. This was one of the most trying experiences I’ve ever endured but it was through God’s never-ending grace that I was delivered to safety.

By coming to accept my condition I have learned my strengths and limitations; the things I can do and the things that I need help with. But it is with this understanding that I can accept myself as I truly am, a beloved child of God.
Karl Shallowhorn is the Education Program Coordinator at the Community Health Center of Buffalo. Karl is a New York State Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor and also serves on the Board of Directors for the UCC Mental Health Network, the Mental Health Association in New York State, and the Mental Health Association of Erie County. He is also a contributing writer and blogger for BP magazine as well as for The Mighty. Karl is a 30-plus year member of Pilgrim-St. Luke’s-El Nuevo Camino UCC in Buffalo, NY.