In the middle of the night and amid the deep darkness of his life, Tony Roberts thought he heard God tell him to kill himself.
A handful of psychotic drugs and a few moments later, he desperately reached his psychiatrist on the phone. The specialist told him to “just sleep it off.”
Roberts’ wife’s subsequent 911 call later that 2007 morning in New York, along with what Roberts sees as God’s miraculous grace, saved his life.
“I should have died,” he said recently, sitting in a Columbus restaurant talking about his long and winding road.
“Literally, I have been given a new life.”
The 49-year-old local resident wants to talk of both his old and new life — each chapter fraught with the fog of bipolar disorder, a condition in which sufferers experience episodes of an elevated or agitated mood known as mania, alternating with episodes of depression.
Bridging two worlds
The 20-year former Presbyterian USA pastor will begin sharing his story during a free presentation at 6:30 p.m. March 24 at the Red Room of Columbus’ Bartholomew County Public Library, 536 Fifth St.
He will speak about his new book, “Delight In Disorder: Ministry, Madness, Mission.”
The book alternates between Roberts’ rock-solid Christianity and his sometimes-shifting terrain of psychology and mental illness, which has hospitalized him five times since his diagnosis in 1996.
“Part of my mission is to bridge the two worlds,” he said. “I have benefited from both psychology and faith.
“But the reality is often that the church is so distrustful of psychiatry that they have closed the door to that. And psychiatry is often so dismissive of the church that they have closed the door on that. So the two are operating against each other — and, in the process, people are getting torn apart in the middle.
“Look — I don’t care who you are. But if you’re having religious ideation with a psychosis, you need both a church AND a psychiatrist.”
He remains relatively healthy with the help of prayer, church friends and family, plus a daily anti-psychotic drug, an antidepressant and a mood stabilizer.
Toll on job, marriage
After pastoring for 12 years, once doctors recognized his illness, he lost his ministry. He is separated from his wife, who lives in New York but works and prays for a reunion.
He lives on disability with relatives and works part time as a adjunct lecturer in writing and college-level reading at Ivy Tech Community College. After facing alternate reactions of both rejection and support for his mental condition from the faith community, he wants to help believers and nonbelievers alike reach out to families living with mental illness.
Twenty-five percent of the U.S. population has a diagnosable mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
David Zucker, a faith-based mental health advocate from Seattle who wrote the foreword of Roberts’ book, summarized very simply the clergyman-turned-writer’s work.
“He still sees God working in his life, finds himself slowly but surely transforming despite, and even through, the torment of this disease,” Zucker wrote.
Zucker also indicates that, in his 25 years of work in mental health, rarely has he seen faith groups extended appropriate empathy to families facing mental illness.
Befriending author Gary McNamee, a member of Columbus’ Reformed Presbyterian Church where Roberts attends, became friends with the author after Roberts visited the church — and eventually, McNamee heard some of Roberts’ story of heartache and partial restoration.
“The focus in our church especially the last two years has been on a ministry of mercy and grace,” McNamee said. “I know that sometimes it can take time to change some people’s mindsets and habits, but we’re trying to get things going in that direction. And I think Tony will be helpful in doing that.”
Roberts still remembers one member of one of his churches a few years ago. She met him at the door of her home when he came to visit. She broke down in tears when she told him she had battled debilitating depression for years — and felt as if she had to hide it from her church family.
“Having this disorder has allowed me to compassionately connect with people I did not connect with before,” he said.
He cannot know exactly what his future will entail or what valleys it might lead him through. But he feels he knows who makes the journey close beside him. That becomes clear in the Scripture that opens his book — wisdom he hopes serves as a reminder to others facing adversity in whatever form it might take.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
If I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
Tony Roberts has been to the depths. Now, he’s hoping to interest others in going there — simply to demonstrate the love of God and rescue others who are hurting.