He was being Jesus last month but Bible College student Zac Anderson has felt a closer connection to God for years, through the ups and downs of having bipolar disorder.
“It’s something I had never had to do to that extent, until then.” – Zac Anderson
“I’m convinced that the six months which were the hardest in my mental health journey with bipolar disorder are probably the six months I grew the most as a Christian. Simple as that,” shares Anderson, who recently played the Son of God in a Sydney production of The Mark Drama (a dramatised version of the Gospel of Mark).
“I had to rely on God the most I’ve ever had to rely on God. I mean, some kind of unknown chemical imbalance in my brain? Are you kidding? I have got to rely on God about that.
“The big thing was living through suffering and trusting God through it. It’s something I had never had to do to that extent, until then.
“Not to mention, when you’re manic, some people think they are God and people feel a close connection with God. I definitely experienced that. I really had my eyes widely opened to the beauty of God’s creation and his obvious love for us.”
Son of Greg Anderson, the Northern Territory’s Anglican bishop, Anderson is in his second year at Moore Theological College. Six years ago, he was studying at the prestigious Sydney Conservatorium of Music – when he got his bipolar diagnosis. “There were a few moments of foreshadowing, even early in my life, but it was probably in about September 2012,” remembers Anderson, a talented trumpet player.
“I wasn’t getting heaps of sleep. I was busy at uni as well as doing a couple of things on the side. So, busy-ness and lack of sleep, with a little dab of stress, meant that it all turned into this vicious cycle of not getting any sleep – but I started to notice that when I didn’t get any sleep, instead of getting tired, I got wired.”
“Christian, comedy and bipolar? Yeah, there are lots of ways they could go together …” – Zac Anderson
Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression, which Anderson says is a reasonable summary of the extremes he can feel. At its worst, Anderson could be laughing hysterically at the simplest joke, then five minutes later, he’s crying about the grandeur of music – because he glanced at a piano. Next minute, he’s yelling at his sister.
Managing such an internal rollercoaster has been possible through medication, family support and his Christian faith. Almost since his diagnosis, Anderson has been public about his mental illness, dealing with it and how Christianity helps. A regular Facebooker who doesn’t mind sharing the lows and highs of life, Anderson has even used his bipolar experiences as fuel for stand-up comedy routines. No joke; one of his biggest gigs was being part of the Stand Up for Mental Health showcase at Sydney’s Town Hall in 2014.
“Christian, comedy and bipolar? Yeah, there are lots of ways they could go together but the way they happened to me is I became a Christian, I’ve always loved comedy and then I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder – and that was a good source of comedy,” explains Anderson.
“I think my comedy is for people who have or are suffering from mental health stuff, or know intimately a person who is. Which is why, depending upon whom I am telling the jokes to, there may or may not be laughter.” Some people can feel such pity or sadness for Anderson that “they don’t realise I’m actually making fun of the bad thing. They just think I’m experiencing the bad thing.”
“Hope makes a massive difference for people suffering with mental health issues.”
An artistic dude with dry wit and engaging honesty, Anderson doesn’t pretend to be a spokesperson for mental illness or Christianity. But he is eager to shatter any unhelpful stereotypes about both, as well as taking opportunities to explain how “Christianity is this underlying safety net and worldview that explains so much”. However, he’s not suggesting faith in Jesus is some sort of instantaneous quick fix.
“I’m not talking about a silver bullet solution here. That if you trust in Jesus he will fix your mental health issue. By the way, I do believe he could do that, but nowhere did he promise that he would do that.”
“Depression and mania – all mental illness – is actually a part of the world not being right. In the same way that there are earthquakes, there are chemical imbalances in our brain that make us feel outside of the normal range of mood. There’s just some things that are wrong with the world and I think everyone would agree with that.”
From that point of agreement, funnyman Zac has a serious suggestion for sharing his hope in Christ with anyone experiencing mental health issues.
“I’d just talk them to about how God’s plan is to make all those wrong things right. All those wrong things came out of a disjointed relationship between humans and God, [and] its actually Jesus as a human – and as God – who can bridge that broken relationship. Even though you [can be] experiencing just how bad the world is right now in your very self, which is so powerful and terrible, trusting in Jesus means you can have hope.”
“That would be my big thing – the hope. Hope makes a massive difference for people suffering with mental health issues. Also, its helpful to know it doesn’t have to be your fault, because you live in a place that’s just not perfect.”