Presenting on Play School reminds Karen Pang that life can be a lot of fun.
“When you work with children, there’s just no way you can work with them without having a bit of child-ness in you, too. It makes my life lighter,” she tells me.
Karen’s life is most certainly not always light. It has, at times, been pretty dark, actually.
Karen has bipolar. And without her faith, she truly believes she wouldn’t be here today.
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She shared her story with me as part of the first episode of Season Four of Undeceptions, a podcast with John Dickson, which I produce.
It was during her university days that Karen first began to feel low.
“I felt heavier and heavier. I didn’t really know what was going on. It was like all joy, all fun was just taken away. I felt like an empty, dry landscape.”
Karen was diagnosed with depression and put on anti-depressants, which helped for a while. She graduated from university and went straight into NIDA – the National Institute for Dramatic Arts, a prestigious centre in Sydney that trains some of Australia’s finest performers.
“I could feel the shadow just behind me,” says Karen. At NIDA, she dug deep into herself as an actor. Those three years were stormy, but ended in her first job, on the enduring and beloved ABC kids show Play School.
Karen’s been at Play School now for more than 18 years. She’s one of the longest serving presenters. To the camera, she sings and dances and encourages her littlest viewers to jump up and down and join in with her actions. She is full of energy. But in her mid-twenties, things got “weird”, says Karen.
“A lot of people don’t talk about the lows. As a Christian, it often felt like I shouldn’t talk about it.” – Karen Pang
“I started losing track of time. I couldn’t sleep. I felt this increasing adrenaline flowing through me. I’d stay up late drawing pictures and being super creative.”
The energy got out of control. Karen recalls wondering if perhaps she could fly, if she stepped off the top of her apartment building. Reality began to blur.
“It was my first hit of what a serious ‘high’ looked like,” she said. “I went to hospital. And they said I had bipolar.”
Bipolar disorder is a mental illness marked by extreme changes in mood from high to low, and from low to high. Highs are periods of mania, while lows are periods of depression.
After Karen’s extreme high, came the low. She was in hospital for three months.
“A lot of people don’t talk about the lows. As a Christian, it often felt like I shouldn’t talk about it. Because I was in a constant state of suicidal thoughts. I was in the thick of it. I was hurting myself, badly.
“That period is like a cloud. It’s a thick, dark fog. I didn’t know who my husband was. I didn’t recognise my family. I don’t remember much of it at all.”
According to Sane.org, people with bipolar are 17 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. One in four people with bipolar will attempt suicide.
Speaking with Karen in her apartment in Sydney’s northwest, she tells me she’s been in a pretty good place for a while.
“I still have my days. But I feel quite stable now, steadfast. I think the Bible would put it as something like ‘quietness’. Quietness and stillness are essential in this experience with bipolar.”
“It’s not only the opposite of bipolar, but it’s what the Bible teaches us is the best place [to be]. And also [to be] on your knees, because as [Jesus] says, ‘Bring me the broken hearted … bring me those who are weak.’
“Being on my knees has been the best place to be. Prayer has made it possible for me to be able to live in this space.”
A bipolar diagnosis can be a tight space in which to live, says Karen. It’s a lonely place, and one with a defensive posture. The feeling that no one could understand what life is like for a person with bipolar runs deep.
“I have heard God say, ‘It’s okay. I can take this. Just keep going.'” – Karen Pang
It’s taken Karen a long time to accept her mental illness. And to filter the advice that comes from ‘outsiders’. Particularly in the early stages of her diagnosis, Karen says she listened to a lot of people tell her that she wasn’t praying enough, or that she should read her Bible more. People would try to heal her, praying over her, behaving as though she had a demon inside her.
“Looking back on it, I guess it’s amusing. It really was like a circus. And I was the show. I feel glad that I got out of that, and didn’t let it harm me.”
These days, Karen doesn’t pray that God will heal her.
“I’ve prayed that prayer so many times. I’ve been really angry with God. I raged, I questioned. I demanded that he fix this.”
“And I think there have been key times where he’s said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that’. And as my life has continued on, I realise my life is blessed. My life is good. I have a good story. I’m glad he hasn’t taken that away.
“I have heard God say, ‘It’s okay. I can take this. Just keep going.'”
This story is taken from Episode 1 of Season 4 of Undeceptions, part of the Eternity Podcast Network. Eternity writer Kaley Payne produces Undeceptions, and interviewed Karen for the podcast in 2020.