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November 17, 2006

From Mental Illness to Spiritual Wisdom: A Father-Daughter Odyssey

For 10 years, Barb and Tom Zanzig have been living with the effects of mental illness, she as a young adult with bipolar disorder and he as her father.

In March 2006, they decided to speak out publicly for the first time, not only about the devastating impact of mental illness, but also about the spiritual lessons that each of them learned in the midst of it all.

They shared their stories in a very personal presentation at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, CA. The event is the largest of its kind, perhaps in the world, each year attracting over 20,000 Catholic educators and pastoral leaders.

 Tom and Barb Zanzig

About the Zanzigs:

Tom Zanzig is a writer, editor, and publisher of religious education and faith formation resources, primarily directed to Roman Catholics. For some 30 years he created resources for adolescents. In recent years his energies have focused on adult spirituality and faith formation. The father of two adult children, Tom lives in Madison, WI with his wife, Peg.

Barb Zanzig is 31 years old and a makeup artist with MAC Cosmetics in Madison, WI. She was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her early twenties. During the last decade she has experienced many of the all too familiar effects of that disease, as well as several traumatic life-altering events. She has finally begun to enjoy some stability in her life, but understands only too well how fragile stability can be.

Some 400 people attended their workshop, titled “From Mental Illness to Spiritual Wisdom: A Father-Daughter Odyssey.” Their goal was to share the particular spiritual insights they have gained through Barb’s bipolar condition.

Much of Barb’s portion of the presentation was drawn from the journals she has kept for years. For his part, Tom offered theological and spiritual insights that emerged for him as he struggled to parent Barb.

They hope that their story might help others who struggle to grow spiritually despite, or perhaps because of, mental illness.

"Over the last 10 years we have been very conscious of this illness and its impact, and we have been living the story that is bipolar disorder, both from her point of view as the person suffering from it, and I as her father," said Tom Zanzig in the presentation. "In the midst of all that, we have learned what we believe to be profoundly important spiritual lessons."

"We are not naïve -- we've gone through too much to be naïve," Tom was quick to add. "We're not offering any kind of pie in the sky spirituality. Jesus loves me, I believe. But that is not enough. It's not that simple. It's a difficult journey we've been on."

"Even with faith, and with deep spirituality, mental illness can kill people," said Tom.   "We are not offering any kind of answer to this. We're offering a way that we have found to try to move through it, at least at this point in our lives."

For Barb, that means having a new understanding that just because someone is suffering does not mean that God is absent. To the contrary, she said "I've learned that in the midst of wrenching pain and loneliness, God can seem most present."

Said Barb,"God does not fix us, but gives us strength by suffering with us."

Listen online

NAMI is pleased to offer the full audio of the Zanzig's presentation online. Please use one of the links below (the high quality version will take longer to download). To play the audio on your computer, simply click the link. If you wish to download the file for playback on an iPod or other MP3 device, right-click on the link and choose "Save Target As...".

Total running time: 1 hour 18 minutes