Listen: Karen Pang chats to Andrew Morris about her journey through bipolar disorder.
It was 2008 when Australian actor Karen Pang, best known as a presenter on ABC’s iconic Play School, was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.
The condition, which involves both extreme highs (mania) and lows (depression), has shaken her world up twice more since that first diagnosis, at times leaving her feeling helpless and out of control. But now, eight years on, Karen has learnt much about her condition and herself, and is now “the best she’s ever been”.
In the leadup to World Mental Health Day, Karen chatted to Hope 103.2 about how she has come to such a place of strength. Accepting her condition has been one of the biggest keys.
“It’s been a real journey of learning about my sickness, understanding it and, I think, acceptance,” she said. “And also actually taking responsibility for it, and sitting with the unknown parts of it, and just going, ‘That’s okay’.
“Also, pursuing understanding of it [has been important] too, so that I know how to prevent and manage.”
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How Suffering Has Sent Karen Pang Deeper into Her Faith
Raised in the church as a child, Karen came to a deep Christian faith in her early 20s. So, when she found herself walking through the dark valley of mental illness, she dug even deeper into her relationship with Jesus.
“My faith has definitely stepped up,” she said.
“There’s been moments of [asking God], “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” And other moments of just going, “God, I can’t do anything and this is yours. Also a certain thankfulness, which is weird, has come out of [having bipolar], that I’m thankful for it.”
Knowing that Jesus suffered has helped her accept her own suffering, too.
“Everyone will have a moment of, ‘I don’t know what’s happening, God, this is dark and this hurts’.”
“Jesus is my king and my saviour,” she said, “but also the path that He walks, He’s asking me to ‘Take it up, because I want you to walk this too’. He walked a path of deep suffering, more than anyone could possibly handle, of deep heartache and darkness. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to everyone. But everyone will have a moment of that sense of, ‘I don’t know what’s happening, God, and this is dark and this hurts’.
“But through it, Jesus has shown that the greatest victory comes through those moments. The greatest learning, the greatest moulding, the greatest understanding and peace comes from it. And through it, there is rest.”
Karen has come to believe that the greatest learning comes not from quick-fixes, but from the long-term process.
“I still have moments where I really struggle and go, ‘I’m not sure I can do this’,” she said. “But I also know who He is now, more than ever, what he has done for me, and how my relationship with Him is held—not because I hold tight, it’s because he holds me tight.”
What’s Helped Most In Her Recovery
Karen’s husband, church and friends have been the greatest support in her toughest times, sometimes acting as her “hands and feet”. But there have been times of great loneliness, too, when even those closest to her couldn’t break through the effects of the illness.
In those times, God alone was her anchor.
“Prayer was definitely one of the most important things,” she said. “And also looking at God’s promises. “Understanding that He will not take us through more than we can handle, that He is for us and nothing can be against us, that nothing can separate us from His love. That He is there to help us and uphold us with his righteous right hand.
“I mean, these are promises, and promises that He keeps and that He’ll continue to keep.”
“Being by yourself is the one thing that will definitely take you even further down. You cannot do it on your own.”
A big advocate of healthy living, Karen stresses how important it is for anyone with mental illness to take all the basic practical steps.
“Take care of yourself in the simple ways,” she says. “Eat well, sleep well. Go out, get some sun, take walks. Even when it’s hard, do those things.”
She also urges people to share their journey with others, and not keep it all inside.
“Sometimes you need to take your inside voice, and make it your outside voice,” she said. “Tell people, ‘This is what’s happening and this is what I have. I find it hard, I’m not quite understanding it myself’.
“Tell them what helps you. Don’t stay silent, because sometimes that’s what you do, you stay silent. And you need to talk. You need to voice it, you need to speak up. If you can, reach out.
“Because being by yourself is the one thing that will definitely take you even further down. You cannot do it on your own.”
Karen recommends reaching out to friends, a doctor, a psychologist, or even a phone help line such as Lifeline.
“Things sound very different once you get it out there and you hear from the other person, and they put some framework around [what you’re going through],” she said. “Somehow things get a little bit more sort of, ‘Maybe, just maybe I can do this.’”
Hoping to Have Children
In the last few years, having babies has been off the agenda for Karen and her husband Bruce, because of the type of medication she’s had to take to treat bipolar.
But now that her condition is much more under control, they’re hoping to start a family.
“That’s something that I’m hopeful and prayerful for,” she said. “At the moment, I am actually starting to cut [on medication] back towards hopefully that point where I can have children.
“I think there’s a part of me that’s in two places. There’s one part that goes, ‘Oh, man! I’m trying to sort out how to take care of myself! How am I gonna take care of someone else?’
“But I think that’s a journey that everyone deals with and has to struggle through when they have children. So I’m not the only one.”
Staying Healthy, Swimming with Sharks
When asked what was on her bucket list, Karen laughed and said simply “staying healthy” was her biggest priority.
“I want to just keep capitalizing on what God is teaching me about myself and my life and who I am, and all the potential that I have—because I’m finally seeing it more than I have ever seen it,” she said.
“So in that sense, it is a bucket list to just be healthy and to now have the opportunity to hope and to dream.”
But she admitted to one other major life goal: “I want to swim with whale sharks. At Ningaloo. That’s something I’ve always thought would be cool.”