Church and Families With Specially Challenged Kids #6 (Mental Illnesses)
How does the church stand with families who have a child suffering from mental illness?That strikes me as an issue that can get right to the core of living on behalf of one another. How do we encourage, welcome, serve, and bear the burdens of these families?
I’ve asked Carmel, a long-time, dear friend of ours, to write about her journey with her son. Please feel free to continue offering suggestions in the comments section about how the church can help.
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Mourning Mental Illness: Grief that gives way to God’s Grace.
by Carmel Christine
A turn of events can catapult your life as you know it into a sphere so foreign, so cold, dark, distant and frightening that you barely recognize it. My teen son was diagnosed with Bipolar two and a half years ago. This disorder didn’t arrive subtly so we could slowly get our bearings and adjust to it. It showed itself as depression first. Our effervescent son of younger years was changing, becoming more moody, but as a teenager moodiness comes with the territory. Within a very short time, he almost took his life and only by the grace of God the attempt was interrupted. It was then life as we knew it changed.
At the moment his doctor told us we needed to get immediate help for our son, I felt as though my heart was being pulled out of my chest by hand. My head on the other hand was trying to take in the doctor’s words—very slowly: “. . . nurse is looking up numbers . . . treatment centers . . .” while also trying to process a mom’s to-do list: “pack suitcase . . . but what about his food allergies? . . . how far away will he be? . . .” Grief is setting in but there’s no time for it. I’m cold all over. I have to move. I have to make calls. Not just one call—many, because I discovered not all places were able to take a kid with life-threatening food allergies. The risk? He’s suicidal which means no sharp things, ties and strings off shoes, etc., but they can’t keep him from drinking a glass of milk. That’s all it would take since he’s anaphylactic to it.
The darkness gets darker and has pushed me toward an abyss, a chasm. I was led to pray in order to get to the other side of this. My inner prayer to God then was two simple words: “Father, God.” All I could do was repeat it over and over. God moved me to take this thing moment by moment. I made the calls, one at a time until finally the right doctor and the right help came. Now I could breathe. Not deeply, but enough to feel. I felt grief. This feeling was the same as what I felt for the passing of my parents the year earlier. I’m not comfortable with it, but then who is. My optimistic outlook, past losses and how God had used them for His glory, to show mercy and grace, spirit and life at the darkest of times, kept me focused this time.
As time went on and medical treatment began, each stage was met with another loss. Each new medicine tried was always a risk. Then there was school. You see, there was always hope he would go back to school but that didn’t work out. When I would walk into the building to pick up his books I see all the usual activity of a typical high school—banners on the walls announcing a school dance, the window case with the trophies of sports wins, students, his friends, laughing and going to class. Walking through the school one day, I happened to look across the top of one wall where an academic banner stretched across with names of proficient and distinguished students from the previous spring. My eyes scrolled down the list and there was my son’s name. My eyes welled up instantly—mostly with pride but then an uncomfortable, overwhelming sadness—not because I didn’t think he could be there again, but that it wouldn’t be the same. With his bipolar (not everyone with bipolar experiences it the same) he needs more time to study, to read, to take breaks—basically he has to move “with” his disorder to take advantage of his more productive moments, which are unpredictable, so when the “lows” hit, he won’t be too behind. With that kind of pace, the way he goes about his education has to be different; a new normal.
Going to dances or even events like July 4th celebrations present more difficulties because of the sounds and lights. They affect him and without going into it, it’s just another reminder that his activities have to be planned out and can’t be spontaneous. My point is there is a loss experienced.
The difference between a mourning of death and this kind of mourning is it is excruciatingly private. Unlike mourning the loss of a loved one, there are no neighborly visits from family or friends. No covered casseroles lined up on the kitchen counter; no notes or cards of encouragement or any of the markings of cherished care that comes when death interrupts life. No service with a preacher offering words of love and comfort, or ending in prayers for God’s grace. Still when mental illness forged its way into my 15-year-old son, it did so cruelly, ripping into the effervescent personality of our fun-loving teenager.
Where was the church in all this? Well, the year earlier when my mom died, I visited a small church in my town. After services, I approached the pastor, told him that I was visiting and my mom had recently passed away. He stood there and said he was sorry but he needed to go catch someone before they left. I said, sure go ahead. I left too. It would be another year before we would find a church but that was ok. We still had God.
The beginning of our new path together as a family is still developing. We have learned to reach out to a few people and have found a church family which means everything. The amazing courage my son has shown throughout this has overwhelmed me and taught me so much. Some things just don’t matter anymore. It doesn’t much matter if the house isn’t picked up when he has invited a friend over. We have learned who our friends are and who not to invest time with. I personally have reached a new place in my faith. There isn’t a lot of time for wasting—time involved in the things this world thinks is important. My focus is on God’s Kingdom. My son is mine to care for here but belongs to God.
Our son is very open with his condition. Still, many people find it hard to realize all that he copes with because unlike other disabilities, with mood disorders or mental illness, you can’t “see” it. But one fine thing you can see is his fun-loving spirit is back, he found God and loves Jesus! Praises always to our One & Only.