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Mental illness devastated my family — 3 things I wish I’d known

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Tom’s a lot like the sky: the sky clears, but the clouds — they inevitably gather again.

A decade ago, a family member I’d known my entire life — I’ll change his name to Tom for privacy — experienced what professionals call a “psychotic break.”

In a short period of time, he’d married, become a father and gotten a new job. All normal life changes, but for him the stress brought about paranoia, delusions and extremely erratic behavior. Overnight, he went from someone with no history of mental illness to someone convinced that newspapers were sending him messages and that a radio had been implanted in his brain.

Since then, nothing — not even my own children being hospitalized for life-threatening conditions — has ever terrified me more.

A pyschiatric diagnosis followed, as did hospitalization and medications that left Tom listless. No one outside Tom’s immediate circle seemed to understand his condition, and well-intentioned but hurtful suggestions poured in — everything from extra physical exercise to demonic exorcism. [Note: No one would ever suggest a cancer patient seek an exorcism. And while I believe in supernatural realities such as exorcisms, the numerous “pray it away” suggestions Tom receives reflect the general population’s lack of understanding in regard to mental illness.]

The past 10 years have been a bumpy ride for Tom and the people close to him. While I’d love to report he’s recovered, he hasn’t, and doctors warn he never will. Presently, Tom’s a lot like the sky. Clouds gather. They part. Light shines down, and we’re all a little too happy … because the clouds — they inevitably gather again. A recent stormy season has made me reflect on the last decade and the three things I wish I’d known at the time of Tom’s diagnosis:

1. He may never get much better: “Stable” has had to take the place of “recovered” when it comes to Tom’s mental health. “Stable” is the goal, and he gets there by staying on his medications and going to counseling. The problem is that these therapies never bring full relief, and so he’s constantly tempted to give them up. There’s weight gain and extreme fatigue with the medications and counseling sessions often feel like a waste of time. But the fact is that Tom does better for greater lengths of time when he takes part in these therapies, and as his support system we have to demand his faithfulness to them.

2. Nothing will make you doubt — or depend — on your faith more: “How could a loving God will or allow ________?” Like so many who’ve experienced a great tragedy, the question revisits me often. The sadness at times is overwhelming, so much that when I think about praying I become angry at God and doubt his goodness. But then somehow, His grace finds me. Again and again, he’s waiting at the kitchen sink or in that long car ride. Trust me, he tells me every time I stare at him on the cross. I see his pierced, outstretched hands, and I’m reminded of the redemption found in suffering.

The preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, “I have learned to kiss the waves that throw me up against the Rock of Ages.”

And while I despise mental illness, the way this tragedy has inflamed in me a hunger for heaven, where I look forward to chatting with the old Tom — or rather the “new,” healed Tom for eternity … I bless it.

Once, I explained to a friend that I have no expectation of seeing Tom recovered in this life and she said, “How sad. You have no hope.” But she was mistaken. Tom’s condition has forced me stand on the hope and promises of Revelation 21:4:

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or crying for pain, for the former things have passed away.”

3. There will be gifts:  I had the pleasure of hearing Catholic author Regina Doman speak a few years ago. She shared a little bit in regard to the tragedy of losing her 5-year-old son, Joshua, in a car accident. “In all suffering, there is a gift,” she said. “Ask God to show you the gift.”

I immediately applied her wisdom to Tom’s illness and the gifts were too many to count. Grandparents have become Super Grandparents and cousins have become siblings to Tom’s child. Tom’s wife reflects Jesus more than anyone I’ve ever met in my entire life. And when the clouds part, when the sun shines down, when we get the tiniest glimpse of the old Tom, I cherish life in a whole new way.

My latest prayer is to see Tom’s child rise up into adulthood, triumphant and whole, stomping out the Devil in an awesome, holy vocation. The prayer itself burns hot, like pounded gold in the center of my heart — like hope itself, like a gift.

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