Mental Illness, Redemption, and a God I Can Trust–Part 2

…This post is continued from last week. Click to read Part 1.

Emerging into Light

Eventually I met and married a good man who has a gift for granting safety to others. I trusted him enough to make him part of my family and to start a family with him despite my greatest fear: that I would be mentally ill myself. My sister shared the same fear, so we granted some peace to one another by promising to intervene if we ever saw symptoms.

Adulthood gave the distance I needed to safely sort through my experiences and loosen my grip on self-protection. I saw a counselor, the first person I ever told about the most painful realities of life in the shadow of schizophrenia. When I told her my mother slept with my old koala, she didn’t retch in horror. She didn’t belittle my pain or administer testing to see whether my own psychological disturbance was beyond the scope of her abilities. She simply said compassionately, “You lost your mother.” For some reason, I had never thought of it that way, and her words gave me a framework to understand the repeating cycle of loss and grief our family endured. They freed me from the sense that I hadn’t done enough, that in my reluctance to repeatedly reattach myself to a mother who kept fading, I had somehow let her down.

Later, I saw another counselor, who helped me explore the idea that I had more to offer the world than competence. That part of my calling in this life is simply to be me, and that opening up does more than expose me to pain—it offers a gift God meant for me to share.

A third counselor helped me take another step, graciously walking through symptoms of serious and chronic mental illness to assure me I wasn’t ill. She helped me embrace the truth about myself: I am weak, vulnerable, fragile. These conditions aren’t incompatible with normal life, as I had thought, but definitive to normalcy. They’re realities I must accept if I’m also to accept God’s unconditional love.

But growing emotional health didn’t soothe my sorrow over Mom’s ongoing struggle with schizophrenia. In fact, as I grew in courage to face my pain, my awareness of pain intensified.

I met friends’ moms at weddings, baby showers, and birthday parties. I agonized over what to tell my children about their grandmother. I wondered whether to blame or pity Mom when her choices caused trouble for herself or others. And I waited with shallow breath for the next time her medication would fail or she would stop taking it.

Then one day, Mom left home without word. For more than a month, we followed clues that led us far enough to guess she had found shelter, but privacy laws blocked our efforts to confirm where. I lay in bed at night, prayers mingling with images of terrible things happening to her. After some family friends spotted her at a homeless shelter where they were serving a holiday meal, my sister went to visit. Mom barely recognized her.

Eventually she came home and crawled back toward reality. Shopping with Dad, she stood in the aisle displaying picture frames, staring at smiling families. “What’s family?” she asked him. She couldn’t remember what the word meant, but knew it was significant.

One day I was riding with some coworkers to an offsite meeting when my husband called to tell me Mom had been arrested. Through her trial, conviction, and prison time, all we could do was write letters substantiating her health history and begging for the treatment she needed—which she eventually received.

The day I saw Mom’s bewildered face on her state’s department of corrections website was among my saddest. But that was when God helped me finally understand that her experience was not mine, that I needn’t be ashamed or afraid to be her daughter. The truth about her was no uglier than the truth about me.

A New Day

When I sought counsel from a pastor, I hoped he could address questions about Mom’s spiritual condition and why God allows mental illness. Wide-eyed and stammering, he left my questions mostly unaddressed and showed that the church’s silence about mental illness indicated they weren’t sure what to say. So again I challenged God to answer my questions himself.

Then a study of Isaiah transformed my view of God himself. He’s a God who challenges us as well:

“Who has done such mighty deeds, summoning each new generation from the beginning of time? It is I, the Lord, the First and the Last. I alone am he” (Isaiah 41:4).

This same God makes clear who carries the blame for our sorry and painful condition. He also proposes a magnanimous solution:

“ ‘Come now, let’s settle this,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool’ ” (Isaiah 1:18).

He promises to love us better than even a mother can: “Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15).

And he has given us a dazzling vision of a time when we will live in the kind of world we were made for:

“In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together; the leopard will lie down with the baby goat. The calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all” (Isaiah 11:6).

As I wrestled with a theology of suffering, tainted by my 21st-century Western assumption that I deserved a comfortable and happy life, I stopped asking God why and how he could let schizophrenia happen to my family. I knew the answer: We are pervasively flawed and deeply altered by our sinful condition, and faith-filled or not, there is no reason such a thing shouldn’t happen in this life. No reason it shouldn’t have happened to my family. And someday, when we’re all remade as whole and unmarred people, I imagine creation’s renewal will be sweeter for people who have suffered the way Mom has. After accepting the truth and tragedy of our collective condition, I started seeing hope and redemption in our experience.

Bright Hope

Earlier this year, my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary. Mom lives at home with Dad, takes her medication, sees her psychiatrist, takes care of herself, and lives well. Thanks in part to conversations spurred by my book Troubled Minds, my family talks more openly about Mom’s illness than we have before. Mom reads, travels a bit, sews clothes for her grandchildren, and remembers their birthdays. She calls me and sends emails. She laughs when I tease her, and she understands my jokes. In some ways, the woman I knew as a child has come back, and I’m so thankful.

But the people we were aren’t truly gone. When we talk on the phone, I still listen for clues that Mom is ailing. When I visit her, I’m still nervous about what I’ll see. I feel protective of her, careful with myself, and profoundly sad for her suffering. I know we’ll never relate as most moms and daughters do.

But God is my mother to the motherless (Psalm 68:5), and he has proven himself much stronger than me and more than trustworthy. He is the strong hand I needed as a teenager—and he was then, even when I didn’t recognize him. He covers the old scars on my heart, not with a patch but with something much stronger and softer that doesn’t remove the reality of my sadness but somehow makes me richer for it.

The shame is gone. I’m not embarrassed of Mom’s illness; I’m proud of the ways she’s living with it. Schizophrenia may still do more ugly work in this woman, but my eyes will stay open; I’m no longer afraid to be like her or to take the emotional risks inherent in loving her.

I don’t know what happened to that old stuffed koala. I suspect she was lost somewhere between hospital stays, shelters, and other places Mom has lived. But that’s okay with me—the mom and daughter who loved her have both outgrown her. And like everyone who makes it as far as we have, we’re both missing some fur and our stuffing is a little flat. But the journey has made us softer.

This article was first published in Christianity Today magazine.

11 Comments
  1. Charles Lenn says:

    Thank you for this candid and honest review of a delicate matter. Our mother had a few mental breakdowns along the way. Godly woman and talented in so many ways. She died in 2012 at 89 after a long bout with Alzheimer’s. Her six children took care of her and our Dad. (Both of them was under hospice care at the same time…he died five years earlier from cancer.) I wouldn’t trade what we learned of God’s unexplainable grace during that time. Thank you again for sharing your story. May more families find the peace of Christ in their painful places. Blessings

  2. Cathy says:

    Dear Amy,

    I’ve been receiving your emails for a few years now, as I’ve dealt with a sister who suffers from anxiety and depression. You helped me understand so much on this journey, by sharing yours. “Redemption, and a God I Can Trust” is beautifully written, and I see how the truth in these words can help me as I mentor young women who, though they do not have a mental illness diagnosis, struggle with why painful and scary things happen to then. I don’t know where we all got the idea that our Christian lives would be easy and comfortable. The Bible doesn’t teach it, but we somehow expect it.

    Thank you for helping me understand that our pain and suffering are opportunities to see God work in mighty ways. And, as you have done/are doing, use those experiences to help others in similar circumstances. To not be afraid of what others think, but to speak boldly and openly to remove stigmas and judgement.

    May our Father continue to bless your life and your work.

    You are a blessing!
    Cathy

  3. Robyn Mulder says:

    Thanks, Amy, for sharing your story. I’m glad your mom is living a more stable life now, and I hope she continues to do so. I found your website after I saw your video on the Fresh Hope website. Thank you for all you do to help people understand mental illness and their loved ones who struggle with it. ~Robyn

  4. DragonLady says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. So touching.

  5. Nancy Franson says:

    I’ve been following your writing for some time now, and I’ve lost count of how many copies of your book I’ve bought and given away.

    And this – this is so spot on: “We are pervasively flawed and deeply altered by our sinful condition, and faith-filled or not, there is no reason such a thing shouldn’t happen in this life. No reason it shouldn’t have happened to my family.”

    It just makes no sense theologically that, if we believe the fall corrupted everything – even to the cellular level – that the brain would be included. And yet my heart aches for so many believers who are ashamed of their mental illness or unwilling to seek help, or consider medication.

    Keep writing. Keep telling your stories. This is so important. Thank you.

© 2015 Amy Simpson.