It was a rainy day but a happy one. My friends and I wore shiny blue caps and gowns, tassels swaying and eyes shining. Colorful umbrellas bobbed like party balloons through a crowd of family, friends, and faculty, boosting the festive atmosphere. No more school, I kept telling myself. No more tests, papers, or grades. I had my college degree, and it was time to do something with it. I had a job lined up, an apartment my husband and I had moved into a few months earlier, and a future that felt like a wide-open door to a new country.
My husband was with me, cheering me on as I had done for him at his graduation ceremony two years before, in the early days of our dating relationship. My best friends were there, most of them in the same graduating class and making plans of their own. My parents had made the 500-mile journey to celebrate with us and show their pride in another college graduate. Despite the rain, we all smiled and snapped photos and pinched ourselves to make sure we really had made it.
But all day, Mom had that familiar faraway look in her eyes, that stiff half-smile on her lips. And as much as I had spent my teenage years trying, I had never been able to escape the emotional devastation of seeing that look. I knew that sometime soon, perhaps very soon, we would lose her again.
The Cycle of Loss
I was right.
The next morning, when my husband and I got out of bed, we wandered out of our room to spend some time with my parents before they left for home. We found Dad hovering over Mom, trying to rouse her. She lay where she had slept, awake but catatonic.
After about an hour of gentle and persistent work, she began responding to our insistence that she engage with reality. We walked her through the basics: Open your eyes. Move your arms. Move your legs. Sit up. Slowly, step by step, she revived and eventually shuffled her way to the car. My parents drove home, and a day or two later Dad called to say Mom was back in the hospital. We weren’t surprised, but we grieved, as we had so many times before–and would do many more times.
Once again, schizophrenia had stolen the precious person who had gently cared for me when I was sick, held me when I was sad, and taught me about Jesus. Her symptoms came in cycles and waves, and this wave cast a shadow over a new stage in my life. After the joy of getting married, graduating from college, and landing my first career job–that long process of gradually leaving home–I found I couldn’t really leave the grief of repeatedly losing my mother to delusions, paranoia, and incapacitation.
The Shadow of Shame
Mom’s illness began a long time ago, but it turned our lives upside down when I was 14. Although we needed years to really understand what had happened, life would never be the same after she suffered her first incapacitating psychotic break. Our family had been through a period of extraordinary stress–a major move, unemployment, culture shock, financial hardship, marital strain, the first high school graduation, and the conflict inherent in three teenage girls sharing a small bedroom. Mom’s disorder grew until it fully blossomed and made her unable to discern and understand reality.
She was hospitalized multiple times when I was in high school, and each time she returned home with bottles of pills that controlled most of her symptoms but made her miserable with their side effects. She sat on the couch, staring into space. Then she started shuffling around the house, doing what she could to care for her family. And when she started feeling well enough, she sometimes decided she didn’t need to take those pills anymore.
So the cycle would repeat itself, and we learned to live without her. When she was home, we cared for her and let her care for us the best she could. But we didn’t really have the luxury of needing her–so we didn’t.
Neither did we have the luxury of seeking sympathy or support in the people around us. We knew, as everyone does, that we weren’t supposed to talk about mental illness. We got the message that we were alone, worthy of shame, and supposed to pretend everything was fine. So that’s what we did.
Going before God
I had never heard a sermon that mentioned mental illness. No one had addressed it in Sunday school or youth group, and I had the distinct impression the church was afraid of the questions I needed to ask: questions about what was happening to Mom, why my good Christian family was suffering, and why God didn’t fix it.
I knew God was always with me, and his presence led me through every dark moment. I asked him for help every day, but I didn’t know he had anything to say about mental illness–the church’s silence translated to silence from him. I didn’t know he was bigger than my fears; I didn’t know he could hear and answer all my questions–until I was an adult and some of my wounds stopped bleeding . . . and I got brave enough and angry enough to bring those questions straight to God and throw them down before him.
That’s when God gradually began to give me so much more than I had even dared to hope for. Partially through the ministry of Christian counselors and other loving people, he gently coaxed me away from my sense of shame and my paralyzing fear that if only people knew about Mom’s mental illness, they wouldn’t like me, trust me, hire me, want to be my friend. One life-changing day, he helped me understand that while mom’s schizophrenia had marked me, it didn’t have to define me.
Hope in Suffering
God gently corrected my sense of injustice over my family’s suffering. He reminded me that “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows” (John 16:33) and “While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh” (2 Corinthians 5:4). He assured me that his “power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
He confronted my misconception that I deserve comfort and happiness. He showed me the folly in demanding “Why?” when the answer is all around me: all creation groans under sin’s curse (Romans 8:22-28). And he filled me with a new kind of hope for the future, when the curse will be lifted, only by God’s grace, and our “dying bodies will be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4).
And then God went a joyful step further, through his beautiful and mysterious work of redemption. He took my pain and transformed it into a gift I can give others. He gave me the courage to tentatively step out of the shadows of stigma and tell my story.
And when I started sharing that gift, he showed me I wasn’t alone. I was surprised when a few safe people told me they too had suffered, either from their own struggle with mental health or through the illness of someone they loved. God showed me that many other people need the same thing I need–someone to speak up and talk about mental illness in a healthy and redemptive way that points to hope in Christ. So, with my parents’ blessing, I started writing about mental illness, sharing my story and asking churches to break their silence and better love the suffering people whose afflictions happen to affect their brains.
I wrote a book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. I’ve shared my family’s story on the radio and on camera. And every time I write or speak to a new audience, I hear from other people who share their own stories with me. I get to listen to people, pray with them, and sometimes watch a new kind of peace settle in their eyes just because they know they’re not alone and their suffering does not mean God has abandoned them (Romans 8:35-38).
These days, Mom is doing well. I’m proud of her and the way she fights to manage her illness. And I thank God for the incredible evidence that he has never abandoned her either. He has not cured her or taken away her illness, and he has not restored the mother-daughter relationship I needed when I was 14. But he has given me a ministry that would not be possible without suffering, without working my way through the painful questions that mental illness placed in front of me. And like a colorful umbrella on a rainy graduation day, I have a colorful kind of hope that would not shine so bright without grey skies overhead.
This post first appeared here on Today’s Christian Woman.
© 2014 Amy Simpson.