I have written a lot about mental illness, what the church can do better in ministry to people affected, and some of my own family’s experience in navigating the challenges of living with serious mental illness. But I haven’t written a lot about the other members of my family. As I speak and share my story, I’m sharing their story too, although by necessity it comes from my point of view. And today I want to spend a blog post honoring my parents and siblings, who mean an awful lot to me.
When I was writing Troubled Minds, I interviewed everyone in my family for the book so I could represent their perspectives and use their own words to tell some of our story. These interviews gave me a chance to have conversations—some of them difficult—that we hadn’t really had in my family. It was surprisingly difficult to open myself to those conversations, and it was great. Besides being valuable for the book, it was a healing experience and extremely interesting to get other family members’ points of view.
When I was a teenager, I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility for myself and my younger sister. I felt like it was up to me to take care of both me and her. I became very independent. When I was close to graduating from high school and planning to go to college, it didn’t even occur to me that I could or would consult my parents on my decisions about college. I was so used to doing everything on my own. My dad eventually offered to help me, and I realized he might have some helpful advice. I just hadn’t thought about it.
I felt a strong sense of responsibility for Mom too. I thought if I could just be nice or helpful enough, or I could help her understand that the scary things she heard and saw weren’t really there, somehow I could make her better. So I tried to fix her.
When I was interviewing my siblings, I was astounded to discover that they all felt much the same way I did. It just hadn’t occurred to me that someone else might feel the same sense of protective responsibility for me. My older brother and sister felt a tremendous burden and worried constantly about me and my younger sister. I didn’t know they felt that way because we didn’t talk about it. And all of us felt isolated and threatened by the idea that others might find out about our family’s problems. We believed no one else could really understand or relate. This really kept us lonely. It would make sense that we would have found comfort in each other, but we didn’t. We all coped largely on our own, worried about each other, and kept quiet. We didn’t talk about what was happening.
In some ways, my mom became the only member of our family who mattered. Because if she wasn’t doing well, none of us were doing well. We loved her and cared for her and wanted her to be healthy (and all of that is still true!). But it also felt like it was in our best interest to keep her calm and as happy as possible, even if it came at the expense of everyone else. I don’t think it was always in our best interest, but it felt that way at the time. It was the path of least resistance.
For example, Mom really loves to cook and do housekeeping. So we let her keep cooking for us when she could, even when she couldn’t do it very well. And we let her tell us what to do even when she didn’t understand all that was going on. We didn’t have a clothes dryer, and when the people in the upstairs apartment moved out, they left one behind. The landlord gave it to us, but Mom wouldn’t let us use it because she thought it was possessed by demons. We all went along with that and hung our clothes out on a line in the backyard even though we had a dryer in our basement. It didn’t make sense, but it was easier than challenging the status quo.
Well, now we challenge the status quo. In fact, I think we have established a new status quo. We talk not only to one another, but with Mom, about her illness. We all participate in helping her manage it. And while I might not always know how to say this to my siblings, I’m extremely proud of each of them–and of who we are together. They’re all healthy, strong people of rock-solid faith who serve as sources of compassion, grace, and truth in the communities where they’re planted. Sometimes people wonder how we all came through OK, and I tell them our family’s story is a story of God’s grace. That’s completely true. But we all face opportunities in life where we can choose to participate in God’s grace and redemptive work–or fight against it. My siblings have chosen to welcome God’s graceful work in and through them, and the world is better for it.
Like the rest of us, Dad spent a lot of years just trying to cope. At the same time he was also trying to provide for his family, and this wasn’t easy. He was a displaced pastor, who had started out thinking he was between churches and eventually realized he could not serve as a full-time pastor again because of his wife’s health struggles and his family’s needs. And he never did. He took the work he could find, temporary jobs and then eventually a low-wage manufacturing job. He was reeling. Within the space of a year or two, he had lost his career and sense of calling, the companionship of his wife, the emotional stability of his family, financial stability, familiar surroundings and old friends, the closeness of extended family, the sense of his home as a haven, and a lot of dreams and plans for the future. He needed emotional support and counseling, and he did not receive them. So he didn’t have a lot of resources to offer the rest of the family.
But one thing he had not lost was his faith. He clung to the Lord and drew all the strength he could from his relationship with Christ. And when the moments came when he had to decide whether he was going to stick it out with this woman he had married, and the family they had made together, every time he decided to remain committed. I can’t say enough about my dad’s multiple decisions to remain faithful and continue to love my mom. His commitment made all the difference, and it was motivated nearly 100 percent by his commitment to Christ. He knew that he had stood before God and promised to love his wife, and he knew that God would never give up on him or walk away from him—so he was not going to give up or walk away either. He’s a good man and a great example of what it means to follow Christ. My siblings and I all owe a debt of gratitude to our dad and to the Christlike people who raised him to be a faithful man, ready to do hard things.
Finally, I want to acknowledge that my mom is a brave and gracious person who has allowed parts of her own story to be told in the belief that the telling might help someone else. I often talk with people who have their own stories to share but don’t have permission from family members. Understandably frightened of stigma and often living in shame’s shadow, people who have struggled with serious mental health problems sometimes keep their families from receiving the acceptance and healing that could come from speaking their stories out loud. My mom has given her family the gift of permission, even allowing me to publish some of her story in her own words. And in doing so she has helped bring hope and healing to many people. One thing I know about doing ministry in the context of mental illness is this: simply talking about it is like dropping rain in the desert. Telling a story of hope is like planting flowers in the newly softened ground. I don’t know how many people have flowers blooming in their lives because of my mom’s decision to let our story become a ministry, but I know there are many. And I’m one of them.
© 2015 Amy Simpson.