My family never had much, and excess was not in my parents’ lexicon. Dad was a pastor, serving small rural congregations, and Mom stayed at home. We were poor, but we didn’t feel it much, surrounded by farmers who lived simply and at the whim of the rains we asked for at the Wednesday night prayer meeting each week.
But each childhood birthday was an occasion for a treat, and every gift was precious and heartfelt. On my fourth or fifth birthday, I remember unwrapping a stuffed animal that had been squeezed awkwardly into an ill-fitting cracker box and wrapped lovingly by my dad’s own bear-like hands. Before I opened the bulging box, I saw fur sticking out the corners, signaling a cuddly creature was inside. And it wasn’t your ordinary teddy bear; it was a koala, extra-snuggly and a touch exotic.
I loved that stuffed animal. She inhabited an honored spot on my bed for the next decade or so. At some point, a seam popped and stuffing hemorrhaged from her neck. I lovingly pushed the fluff back inside and repaired the damage with painstaking but imperfect stitches that held but made her head a little crooked for the rest of her days.
How could I have known she would one day become a prized possession and comfort to a childlike version of the woman who gave her to me—my mother?
Around the time I got that koala, Mom answered my questions about how I could follow Jesus and prayed with me when I first committed my life to him. She gently explained her own faith and assured me that God loved me.
Mom was faithful but she was fragile, and I felt her vulnerability; my whole family built systems to protect her. I loved and appreciated her, but something kept me from feeling close to her. And I felt she was breakable—not a person of safety and strength, but someone who would falter before I would.
But I did feel safe enough, cocooned in a relatively predictable place where most people were a lot like me. That is, until my family moved to the city when I was 13. That year, my brother, the oldest, graduated and went to college. Dad was unemployed, and we faced poverty, serious stress, and culture shock. My sisters and I found ourselves sharing a bedroom in the crowded two-bedroom bottom floor of a two-story house converted into a duplex. So I put off childish things and relegated my beloved koala to a revered place on the closet shelf.
Soon after, we began to see (without understanding) Mom’s frightening response to tremendous stress. She zoned out, forgot important things, got confused, had more and more trouble processing and communicating, didn’t always seem “with us.” She neglected matters she had always handled before.
Alarmed, my sisters and I talked to Dad, and he found a counselor for Mom to talk to. But no one, including the counselor, really understood what was happening or what Mom needed.
Then after track practice one day, I waited for a ride home and no one came. I called and a neighbor answered the phone—she told me Mom had gone to the hospital. I walked home and found my brother there, telling how he had come home and found her unresponsive, unaware of reality, unmoving.
The next day at track practice, I found myself crying at the end of my run.
My coach asked, “What’s wrong?”
“My mom is in the hospital,” I said. When he asked why, I answered, “I don’t know.”
For some reason, for a long time I was okay with not knowing why. I didn’t know what was wrong with mom that first time or the next few times she was hospitalized. I just knew that each time she came home, I thought she was back for good. I took a few years to realize the back-and-forth was our new reality.
When she was back, she was on medications that helped her function but had powerful side effects and didn’t restore the person we had known. We lived in a repeating cycle of hospitalization, medication, stabilization, and disintegration. We lived in the dark, navigating a mental-health care system that shut us out of the circle of care and communication. We didn’t know Mom had schizophrenia, didn’t know she would always need treatment.
At some point in this cycle, Mom became like a child. That precious koala found its way from my collection of childhood treasures to my mother’s arms. I tucked them in together at night. The matted fur and flattened features, misshapen by my love, symbolized how very needy my mother had become. Only later did I realize they illustrated how much I had lost.
I never talked to a counselor in high school, never discussed Mom’s illness with a trusted adult. I didn’t know how to frame an experience I couldn’t understand, and no one asked what has happening at home. Our church was full of well-meaning people who were mostly ignorant of our family’s problems and, among those who knew, largely at a loss. I was a strong student and gave no academic distress signals. I was resourceful and socially competent, hard-working and principled. And I was absolutely determined not to be the kind of weak, vulnerable, flailing person I saw in my mother. Already an independent teenager, I embraced self-determination and moved toward the life I wanted. I looked out for my younger sister and looked to the outside world for my definitions of normal. When I left the house, I pushed away sadness and confusion and became another, more light-hearted version of myself. I denied sadness and pain and eventually stopped feeling them.
When I had the choice, I distanced myself from Mom. I was desperately ashamed of her vulnerability and oddities and feared my association with her would paint me in the same colors.
But she was my mom after all, and distance wasn’t always possible. After she had a psychotic episode in the waiting room of my dentist’s office when I was 15, I became desperate to show the world, and myself, my own competence. I drove Mom around and did errands with her. It seemed important that she still do what she could—I wanted to prop her up, not replace her. When she fumbled with her food stamps at the day-old bread store, I counted them out with flourish and gave the cashier a look daring her to despise us.
I agonized in choosing a college, never thinking of involving my parents until Dad offered to help. Ultimately, I chose a school that fit two main criteria: a sense of non-threatening community and a comfortable distance from home.
A Long Night
I thrived on both distance and community but didn’t leave home as thoroughly as I wanted. I began suspecting that my coping mechanism—denying negative emotions too overwhelming for me—had suppressed my capacity for positive emotions too. I had many friends, but my independence was a liability as well. I automatically built walls between us for my own safety.
Mom’s ongoing illness still slashed at me. She sent me coloring-book pages in the mail and I never knew what to expect when I went home. I began to understand that what I wanted most was to feel small and weak, supported by someone stronger and wiser than me, who loved me despite the places where my fur was matted and I had been awkwardly mended. To trust someone who could bear my weight.
I knew every Sunday school answer. If asked who I could trust, I would have said, “God.” But while I trusted him for my salvation, I didn’t really trust him with me. I didn’t doubt God was real and sovereign. I got that Jesus was my only hope for redemption. But I didn’t see him as someone who loved me with personal affection, who would keep watch if I let my guard down, who would love me if I were bumbling or broken. After all, I had seen what happened to my parents, who claimed God loved them and were better people than me. And if pressed to identify a villain in my family’s story, I would have pointed to God.
One night, at the end of another romantic relationship, I lay in bed and watched traffic send shadows across the walls. Something broke open, and a great grief erupted from my heart. I cried and sobbed and punched my pillow in rage. I told God I didn’t know if he was real and wasn’t sure he was good. I flung a challenge his way: “If you’re there, show me.”
It’s impossible to describe the experience, but I received an immediate and unexpected response—a huge, nearly tangible presence and a nearly audible voice with a clear message: “Here I am.” I was overwhelmed and shocked into silence. I had encountered someone much larger, more capable, and stronger than me, who had answered my challenge in a moment of great weakness, a moment I would not have shared with anyone else. He had left no doubt: He was real and was listening. I began to trust him, just a little.
This experience altered the angle of my life—a change in degrees, hard to see at first but with increasing impact as the years passed.
To be continued…
This article was first published in Christianity Today magazine.
© 2015 Amy Simpson.