Guest Post: A Holiday Miracle

Enjoy this guest post by my friend FaithMcDonald. Faith is a teacher, a writer, and a parent of a son with mental illness. I hope you’ll be encouraged by her experience.

“How was your holiday?” a friend recently asked.

“I experienced a holiday miracle,” I

I shared my experience, and she agreed. Holiday miracle.

Her perspective might be tinged, for she, too, parents an adult child who struggles with an anxiety disorder and leans to depression.

She empathizes with me when I tell
my story: about a decade ago, on Christmas Day, my then young-adult son
declined to get out of bed. Family members invited, coaxed, pleaded with him:
Come. Join the celebration.

In his dim room—he’d pulled the shades—still in bed, he tugged the covers up over his head, retreated deeper into his blanket cave, and murmured, “Leave me alone.”

We tried to carry on, but I just
couldn’t celebrate with joy. The food tasted flat. The presents seemed
trifling. The conversation and carols irksome.

Thoughts repeated in my head like they were on a ticker-tape: my son is so sad and lackluster. He can’t get out of bed on Christmas Day.

I was distracted and moping.

My husband, Steve, Matt’s dad, felt angry and commanded, “Get out of bed and join us.”

His gruff command sent Matt deeper
under his covers. The interaction’s aftermath squelched all our remnant inclinations
to celebrate. The conflict between Steve and me heated up.

Had I known that holiday season what I know now, we could’ve circumvented cycles rife with agony and strife. Instead, for years we stood on the sidelines of our son’s stalled, sorry life. He spent many dark days entrenched in bed with the covers over his head. When he got up, he smoked, drank too much alcohol—alone—and abused drugs. He enrolled in and dropped out of college three times. He was fired from job after job because he didn’t arrive on time and if he did arrive, he didn’t perform. He was arrested repeatedly for alcohol-related misdemeanors.

We felt perplexed, frustrated, helpless, and full of fear. Hadn’t we raised him for more than this?

A long time after that first
wretched holiday season—maybe a few months, maybe a few years—I noticed a
magazine that featured an article on depression. I can remember—clearly—the
exact spot in the room where I stood when the story’s title caught my eye.

I could go stand there right now, if
you wanted.

After I picked up the magazine, I
paged to the article on depression. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the
artwork. The page featured a gray, indistinct outline of a person slumped in
the shadows.

I scanned the text and read: Major
depression is a disease. Many people are genetically predisposed to depression.
Medical treatment helps.

I read the symptoms: persistent
feelings of sadness; loss of energy; loss of interests; fatigue; slowing of
physical processes, including thought processes; substance abuse and

Call me master detective Sherlock
Holmes. I began to suspect that Matt suffered from an extended, severe case of
major depression.

Eventually I learned that expecting severely depressed Matt to get out of bed to celebrate holidays was like asking a person with two broken legs and extreme fear of water to run a 5K race that culminated in a polar bear plunge.

We counted on Matt to perform a physical impossibility. I loudly cheered him on, not realizing I was urging again and again, “Do the impossible.” When he didn’t, I silently blamed myself, blamed Steve, and blamed Matt.

He needed a medical intervention.

The information in that magazine
article helped us begin to round the turn to health. We eventually found the
help we needed. In the years since, I have learned a lot about living with an
adult who faces mental illness like major depression or anxiety disorder. Here
are four important ideas:

1. Insist on medical intervention. Mental illness is a disease. Medication and other interventions implemented by professionals can help an affected person get better. Eventually, our son’s suicidal inclinations led to a long stay in the mental health unit of a hospital where, after trial and error, a medication was found to help him.

Finding the right help can take many
tries. The first counselor available isn’t always an apt one. After Matt’s
hospital stay, we searched for a counselor. I asked two credible sources to
list the best local counselors. If a name appeared on both lists, I called. Most
counselors were so booked, there were long waits for appointments. We chose the
professional with the shortest wait and, fortunately, she was a good fit.

Keep looking for apt help.

2. Learn to navigate the tension of allowing the person the freedom to be independent and stepping in when he/she isn’t acting in his/her own best interests. While Matt was in the hospital, I asked a psychiatric nurse for input on how forcefully I should intervene to require Matt to take his medication. She said, “His brain is broken. That means the part of him that makes good decisions is broken. Use that as your guideline.”

Since, I have worked to astutely
support him. I step in when depression or anxiety starts to cripple him. I step
back when he’s functioning in a healthy manner. It’s not easy. After his
hospital stay, he lived with us for a few years. A few months ago, he decided
to move to an apartment. When he told me, I wondered: who will make sure you’re
taking your medication? Who will be there to coax you out of bed on a bad day?
But I said, “Do it!”  

3. Find a way to have a life. You’ve heard the saying: a mother is only as happy as her saddest child? For years that was my life. Matt stayed in bed all day: I felt glum. Matt smoked or got drunk: I felt frantic. Matt got fired from a job: it was my failure. He was arrested: I felt shackled by sorrow.

Then one day, I realized clearly and
vividly: I get one life. I can spend my days being as sad as my saddest child
or I can spend a few minutes each day being grateful and pursuing an activity
and attitude I enjoy.

I still felt sorrow for my son’s
circumstances, but I didn’t let that sorrow rule my life anymore.

4. People with mental illness can get better. Ours was a long journey. But once Matt got on the right medication, he began to learn strategies for developing a healthy life. Currently, he lives on his own, holds down a job, and shares his story regularly as a youth leader in our church.

This holiday season, our extended
family gathered to celebrate and after everyone had eaten, Matt said, “Let’s
play a game.”

The initiative he demonstrated in
issuing that invitation set me smiling.

However, his suggestion was greeted with apathy, a few groans, and a couple of lame “I will if everyone else will.”

I resisted the inclination to
intervene by whispering that the very least they could do is try and herding
everyone to the family room.

I watched to see what would happen.

Matt invited again and then coaxed 18 people away from the table and television and into the family room. He explained the game. Marshaled participants onto two teams. He explained the game again and patiently responded to the questions of those who were confused.

We started to play, and after a few short minutes, participants warmed to the game. Laughter filled the room as people participated wholeheartedly.

As I played, I thought about my son’s holiday journey from cowering under the covers to spearheading an engaging activity for reluctant participants, and my mother’s heart throbbed: miracle.

Faith Tibbetts McDonald blogs at For information on how to obtain her book: On the Loving End of Crazy: A Mom’s Story of Hope and Help, email Faith at (don’t forget the “t”).

  1. Marie says:

    Amy! I LOVED Faith McDonald’s article “A Holiday Miracle”
    This post hit very close to home for me. I felt the pain of Faith’s journey with her son, and rejoiced with her as she finally witnessed a miraculous victory on that Christmas day. I know their struggles are not necessarily over, yet it was encouraging that this window in time of their journey ended on such a positive note.
    A superbly written personal story with excellent recommendations on how to deal with major depression. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Kate says:

    This story echos true to the experience in my family. I willingly share my experiential knowledge consistently so that others can find the medical help for their children earlier than I did. I also have been witness to these miracles over an over again. I praise God for his intervention in our lives.

  3. Cathleen says:

    Happy New Year!! Reading the blog post, written by your friend, was a wonderful way to start the new year. I am filled with gratitude for the difference you and your friends are making in the lives of those affected by mental health issues.

    Write on, Amy & Faith!!

  4. Robyn Mulder says:

    Loved Faith’s post so much – I shared it on my Facebook page. I hope it reaches lots of parents and gives them hope for seeing their child get to a better place after they get treatment for depression or another mental health issue. Thanks, Amy!

  5. Prissy Snelling says:

    Thank you, Faith!!! I share your experience and appreciate your insight! ❤️

  6. Tracy Robinson says:

    My 32 year old son has mental health issues and has just been incarcerated please give me tips on dealing with the jail system and mental issues
    Thank you

    • Amy says:

      Tracy, I’m sorry to hear that your son has been incarcerated. Please know that you are not alone. Many people with mental health issues have conflicts with the legal system, and many have been to jail or prison. Many other families, including mine, know how hard this is for you. It’s hard to know what tips to offer. The laws and regulations are different for each state, and even in different counties. And in some places, the legal system is well informed about the needs of people with mental health problems; in other places they are not. Other readers may have tips for you, and if so, I hope they will weigh in. In general, I suggest you find out what is required in order to visit your son. In some places, there’s a complicate process and paperwork to fill out so you can become an approved visitor. If you are able to visit him, you will be able to get some understanding of how well he is doing. Also, if you’re able to make contact with authorities at the facility, you can make sure they know about his need for mental health care. They may not talk to you about it, but you can do your best to get the message across. And if you have the means to hire an attorney, you may want to see if one is willing to advocate for your son to receive the care he needs while incarcerated. Some people receive good mental health care while they are behind bars.

  7. I loved Faith’s post! It was indeed a Holiday Miracle! There is really no better way to understand what the parents of depressed person is going through. Thank you for sharing, explaining how your efforts affects your child.

© 2018 Amy Simpson.