I receive a lot of inquiries from people asking for advice about living with mental illness, loving someone with a mental disorder, and doing ministry among people with mental illness and their families. I can’t offer the kind of advice and help a mental health professional can give, but I can point people in the direction of resources that might help them. Sometimes it’s a matter of just introducing people to resources that are available. Sometimes it’s a matter of sharing my own personal experience and my own perspective.
Occasionally I share some of these interactions* here, for the benefit of others who may have similar questions.
Question: I’ve heard you speak and read your book and your blog, and your messages about living with a loved one’s mental illness are really helpful. My dad has a serious mental illness, and it’s been very hard to walk with him through various trials over the years. When he’s not doing well, it’s really hard on our whole family, especially my mom. It just hurts so much to watch everyone suffer, and I wish so much that he could be a good dad to me and my family. I find that I have a hard time remaining hopeful and remembering that God has not abandoned us. I’m just wondering how you are able to keep your hope and perspective with your mom’s illness. How do you get past the pain and keep yourself from being disappointed next time she gets really sick?
Answer: You’ve asked a tough question, and I can hear the pain behind your words. I don’t say that flippantly; I know because I have been there. To some degree, I’m still there.
I’m not sure I have a good answer for you, but I’ll let you know where I find myself on this question. I can speak about hope a lot these days partly because my mom is doing quite well. After decades of her illness absolutely ravaging her mind, she is relatively stable right now and making healthy choices. For many years, she wasn’t consistently medicated and she didn’t really understand the nature of her illness. These days, she understands it much better and takes her medication regularly. For a long time, I didn’t think this would ever happen. I tell you this so you know why it’s much easier for me to speak hopefully and graciously about my mother right now. But I know that things may get harder again at some point–my experience, like yours, has prepared me for that. When/if that time comes, I hope I’ll still speak hopefully–but it will be harder to do so. So I don’t think I’ve really set myself up not to be disappointed. I think I’ve come to accept that part of loving someone means you’re always deeply saddened by their pain and deeply grieved when they hurt you.
I’ve come to the conclusion that my mom’s illness will never stop hurting me and the other people who love her. For a long time, I just wanted it to stop hurting. I wanted to stop going through that cycle of losing her over and over again, having hope and stability, then losing her again. I’ve tried romanticizing her condition and thinking of her as a purely wonderful person who is a victim of schizophrenia and not responsible for doing anything wrong. I’ve also tried the opposite: being very, very angry with her and deciding not to have anything to do with her. I’ve tried ignoring her and detaching myself from her, deciding that her illness and actions wouldn’t affect me. I’ve tried being very involved and trying to fix/heal her. None of those things I’ve tried have made the pain go away. Some of them made my heart harden–but that isn’t really a good solution. And now I believe this painful place is where God wants me. It’s part of loving my mom; it just comes with the territory. And it’s something God has used to shape me into the person he wants me to be. So I have come to accept that pain as a mixed element–something God grieves with me but also redeems and uses for his glory.
I also try to live in a place of dual hope: hope for now and hope for the future. I have hope that Mom can continue to live a stable life (as she does now), although I know she may not. I also have hope that God can heal her completely in this life, although I know he has never promised to do so and doesn’t owe that kind of healing to anyone. And ultimately my greatest hope is in the future, when Christ will redeem us completely, giving us new bodies (including new brains) that don’t decay, don’t die, don’t get sick or cause pain. I know I will see my mom healed completely and free to worship God without the confusion and torture of mental illness. It will be a beautiful sight and a great reason to worship God for doing what only he could do to fix the terrible mess we humans created for ourselves.
I know this doesn’t directly answer your question. I don’t think it has an easy answer. Bottom line, loving someone with a serious mental illness is a very gritty way to live. It means facing some of the worst of what the human condition does to people. It just doesn’t wrap up nicely with a shiny box and a pretty bow. But the truth is, we are all broken and living with the consequences of human rebellion against God. It’s only by his grace that we aren’t all utterly without hope. It’s because of his love that you still have hope and love for your dad. God is walking through this with you. The pain you experience does not mean he has abandoned you (Romans 8:35-38). It means you’re human and you’re suffering in a way that isn’t easy for us to just cover with a nice tablecloth. And the good news is, he has a remedy for that (2 Corinthians 5:1-5). Living with the pain of my mom’s recurring symptoms has, I think, given me a greater appreciation of the hope we have in Christ. So I guess that’s my best answer–that I haven’t found so much a balance between hope and realism, but I try to live fully embracing both, knowing that ultimately my hope is in the Lord.
I hope that helps. I’m sorry for your sadness and I will pray today that you will be aware that the Lord is sad right alongside you. He loves you more than you can imagine.
*Question has been modified to protect privacy.