Walking the Hard Road of Mental Illness
Our son asked if he could sleep on the floor in our bedroom. When I asked “Why?” he said, “I’m afraid.” Our son was 38 years old. Earlier that day he had suggested I change the locks on the doors because of anxiety about our neighbours, despite this being the neighbourhood where we have lived and built friendships for over 20 years. That night he did sleep on our bedroom floor, at least until the moment he got up and took an overdose of medication. A trip to Emergency that night led to an extended stay in the psychiatric ward of the local hospital.
The first signs of mental health issues appeared in our son’s life during his early 20’s. He was working and going to university and one day he shared about his suspicion that his co-workers were talking about him. A few days later he quit that job. He quickly landed a new job but soon became convinced that his new colleagues were also talking about him. Then he began believing that his sister and I were secretly talking about him. This growing paranoia led to his first stay in the hospital.
Mental illness has been a difficult journey and one we didn’t see coming. Our son was identified as a gifted student in middle school, seemed to have been blessed with the abilities that would make for a promising future: smart, a great sense of humor, kind and compassionate heart, strong and healthy body. But the promising future we envisioned faded like a fleeting mirage with each cycle of mental health crisis.
This is not the narrative we would have chosen. We also know that this journey is not unique to our family. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health states that 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness this year. The research indicates that mental illness will touch the life of every Canadian at some time through a family member, friend or colleague. This is a very real and often difficult road for many of us.
Walking this road has required us to release our expectations and embrace a new set of hopes for the future. Like every parent, I long to see my children succeed, which makes this journey a struggle laced with frustration for me. But I am not the one with the greatest struggle. I have come to understand that what I consider simple to be normal, day-to-day tasks are overwhelming to my son. Walking into a crowd or into a classroom of strangers is a huge undertaking and many times it is simply impossible for him. Consistent employment, maintaining friendships outside our family and any kind of romance seem a distant hope to both of us.
It has been a journey of sadness. We’ve had to release our vision of a happy, successful son married with kids and the joys of “normal” life. In releasing that dream, we have come to understand that our sadness is connected to our definitions of success. We are learning to embrace a new definition of what success might look like for him. Our son’s normal, successful and content station in life will be a very different reality than what we once envisioned. This fresh perspective allows us to hope again.
This journey has also been a struggle of faith. There have been moments of despair, where the hope of healing and recovery vanishes. fleeting. I have prayed and fasted, seeking God’s touch in my son’s life. Surely God can heal him, but He hasn’t.
There was a moment in the midst of all my struggles when I heard, “Be still and know that I am God.” I became convinced that the next steps toward a spiritual breakthrough would begin with embracing God’s goodness and thanking Him. I was challenged with the command to “give thanks in all things.” I took this step of faith and began to thank God that He loves my son even more than I do and that He is working and will continue to work in the circumstances of our lives. It has been a significant breakthrough. I still have longings and struggles, but bringing them to God and acknowledging His love and goodness with thankfulness causes me to anticipate seeing His touch in the days ahead.