My guest blogger today is Kirsten Panachyda. Kirsten writes and speaks to infuse courage into the soul-weary. Her book Among Lions: Fighting for Faith and Finding Your Rest while Parenting a Child with Mental Illness is available now. Kirsten blogs at kirstenp.com. She and her husband Dan have two sons, and they are a roller-coaster-riding, travel-loving, blue-hair-dying family.
Once again my night devolved into nightmares, restless dozing, and eventually, sleeplessness. I stayed in bed until I felt like I would explode if I didn’t cry and then I crept downstairs. I shuffled into the kitchen, thinking maybe I could make a cup of herbal tea to soothe my tight throat and aching chest. I got as far as the stove, picked up the battered red kettle, and slid down to the floor.
My kitchen floor was not something nice to sit on. When we bought the house in 1997, we planned to replace it right away. Scrubbing the poorly installed, old, cracked and stained vinyl peel-and-stick never really cleaned its jaundiced yellow surface. The ensuing years did not improve it.
That night, like many before, I sat on my kitchen floor with wide-eyed, wild grief, fear, and a piercing sense of disappointment. My son Nicholas, my lovely talented boy, had been suffering from severe depression for more than two years, hospitalized several times, and his caregivers pressed us to consider a residential program.
I could not have dreamed up a scenario that would shatter my confidence more as a parent and make me wonder whether my life’s work had been a failure, or worse, a waste. How could I continue this wasted labor, with poisonous thoughts contaminating my mind? I was becoming a person I did not want to be. I didn’t like this person, would have been reluctant to befriend her, did not feel sympathetic toward her. She was humorless and sour and boring. She cried all the time but was unresponsive to the experiences of others. I hated living with her.
I huddled there, wondering if darkness could win. I didn’t know what to pray. I could not imagine a way for God to be glorified except by healing Nicholas. I didn’t bother with pious prayer. I didn’t even try for coherence. It heaved out of me, dripping hot down my chin.
“Don’t do this to me. Please don’t. You say You love me. Please don’t do this to me.” I thought I was asking for Nicholas to not have to be sent away, but it was bigger. Please don’t shatter me. Please don’t abandon me to the darkness.
“I trust You. But I hurt, oh Jesus, I hurt. Help.” The words He provided spoke for me, “Though You slay me, yet I will trust You. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)
“Blessed be Your Name… Everything You are. Who You are. You are my only life, God…
“But I hurt, oh Jesus, help me.”
How much easier it would be to escape. I could wall myself off, from Dan, from Nicholas. Carry on with life but refuse to be moved. That feels like a lot of effort. I could just leave. How much cash could I scrape together fast to just disappear? But even to check into a hotel you need a driver’s license or something. How do you get a fake ID?
I could just drink a lot more. Use the various painkillers locked in the cabinet. It’s so cold outside, another sub-zero night. I could just go lie down in the snow and fall asleep. But that would be uncomfortable. Maybe I could take some of the painkillers to make me sleepy first. I wouldn’t want the police or anyone to have to search for me though. I’d leave a note saying where to find me. Where could I put it where I know it would be found, but not too soon?
“Oh God. My God, my God… Can you hear me? That was a suicide plan. I made a suicide plan. It’s a stupid one. I don’t have intent. But if I were sitting in the first interview in the ER and they asked if I had suicidal ideation, I’d have to say yes. If they asked if I had a plan, I’d have to say yes!”
That night I got myself up off the floor, trudged upstairs, and crawled back into bed. I lay awake the rest of the night. The next morning, I went into my bedroom, shut the door, and called the doctor. I spoke to the nurse, and she fit an appointment in for me that afternoon. I left the office later with a prescription for an anti-depressant.
10, 11, 12. I counted my slow footsteps up the stairs and turned the corner to my bedroom shutting the door behind me. I wanted nothing more than to flop down on the unmade bed and pull the covers over my head until morning at least. Instead, I went to the closet to pull out something to wear. Still in yoga pants and a baggy t-shirt in the late afternoon, I prepared to go to an evening rehearsal. Nicholas and I would pick up Dan at work, all of us would grab some dinner, and then drive to church. It would be a long evening.
I’d better get ready for the morning too. I pulled another outfit for the next day. I knew I’d want to crawl into bed as soon as possible later, so I reached into the back of my drawer and took a pill out of the medicine bottle there. I sat on the edge of the bed and looked at it. I hoped the antidepressant would kick in soon. I needed some energy. It would be nice to not feel miserable all the time too.
A couple years ago, I would have been excited to go out to dinner, happy to be on my way to a rehearsal, to make music with my friends, husband, and son. Now I dragged through the motions. I set the pill down next to my water glass, ready for when I could finally lie down.
I’m so disappointed with how my life has turned out.
Depression even oozed out into my physical body. I did go to my doctor and yes, I got help for myself. But depression had ridden in on the diseased back of disappointment. I needed healing on so many levels; I needed rescue.
So I began to look for things which did not disappoint. I wish I could say that I leapt immediately to great feats of spirituality, that all the theology I had studied and Scripture I had memorized rose up in a mighty swell, carrying me to the heights. I did not trust myself to take more than a tiny step.
I made a decision to appreciate a hot cup of coffee first thing in the morning. I AWAYS start the day with mandatory caffeine consumption, but I looked at it fresh, held the cup warm in my February cold hands, tasted and smelled and that coffee did not disappoint. The next day, the same. What other things never disappointed? My electric blanket. Jan Karon’s books. Mozart. The ocean. Jake, my best friend’s dog.
One sleety day I attended an Ash Wednesday service. When I came home, I entered my office and looked at the shelf filled with years’ worth of journals, Bible studies, class notes. I was ready to come back to what had never failed to nourish me. I took out the most recent journal, which had about 20 pages used, the rest blank and waiting. The last entry had been made two years before, during the early days of my son’s illness. I opened to the next blank page and wrote, “A long time since I have sat with pen and journal — a lifetime of heartache in the last couple of years. I am returning in the attempt to spend Lent ‘fasting from despair, feasting on hope.’”(Author Unknown)
I began to read Scripture passages every morning and to write a little. Nothing magical happened. A few days later, I wrote, “The thing I must believe now is — to put it crudely — that this will work. That I really can live through pain and disappointment and grief with joy and peace by resting in God, obeying Him, and soaking in His Word. God, I ask for confirmation, although I fear it diminishes my faith.”
I kept at it, asking my soul to trust the process, allowing myself to enjoy the comfort of the quiet, the chair and afghan, the hot coffee, the routine. Slowly these external things faded into the background as I read the familiar words of the accounts of Jesus’s life. I pondered and wrote of deliverance, of rescue, of building a life anew, of Sabbath rest.
Then the morning came, bright and precious and holy. I lay in bed, holding on to drowsiness, rehearsing the morning. I set up the coffee last night, so I just need to turn it on. Did I lay out my clothes? No. And I didn’t put away the clean laundry either. Okay, that will take a couple extra minutes. Bible first, though. Yesterday I read John 19.
My eyes popped open. Today I get to read Resurrection!
Hope had taken hold of me.
All that I knew, all the times God had pursued me, all the freedom from bondage rose up in me again, breaking through the falsities of disappointment. To read again of that empty tomb, to learn with the grieving women that Jesus was not among the dead, to remember and rejoice again that I am saved and loved by the living God-man.
God did what seemed impossible. He returned me to the joy of my salvation. He turned my head to fix my eyes on Jesus. He tenderly ministered to my pain and, at the same time, gave me new perspective.
“We rejoice in our tribulations, for we know tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, proven character, and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:3-4)
Tips for Tending your Soul while Caring for a Loved One with Mental Illness
- Set aside just a few minutes a day to spend time with God. Even this may be hard to find, so be creative and don’t wait for perfect moments. For example, you could leave for work five minutes early and sit in a parking lot.
- Keep it simple. Ideas: Read one short passage in the Bible. Write down one thing you are grateful for. Pray with honesty, even if it’s just, “I don’t know what to say, but I need you, God.” Try using a devotional.
- Enter your time with God without expectations of yourself. Just rest in the quiet.
- Place your hope on the only true thing — the love of God.
- Pay attention to your own thoughts and emotions. Be sure to seek help if your mental health declines.
This essay is adapted from Among Lions: Fighting for Faith and Finding your Rest while Parenting a Child with Mental Illness by Kirsten Panachyda, available through Amazon.