PARENTING A CHILD WITH MENTAL ILLNESS
After eighteen years of loving her, of nurturing her since I picked her up in my arms as a nearly six-year-old in that dingy, Russian orphanage outside of St. Petersburg, I couldn’t believe yet another diagnosis would be added to her multiple others.
My dear Anna, meaning “favor”, “grace”, “beautiful”, was sick. Very sick.
My husband and I had finally discovered how to serve her intellectual and physical disabilities best for her. Now this? A full-blown psychotic episode where she actually believed she was pregnant? By a 14-year-old boy she was obsessed with, but had never been alone with? As a 23-year-old woman? How does this happen?!
The brain is a mysterious organ. Medical science has discovered much. But not quite all. Maybe even far from all.
Those of us who have “mental illness” (I hate that term and hope it changes one day soon!) know that we’re not crazy or necessarily odd. We’re just sick. We have a chronic illness just like those who have diabetes. We often need daily medication. Just like those who have cancer. Often we are at risk of dying by suicide. Even as Christians. Believe me, I’ve counseled many and, sadly, I know some who have not been able to carry on, and have chosen to end their lives. Even my ex-husband.
Our daughter Anna got sick suddenly. Maybe it wasn’t so sudden though, looking back. Maybe her irritability and lack of energy was an early sign. Perhaps her sudden energy boost and inability to sleep were other signs. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
LOOK BACK AND LEARN WITHOUT GUILT
Looking back, I could feel guilty that I didn’t see the signs earlier. But there’s nothing positive in looking back except to learn for today and the future. Looking back while beating ourselves up produces no good thing. And so I choose to use all the former to inform my present and my future. Since our daughter’s first bout with bipolar and her twelve-day hospitalization where she first started medication, I’ve learned that these “mental” illnesses are highly treatable—that there are lifestyle changes and medication additions that can help those of us who suffer lead lives like those without “mental” health diagnoses.
Just like everyone, those of us with “mental” health diagnoses need to be proactive in living healthy lives—thinking positive thoughts, eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, engaging in good relationships, getting proper rest, taking medication when necessary, praying for strength and health.
It doesn’t help to judge ourselves for things we can’t control. No one can help getting cancer or diabetes. Sure, sometimes lifestyle choices contribute to the onset of illness; sometimes the illness is mostly genetic. Who’s to know, completely? Only God. Only God can make an accurate judgment.
So let’s spend our energies helping ourselves be healthy and helping others become healthy rather than spending our energies judging ourselves and/or judging others about things too lofty for us to understand.
FEARFULLY AND WONDERFULLY MADE
You and me? We are wonderfully and fearfully made. No man or woman will ever be able to fully understand or “fix” our fallen state. Only Christ can do that.
Let’s humble ourselves in recognition that God is for us and not against us, no matter our ailment(s). Jesus came to heal—to set us free. And while we wait here for our future completion of healing, let us be bound together in prayer and tangible support of our weakness. Jesus came for those of us who know and admit our need. Let us be like Jesus to ourselves and others.
Our daughter Anna still has her intellectual and developmental challenges, but medication has taken care of her mental health challenge. Her bipolar disorder is in remission, thanks to medication. She is happy and healthy and thriving.
I pray the same for all of us. May we be happy, healthy, and thriving.
Remember, Jesus knows us and loves us in all our afflictions.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised,
and we held him in low esteem.
Heather MacLaren Johnson
Psy.D. and Author
Heather and her husband, Todd, are parents of three adult children adopted from Russia with multiple, invisible, permanent special needs. They live on 44 rural acres in Wisconsin. Heather's greatest desire is to help other chronic emotional sufferers understand that no matter how wounded, we are all passionately loved by God. She blogs at True Life with God and is the author of Grace, Truth & Time: Facilitating Small Groups that Thrive.
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