In the last 5 years, hundreds of people have asked me how to help their loved one – particularly an adolescent or young adult child – who is living with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorder. They have a similar look in their eyes, a similar expression on their faces, a similar weariness that seems to come from their bones. Many weep – mostly against their will, because these brave mamas and dads have steeled themselves to not break down in public AGAIN over the anguish they feel for their beloved sons and daughters who are barely holding on, cycling through repeated “episodes,” relapses, jail time, rehab, hospitalizations, ODs and suicide attempts. These dear parents are doing all they know to do; have done it for years….decades…..and will do it until their last breath. They recognize that severe mental illness often leaves families with untenable choices: there are few “good” options, only “bad” and “worse.”
But some parents go even further in what they ask me. A few manage to cobble together THE question through tight lips that can barely form words, or in emotion-laden paragraphs via email. “Can you help me face the reality that my son/daughter may not survive much longer?”
My initial word to these terrified parents is “I'm honored that you asked me - and I’m so very sad that you even have to give it a thought.”
I remember the first time I allowed myself to wonder if Matthew was going to make it. I wanted to extinguish the thought as quickly and unbidden as it had come, as if somehow by my even considering the terrible thought it could make it happen. I remember the thousand times after that when fear and anxiety and the reality of his determination to die flooded my brain with utter helplessness. Sometimes I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t project positive outcomes. I know this place; I remember it too well. So, to any of you mamas and daddies in this terrible place of fear for your beloved son or daughter, here are my thoughts.
I call the place you find yourself "sitting on the edge of Hell."
It's the place where you as a mom stare down the enemy trying to destroy your child and know that your superpowers are not enough to guarantee your child’s survival. Your love may not be enough to save him. Your hours of anguished, fervent prayer may not be enough to save her. Your tears may not be enough. Your money may not be enough. Your carefully thought through, researched and detailed plans may not be enough. There is hardly any place worse as a parent who adores a child and yet recognizes the enemy is relentless and cruel and implacable.
Some parents are advised by professionals, family and friends to disengage emotionally - to choose "compassionate detachment" toward their loved one. I was given that advice. I rejected it out of hand. I mean, it sounds reasonable in a textbook or on paper or in a clinical setting. It's reasonable, perhaps, for a clinician who must build layers of protection against the pain of losing clients who die while in their practice. For their own well-being and ability to last as a clinician, they might need to find ways to emotionally disconnect from patients or clients so that work doesn’t follow them home. Adult children tasked with caring for mentally ill parents or siblings might need to find ways to emotionally separate themselves a bit for their own survival.
How do parents tell their hearts to stop caring? How do you tell your heart to sit by and merely OBSERVE? How do you tell your heart "it's up to him?" How do you tell your heart to give up on hope? How do you tell your heart not to mourn over what mental illness and addiction are doing to your much-longed for, much-prayed for, much-beloved child? How do you tell your heart not to ache or be ripped apart by his illness? How do you tell your heart to let her go?
I couldn't do it.
So, I chose the path that left my heart completely defenseless to hurt, pain and anguish. I chose the path that discarded self-protection in favor of remaining soft and tender, exposed and vulnerable. I chose to suffer alongside of Matthew, feeling his hurt, feeling his anguish, feeling his despair, fighting the hopelessness that engulfed him rather than sit on the sidelines, with my heart encased in a steel-lined box. I chose to believe in the God of Angel Armies.....the God who parted the Red Sea....the God who releases prisoners from behind iron bars......the God who makes a way in the desert.....the God who is the champion of lost causes......the God who walked on water......the God who made the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk......the God who rose from the dead by his own power. I knew that if I ever gave up hope, Matthew would sense the change in me and would fling himself even more earnestly into the pursuit of death.
So I kept on believing, kept on hoping, kept on asking for a miracle, kept praying Scripture, kept begging others to pray as fervently as we were.
I knew Matthew could die. For years we lived with the knowledge that any given day could be THE day he couldn't fight any longer. I wasn't stupidly naïve or ridiculously convinced God would deliver. I just knew He could, and I would ask Him to do it until either HE delivered Matthew here on this earth or welcomed him home sooner than we expected.
So, to my fellow fearful mamas and dads - do what you're doing. Accept the excruciating possibility that your child will not live very much longer. Pray like a crazy woman on your face before God and ask everyone you meet to pray with you for a miraculous intervention of God. And keep your heart open and soft and tender so that your son or daughter never has to wonder what God is really like. Yes, it will hurt you more NOW. But if something should ever happen, you will know without a shadow of a doubt that you never withheld your heart from him.
My heart is heavy for you as I write....for your child.....for your marriage.....for your other children. Yet I cannot give up hope. I will not give up hope. There is always hope.