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Sitting on the Edge of Hell

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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.

But parents?

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.

Posted by Kay Warren with

National Day of Prayer for Faith, Hope, and Life

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The first time Rick publicly prayed at a weekend church service for people living with a mental illness, his words were simple. He asked God to bring comfort and strength to anyone living with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or any other mental illness. He asked God to reassure them that their pain and suffering mattered to God and to their brothers and sisters, and to remind them that as a church family, we would do all we could to offer support to them and their families.

The response from the congregation was astonishing. As he stood on the patio following the services, dozens of men and women who were living with a mental illness, or who loved someone living with a mental illness, lined up to give him a hug and to thank him for bringing their struggle into the light. Many spoke through their tears about the deep gratitude they felt to hear mental illness mentioned from the pulpit in such a loving and positive way. “I’ve kept my illness a secret at church,” several said. “I didn’t know it was okay to talk about it.”

That simple, grace-filled prayer instantly changed the atmosphere at Saddleback. Those few short words, lovingly expressed, made it infinitely safer to talk openly about depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and suicidal thoughts. Chains of hopelessness were broken, and walls of stigma, misunderstanding, confusion, and prejudice began to melt away in the face of recognition, acceptance, and love. People began asking the questions they had been reluctant to ask before: Can a Christian experience a mental illness? Does it mean I don’t have enough faith? Is it okay to take medication for a mental illness? If I pray hard enough or study my Bible more, will it make my anxiety go away? Can children have a mental illness? What happens to Christians who take their life?

Saddleback Church has always been a welcoming, inviting congregation to anyone in need, but it has become an even more compassionate place as we’ve expanded our conversations around mental illness, listened to the stories of those living with a mental illness, and learned what we can do to more fully support individuals and families in a mental health crisis.

We’re not the only ones: Many other congregations are exploring what the Bible says about God’s response to illness — including mental illness. Many are beginning to understand that mental illness is real, and it is common — 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in the coming year (NAMI). Approximately 43 million men, women, and children will show signs of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, or another diagnosable mental illness (NAMI). Mental illness is not only common, it’s also highly treatable when addressed quickly, allowing many to manage their illness well.

While mental illness is common, it is still an uncomfortable topic in most avenues of society. It is time for faith leaders to stand in the gap and speak up for people living with mental illness and suicidal thoughts.

The good news is that every day we hear testimonies from people in the faith community about creative, effective ways they’re breaking down the walls of stigma around mental illness and suicide, willingly sharing the love and mercy of Christ to those most deeply affected. Simple steps of prayer, listening, and love bring hope to those who often feel abandoned by God and the church.

If talking about mental illness at church is uncomfortable, talking about suicide is one of the last taboos in our culture. Yet we are surrounded by multiplied thousands of men, women, and children — including teenagers in our church youth groups — who have lost hope and are experiencing suicidal thoughts. One practical way your church can begin to engage is to join the faith community around our nation in praying for people touched by suicide on World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. Your words of compassion, acceptance, and hope may be the lifeline that will help save the lives of people in your congregation.

As suicide loss survivors, Rick and I know firsthand the almost unbearable agony that accompanies the suicide of someone you love. We ache for those in our congregation — and in yours — who are experiencing despair. These friends — brothers and sisters in Christ — need to know that their church is a safe place to share the inward torment of their pain, and that their pain will be met with deep compassion and acceptance.

Please lend your voice to this effort on behalf of hurting people everywhere by clicking on this video and pledging to pray in your house of worship on the weekend of September 10.

Posted by Kay Warren with 1 Comments

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