Brave looks like many things.
It’s starting a new job. It’s putting words on a blank screen or apologizing to someone for something you did. It’s doing something you’ve never done before or telling someone something about yourself no one else knows. It’s blasting through your anxiety to do something you really want to do.
It’s going to a women’s march in NYC, to see a new therapist, or attend a support group for the first time. Brave looks different because it is different.
When my son was young, he was a watcher, not a doer. He hung back and stood as close to me as he could. He seemed fearful at the beach or on a new playground. He stood behind me, peeking around at parades and birthday parties. He was reluctant and watchful. Fearful and apprehensive. As he grew into school and friends and life, what looked like shyness became anxiety. What looked like hesitancy became a coping mechanism for his learning disabilities. And after evaluations and experts, we had a diagnosis.
Whether he was brave or not was no longer an issue. There was a reason why he was unable to reach out and engage. Severe anxiety disorder and depression was swallowing my son, and as he made his way through his teenage years, things worsened. School was a nightmare. Social situations were daunting. Even family events and parties were difficult. I watched helplessly as mental illness took over his life.
I didn’t really know what to do then. I sure don’t know what to do now. And I soon realized that no one does. Not his teachers. Not his doctors. Not even his countless therapists or psychiatrists. Wading through the mental illness pool was more like sinking in quicksand. He was slowly being swallowed when suddenly a pill or therapy lifted him up and he almost got to get out. After awhile, though, that stopped working and he began to sink again. Until the next magic fix that gave hope.
Almost three years ago I was invited to a small group study focused on Kay and Rick Warren’s teaching series entitled, “How to Get Through What You’re Going Through.” They had lost their son, Matthew, to suicide after an almost lifelong battle with mental illness. At that group I met a person who understood exactly what it was like to parent a young adult with a severe mental illness. We started meeting for coffee and started a faith-based support group for others who love and care for family and friends who suffer from mental illness.
Four years ago, I would never have predicted that I would be talking out loud about mental illness to anyone, let alone people who I hardly know. For decades I worked so hard to hide it. The real stigma of mental illness drove me to make everything look normal on the outside. But I can’t even describe how liberating it feels to be with people who get it. I don’t have to feel guilty about expressing frustration. I can say exactly how I feel. And the best part is that as I listen to what others say, I can nod my head in understanding because I truly have walked in those shoes. I am not alone because I have found strong and brave people who know how devastatingly unbearable mental illness is.
And this has changed me. It has made me brave.
Many years ago I was struggling and at one of the lowest moments in my life. As I sat sobbing at my kitchen table, my Bible – which I only occasionally opened – fell onto the floor and opened up. I walked over and picked it up and my eyes were drawn to Joshua 1:9.
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
I didn’t recognize it at the time, but that was God’s grace. He reached out to let me know that I needed to be brave, but I didn’t have to be brave alone.
If your normal means you are loving and caring for someone with a mental illness and no one understands, find your people. Find your people and tell your story. Find people who will pray with you and pray for you. Find people who know that God promises to give rest to those of us who are weary and burdened. Find people who trust that joy is out there and peace is within reach.
Finding my people has changed me. My son is still struggling with severe anxiety and depression, but I am able to wake up every morning, and with gratitude and peace, get through another day. I can see my son through God’s eyes and forgive him, love him, and never give up hope for him. This is what finding my people has helped me do.
Be strong and courageous. And find your people.
[Contact your place of worship to see if there is a support group for family and friends of people who struggle with mental illness. NAMI also has lots of faith-based information here: http://www.nami.org/NAMIFaithnet.]