Thursday, December 20, 2018

Our Crooked Tree Of Life

Tom and Barb’s Christmas tree was awesome!

It stood a full fourteen feet tall under the cathedral ceiling, the perfectly-shaped body donning a thousand white lights that glowed with a subtle bluish hue like that of a crescent moon on a clear winter’s night.  Ornaments from odd parts of Europe and generations long passed filled the spaces between the strings of lights and hung from the branches even deep inside where the lights didn’t dare to go.  A sparse amount of expertly-placed tinsel and just a few candy canes complemented the more striking hand-made glass ornaments.

As a Christmas tree, stunning, glorious, Hollywood-perfect!

As a metaphor for life, so desirable, representing a blessed journey.

But, at least for me and Ann, unrealistic and unattainable.  So, too, for many others raising special needs kids or caring for a mentally-ill loved one.

Our Christmas tree is much different.  Always has been.  Still blessed, but different.

For over thirty years, one of our six kids picked out our Christmas tree.  As a family, we would pile into the minivan after lunch on Black Friday and drive to one of the county’s few tree farms to cut down our perfect tree.

Some years the tree was tall and full.  In other years, it was skinny with a lot of space between its branches.  Rachel would often choose a “Dr. Seuss” tree, and David always picked one that wouldn’t fit in our living room.  One year, we harvested a ‘Hershey’s Kiss’ tree!  And since Ann did most of the decorating, she made sure it wasn’t a “pokey” blue sprucewhite pines or Douglas firs are her favorites.

This year, the last four of us still at home went and found the ‘perfect’ tree.  Ann decorated it within a couple days, using far fewer lights and ornaments than in years past, making sure the prominent bare spot faced the window.

Soon after, I turned off all the lights in the living room except for the ones on the Christmas tree, and invited Ann to come snuggle with me on the couch.  We sat in the dark for quite a while appreciating the glow of the tree, the quiet of the house, and the warmth of each other’s company.

Then Ann spoke six simple words that I know came from deep within her heart and reflected what she really thought of the more than forty years of life we’ve spent together.

She said: “That tree's like our life.  Crooked.”

I didn't say anything.  Didn’t need to.  I knew exactly what she meant.  I just squeezed her hand, then pulled her a little bit closer.

Yes, crooked.  Not picture-perfect as some have and many wish, but curving here and there as it stretched from floor to ceiling.  Not necessarily ‘bad’, but definitely ‘crooked’...

Like our faith.  Rooted deep in our parents’ religion, then choosing one that we believe God called us to live out.

Like our parents.  Shining examples of love and decades-long commitment, but two passing much too early.

Like our marriage.  Strong and bright and full, yet dark in spots.  Often the highest of joys and closeness, but also the lowest of pain and strife, especially when mental illness showed its ugly face.

Like our family.  Five pre-borns forever absent from around our table.  Our oldest now with Jesus after losing his fight with mental illness.

Like our friendships.  Some deep and long-lasting, while others, including those we cherish, faded as life sent us down different paths.

Like our health.  Nearly sixty-year-old bodies forever bent under the weight of life and love and work and sacrifice.

Like our finances.  Sparse here and there, but never barren.  Not a full storehouse, but always provisions for today.

Like our calling.  From investing in the lives of our kids as they grew into their own, to ministering to others who, too, decorate a crooked tree.

Crooked.  And thin.  And bare in places.  And lit with just a few lights.

But uniquely ours, adorned with ornaments that represent our special life…
A pink and red candy cane built with a child’s plastic craft pieces.
A tiny birdhouse from the workshop of the world’s greatest woodworker.
Berry-laden mistletoe, made from the plaster casting of a grandchild’s small feet.
One hand-sewn, three-inch square red pillow given to our oldest on his first Christmas Eve.
Five miniature figurines—one for each child who never shared the fun of decorating.
An unusual, dark blue Dr. Seuss-y star hanging off the side near the top.  Just because.

We wonder at, celebrate, and give thanks for our Crooked Tree Of Life.

You owe it to yourself to do the same.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

That Four Letter Word

"When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, ...dissension, division, ENVY, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these."  Gal. 5:19-21a NLT

"Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there.  Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit's leading in every part of our lives."  Gal. 5: 24 NLT

Boy, do theses verses really smack me in the face. With Christmas just around the corner, I find myself slipping into my flesh and losing my focus on my Lord. It's not like I'm going to keep Christ out of Christmas or give into drunkenness or go to wild parties, which another version calls orgies. But that four letter word, "envy", comes creeping in.

After all, we all know when you have a loved one with a severe or sometimes even not so severe mental health concern that your family isn't "normal". I’d sometimes get sick of making special accomodations for my family member or missing a party because it was too difficult for him, her, or someone else in the family to be there. I didn't want to hear it again, "Just make them come". Don't get me wrong.  Sometimes I had to "make them come." But other times, it's a bad idea to force a situation on my family.  It even gets harder when they’re in the throws of a psychological episode that coincides with a holiday and out of touch with reality for a time. I longed for "normal" or even some semblance of "normal".

When I think of one particular Christmas several years ago, while one of my son's was living at a halfway house, I remember making cookies for the guys and how some of them didn't have anywhere to go for Christmas. My not so normal Christmas was looking pretty good from their perspective. I was fretting over not seeing all of my kids at the same time while they were not seeing anyone. I always get myself into trouble when I play the comparison game with those that I think have a happy, well adjusted, Christmas card kind of family. I focus on those that have what looks like the "perfect" family. So while I'm focusing on them, I can't focus on God and there in is the problem.  

Then, I read that last verse about how, if I belong to Christ Jesus, I've nailed this sin to the cross. Whenever I am letting envy get even the tiniest foothold I am blocking the Holy Spirit from leading that part of my life. Can I say, OUCH? Over the past few years I’ve gotten better at not focusing on envy and keeping my focus on what this holiday season is all about. I know I’ve got a ways to go, but when I let go of those pie in the sky unrealistic dreams of my perfect family and let the Spirit lead me my Thanksgiving, Christmas, and every other day, it’s so much better. I’m sure it will be better for you too. We all just need to stop trying to lead our lives and let the Holy Spirit lead us. Then Envy has no power.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

We’re all mentally ill

That’s my theory, anyway.  Before you say I’m crazy, read this whole post, then tell me what you think.  Am I right, am I wrong, or might I be on to something regardless?

So, what makes me think that we’re all mentally ill?  The combination of a few things.

First, facts about people:
We’re comprised of at least two components: physical and mental.
As we age, these components change—our bodies and minds morph.
Everyone’s flawed.  We each have stains, blemishes, quirks, and anomalies.  (Since we’re each ‘physically’ flawed, why would we ever think we’re not also ‘mentally’ flawed?)
Some imperfections vary over time.  Some eventually get worse, much worse.

Next, facts about diseases:
Some diseases lie dormant for years before their symptoms appear.  (We may have the illness, but not exhibit any symptoms.)
Some diseases can’t be diagnosed until after their symptoms flare up.  (Being symptom-free doesn’t mean we don’t have the illness.)
Each disease affects each person differently—some to a small degree, others more significantly.
The affects or symptoms of a disease don’t jump from “none” to “maximum” in a fraction of a second.  They progress from one degree to another over time—maybe weeks, maybe months, even years, but almost never instantaneously.

Finally, facts about me and some of my kids:
I haven’t been diagnosed with a mental illness nor been told by anyone that they think I have one.
Professionals have diagnosed many of my kids with at least one mental illness.
I demonstrate many of the same behaviors some of my diagnosed kids do, but often to a much lesser degree.

When I look in the mirror, when I consider the above, I draw the conclusion that I have at least one mental illness, and probably three.  As of today, though, my symptoms haven’t risen to the level of needing professional help.  (Again, ‘as of today’.)

All this leads me to believe that I, a human—and, by extension, you, also a human—have a mental illness.  We might not yet see it, others might not discern it, and it might not ever rise to a professionally-diagnosable level.  Nonetheless, I’m willing to accept that I’m mentally ill.

And I’m okay with that.


Because I admire my kids and others who not only wrestle everyday with symptoms far beyond mine and far beyond what I can imagine, but also deal with society’s stares and statements, hand-delivered on ice-cold platters.

Because I know that if I differ only by degree and not by type from everyone who’s been diagnosed, I’m less likely to judge them, to avoid them, or demean them.

Because if “I’m not okay, you mustn’t be okay”, meaning it’s just possible that we could live in a much different world.

In the end, I might be wrong.  But, then again, what if I’m right?  Either way, imagine the kind of world this would be if we at least considered the prospect that we’re all mentally ill: A world without stigma around mental illness, without judgment or guilt or shame.

As someone who’s lived alongside mental illness for decades, I’d enjoy a world like that.

A note from the author…

I know some of you reading this are thinking “You don’t understand.  You don’t know what the mentally ill deal with!  You demean everyone who has a mental illness when you refer to yourself as if you were one of them.”

I’m sorry you feel that way, that’s not what I’m saying, but that’s exactly my point.  As long as we focus on our differences, as long as we view ‘them’ as a diseased version of ‘us’, this all continues: judgment and guilt and pity and shame and ignorance and disbelief and stigma.

But if we saw and heard and treated people who display symptoms of mental illness as no different than us in nature and in worth—and if we viewed ourselves as people fortunate to not be as affected as they are—we could maybe, just maybe begin to empathize, to inquire, to discover, to learn, to soften, to love, and to advocate.

In a nutshell, this is what I’m saying: We as a society need to do these things to have even a hope of creating a world full of compassion and understanding, full of respect and support, full of grace and mercy and love.

And I do hope we create that kind of world, because the current one’s not really helping those who many call "the mentally ill".

Thursday, September 20, 2018

It's Not All Wedded Bliss

38 years of marriage is a great feat nowadays. Throw mental illness into your family dynamic and getting married at a young age and statistics say we were doomed from the start. We can’t take credit for our success in staying together. But we can give you a few pointers whether you have mental illness in your family or not. It’s all stuff you know and have heard before, but maybe has a slightly different twist on it or you haven’t thought about working on your marriage in a while.
Here goes it:

1.  When it’s tough always see and remember the best version of your spouse. Remember the good stuff instead of the bad.
2.  When it looks like your unappreciated and forgotten go the extra mile to do something (anything) for your spouse. Write them a love note, send them an “I love you” text, pick up some flowers, make or buy a favorite dessert, or give them a hug just because. Do this in good times and in bad and don’t expect them to reciprocate or even receive this gesture very well.
3.  Always pray with and for your spouse. (If your spouse doesn’t want to pray with you, you can still pray for them.)
4.  Stay in God’s word every day. Even if it’s one verse.
5.  Never gossip about your spouse. (This is especially hard for the ladies.) Better yet, brag about them.
6.  Seek professional help if you harbor anger, resentment, or have unresolved conflict. Encourage your spouse to do the same if they are open to it.
7.  Know their love language and apply it to your relationship with them. 
8.  Date your spouse.
9.  If you don’t have shared interests find them. It could be a hobby, volunteering, or even working on a house project together. 
10. Lastly, let Christ permeate every area of your life. That’s the best way to keep your marriage in the wedded bliss category.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Two Hearts

Was there yelling sometimes? Of Course
Did everything go according to each other’s plan? Not always
Were there many happy moments in our household? Absolutely
Could you tell they loved each other? Yep
This poem is for the two of you.


Two hearts so full of love for their God, Jesus.
Two hearts so full of love for others.
Two hearts so full of love for each other.
Two hearts that pray for us.
Two hearts living out whatever God leads
them to do each and every day.
Two hearts that love each other even when it’s not easy.
Two hearts that inspire us to love more.
Two hearts that complement each other’s strengths.
Two hearts that readily forgive.
Two hearts so big it’s a wonder how those hearts 
fit into two people.
Two hearts I am so privileged to know and be known by.
Two hearts filled by God, reflecting His love to us all.
Two hearts of integrity, wisdom, and
strength of character.
Two hearts that often beat as one.
Two hearts that I am so honored to be able to call
Dad and Mom.

Happy 65th Wedding Anniversary Mom and Dad!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

Nobody likes it, but many of us do it. Since mental illness hit our family I have done it less and less. What is it? It is unwanted advice. I came to realize that most of the time I’m speaking out of ignorance and giving advice that is not wanted, needed, asked for, and is actually hurtful and harmful.

The damage of all of this unwanted advice is isolation, shaming, and marginalization of the person getting this so called good advice. For those hearing this advice the struggle to continue sharing your story vs. isolating yourself is real. When this judgmental advice is the norm, it makes it so hard to open up and risk hurtful words coming your way again and again.

Common phrases like:
“Just snap out of it” ~ as if that’s something you can easily do
“It’s all in your head” ~ That’s true, but not really what they mean.
“Have you tried…..” ~ Yes, it probably would help and you may have tried it or are currently doing it. That aside, it minimizes you and your diagnosis. Plus, you’ve heard this advice about a gazillion times already.
“If you just did this, you’d be fine.” ~ This one doesn’t even recognize that you have a mental illness.
“Do you have some unrepentant sin?” ~ Once again, not mentally ill. It’s all about your personal sin.

The same holds true if your loved one has a mental illness. The words are a little different but the affect is the same. Words like “Just make them”, It’s all in their head.”, “Have they tried…”, “Have you tried….” are just as common. There’s only so many times one can get beat up with these words.

Ignorance is often the catalyst of this unwanted advice. We all hear ignorance is bliss, but for those of us on the receiving end of these hurtful words of advice, ignorance is hell, isolation, and painful. Plus this ignorance promotes stigma.

So what are we to do? If you’re the person making these sorts of statements and giving this kind of advice, please STOP. Know that you are only making matters worse. Better yet, ask how you can support this person emotionally or in practically ways instead of telling them what to do or not do.

If you are the person receiving this advice, please don’t close yourself off because of these hurtful words. And even more important don’t let someone else’s ignorance be your reason to isolate.  It’s challenging to share your story while risking ridicule and judgment. Remember that sharing your story is one of the best ways to educate others about mental illness. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Doing The Dance

We all want to help our child be as successful as possible and will help nudge them along as they grow up. What do you do when your child grows up physically, but their illness has caused them to not grow up emotionally? You want to help them without being a crutch. It's a constant balancing act where at any moment you could tip the scale in the wrong direction.
Between his diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, General Anxiety Disorder, and Addictions there were numerous times that I thought our son had fallen for the last time and was ready to get up out of the pit.  
As a mom, I was torn between giving David what he needed for today and hoping that he would get to a point where he could consistently provide for himself. I wondered if his illness had taken over too much because there were many days when all I could see was the illness in the forefront and my son trying to break through that illness. I wanted to help, but sometimes I was only making it worse?  
I knew several people who had a mental health diagnosis that were living life in all its wonder and thriving in spite of their disorder. I admired them and looked to them for insight. However, just like cancer, there are stages and forms that are more or less severe. For various reasons David's diagnosis and stage of illness was one of those that the odds were stacked against him.
Friends would tell me to help him in ways that only added guilt to my already fragile emotional state. Often these ways would only enable him to go down the destructive path of his illness and take us along for the ride. They would say that Jesus would have helped, so I should too. After all who in their right mind has their son arrested, gets them committed to a mental health facility, and turns their child away when they see a real need. Well, I think many people would be surprised by the answer.
I'd like to share a story of one of the last times I had to say no to David. He was 28 and I was taking him to our weekly lunch date when he said to me, “Mom, It’s getting cold out and I can’t stay at my friends anymore. Do you want me to be homeless?” (translation:  Can I come back home?) How is a mom supposed to answer that one? He had put me on the spot and tugged at my heart all at the same time.  
What was I supposed to do? I couldn't trust him to be in our home. I needed to set boundaries without making it sound like I was rejecting him. We had been down this revolving door road several times before and it wasn't good for him or the family.   There’s no easy way to say to your child those types of things without them feeling hurt. I loved him so much and just wanted to save him from this illness that had taken most of him away from all those that loved and knew him. If only there was an easy answer. I paused, prayed silently to myself, and then responded with an “Of course not, but this is your choice.” As the words came out of my mouth I thought, “Where did that come from?” followed by “Thank You Lord.” This followed with a discussion of his viable options that I already knew he wasn't going to do. My heart sank and I clung to God for peace about this decision even when everything in me was screaming to let him come home knowing that would have been a disaster on so many levels.
He did indeed become homeless wandering the parks of a mid-sized city. He eventually hit a new bottom. Then he was committed to a mental health facility, followed by a half-way house.
There’s always a fine line between accommodating a real need and perpetuating the illness by enabling and being codependent. It’s a dance I don’t like and sometimes get wrong. That being said, I want to encourage you if you are doing that dance too, that you are not alone. There are many of us having to be seen as the bad guy or gal not only by our loved one, but most other people too.
That is when our faith can really be tested and fervent prayer for discernment is really needed. You will make the wrong choice occasionally. But mostly, you’ll make the right choice even with all of those around you telling you that it’s wrong. Keep doing what you know is right, but also never give up on them.
If you are not in this dance, please don’t give us ill-informed advice and be thankful you can sit this one out.
Accommodating is great. Enabling is terrible.