We seem to come across it again and again and wonder if it’s just really prevalent. Or if God intentionally bring mentally ill people into our lives fairly regularly for our growth. Probably both.
I don’t know that I have a lot to say about it right now. I don’t have thoughts entirely formulated. I’m just pondering… and thought I’d do it aloud (well, in writing).
I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t share names or too many particular details, but the most recent and long-standing relationship is with a young woman (I’ll just call her “M”) who, in crisis at the Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF unit – pronounced “Puff”) 2 ½ years ago, opened the yellow pages to “churches” and randomly (providentially) pointed, her finger landing on our phone number. She didn’t know that she’d landed on a church just 2 miles from where she was locked down, and that God had just then opened up the door to a probably life-long friendship. We didn’t know that either. But we’ve come to realize that that’s what God has arranged.
And so very regularly, we get to ponder mental illness (she’s bipolar, mentally retarded to some degree, we think, and beyond that we don’t know). And we experience the mental health system with it’s crisis lock-down units, and transitional homes, and boarding facilities, and staff (many friendly and caring, some of whom also end up slamming patients against the wall when they “go off,” as our friend’s fellow-patient described to us last week, explaining M’s bruised eye, cut nose and scraped knee).
Today we again visited her – in the fifth place that she’s been housed since we’ve known her (plus the hospital a few times). She already knows several of the women, tho she’s just been there about a week. People in this system get moved from place to place and end up connecting over the years. The staff seems to go from place to place, too. And some have been around for a long time. Every once in a while, M says, “Oh, he’s known me since I was 14.” That’s when she first started into this complex system which became her only home and family til we came along. We met when she was 26 – and she calls us “mom” and “dad,” introducing us as her adopted parents, or foster parents, or just as her parents (her birth parents, at whose hands she suffered much abuse, have been out of her life since she was 18). We try to correct the terminology so that she truly understands our relationship. “We’re your friends – for the long run” or some other explanation. Doesn’t seem to matter what we say; she still goes rushing into her friends’ rooms dragging us by the arm, shaking them to wake them up, announcing, “Wake up! I want you to meet my mom and dad.” And, of course, Kaylee and Connor become brother and sister to her in her eyes – she’s got photos of all of us. Jenny and Max and Graham, too. It can be uncomfortable, and especially so when she’s clingy and needy and a bit overly-snuggly, or when the kids come along for a visit and Kaylee ends up on the phone with her later in the week only to find that M put a guy on the phone to talk to her – “cuz he thinks Kaylee’s hot.” Oh dear.
So there are situations to be dealt with in wisdom. And oh so much compassion to learn. When the phone rings (many times each week) and we hear her name and know that it’s time to hang up and call her back (she calls collect, and we learned early on that if we accept the call and say “hi” and “we’ll call you right back” – it’ll cost us a fortune. So we hang up, without accepting the call, then call her back) – at those times, compassion needs to kick in. And, I’m ashamed to say, we don’t always exercise it. But we assume that God’s working on growing it in us.
When I wander the halls with her and observe the extent of the disorders – the vacant eyes, the stares, the man in mismatched women’s clothing with shiny gold purse and earrings, the woman with little-girl pigtails and bright bizarre clothes, the big man looking a little too confrontational for my liking – I’m served up a slice of humanity that makes me… wonder. Wonder at God’s gentle dealing with me – I don’t live with this kind of brokenness under my own roof. We have our share of hurts and disappointments and aches and questions and sickness… but nothing like in M’s world. And I wonder about M and the other patients (called “consumers” by the system) – just what hope is there for them? What is God doing concerning them? How does He view them? How do we “reach” them? (Licia had some good thoughts on that the other night as we talked. Thanks for your encouraging words. Now if I could just think how she put it!) And I honestly have to deal with my own fears – what if this happened to ME?! (Like that fear of Alzheimers that I think we all face. Don’t we? Don’t you? Well, I do.) How would I survive in such a place?! Oh, God, may it never be. And so then, if those places call up such horror in me, should we leave M there? … and THAT calls up far bigger questions than I can even process right now.
So, for now, I go about my business, with M’s phone number beside both phones in the house. I’m not particularly preoccupied with thoughts about her. Our lives have so many facets – and that’s just one little piece of it all. But when the calls come, and the visits, with the prospect of bringing her to our home and church again soon (now that she’s back in the area), we’re brought face to face with it again for a period of time. And so I imagine we’ll continue to ponder and ask God “what are we to do?” and then ask for the grace to move ahead with whatever His answer is.
Isn’t it interesting how far removed this all seems from skiing with the kids yesterday? Except that from M’s place, there’s a beautiful view of the mountains. We told her we were up there with the kids yesterday. And Tim pointed out to her his favorite spot in the range – the highest and snowiest. I wonder if she’s ever heard the crunch of snow. I wonder if we’ll take her up there some day. I wonder if she’ll someday meet our friends and sense the warmth of enveloping safeness. I wonder if God will reach out to her and make her safe forever. I wonder…
(The view yesterday morning as the mountains called to us.)
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
(This is no longer "Giving a face to mental illness." In fact it could be, "Helping to maintain mental health." And really, since God is Lord over all, uniting every aspect of our lives in him, with no sacred/secular division between the "now I'm serving the oppressed" and "now I'm skiing with my family" and "now I'm serving God," these two sections of the post can happily co-exist as one.)
(The kids and I do logic together, and we all, with dad, have been reading and discussing two books on The Reformation.)Rice Krispy treats make any day a sweet day.And on the way home, while the kids slept and I drove, Tim, relegated to a back seat cuz he doesn't get sick, entertained himself. (Who knew -- til we loaded the photos on the computer!)And then it just went downhill from there. Connor was ready to disown us at McDonald's.I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stonghold. (Psalm 18:1,2)