Giving Thanks When Your Family Is Struggling
Soon after graduating high school, our son had his first psychotic break. Eventually, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a variant of schizophrenia. The past few years have been incredibly difficult for him. They have also been hard for us, his family.
Five years ago, our son was entering college on a full academic scholarship, playing clarinet in the band, and enjoying close friendships.
Suddenly, everything changed. He was hospitalized five times in four years, requiring multiple medical leaves from school. His behavior was strange, alienating, frustrating, sometimes frightening. He burned through all the common medications. Some meds came with a steep price tag and no benefit. Others came with terrible side effects, including nightmares and panic. After the last hospitalization, the doctor told us his frontal lobe was “fried” and implied we should be looking at institutions.
Schizophrenia is a devastating mental illness, afflicting approximately 1 percent of the population. Common symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, disordered speech, emotional flatness, and apathy. Not surprisingly, individuals with schizophrenia have trouble living independently. They find it difficult to make friends, hold jobs, or even change their clothes on a regular schedule.
As his mother, I spent five years crying, and praying, and struggling to understand what had happened.
Thankful? In This?
During that time, the Thanksgiving holiday was particularly trying. Of course, I had things to be thankful for. Food, family, friends, a roof over my head. But these blessings seemed insubstantial compared to the hollowing-out of my beloved son.
I knew believers are called to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:16–18). But how could I fight my way to a place of gratitude? Would I ever find joy again?
Corrie ten Boom, a member of the Dutch resistance during World War II, wrote about her imprisonment in a German concentration camp, crawling with fleas. Corrie’s spiritually minded sister Betsie urged Corrie to practice gratitude, to the point of thanking God for the fleas. Corrie thought Betsie was out of her mind.
Then, surprisingly, the guards gave the prisoners unprecedented freedom in the barracks. Corrie later discovered this reprieve from harassment was precisely because the guards feared the fleas.
If Corrie could thank God for fleas in a Nazi concentration camp, could I find a way to thank God for his goodness—even in the midst of my beloved son’s mental illness? Five years in, the answer is miraculously “yes.” Here are four blessings I’ve experienced as a direct result of my son’s affliction.
As we walked with our son through his diagnosis, we couldn’t hide the fact our family was in crisis. This itself was a blessing, albeit painful and embarrassing. We were forced to open up to our friends, to rely on our church family. And lasting bonds were formed in those trenches.
As I continued to read blogs and memoirs about schizophrenia, I realized I wasn’t the only one experiencing this struggle. I gained “virtual” friends from around the country, and we took comfort from each other. These are people I never would’ve known apart from our shared crisis. I am thankful for the many relationships that came into being, and were paradoxically enriched, by my son’s illness.
To the healthy, mental illness can seem incomprehensible. As a result, people with mental illness often experience shame or exclusion. Sadly, in the past, I also avoided suffering people. But my son’s experiences have taught me that mental illness does not change our essential humanity. My son was still my son, bearing the image of the living God, deserving love and respect.
Through our family’s crisis, I was given new eyes to see the suffering around me, especially parents with adult sons who did not or could not meet social expectations. Now, when my students speak of anxiety and depression, or changes in medication, I have ears to hear. I am thankful that God softened my heart through my son’s journey.
As C. S. Lewis wrote, God “shouts in our pains.” When my world fell apart, where could I turn but toward God? My prayers increased in frequency and urgency. At church, I clung to every worship song with tears. I pored through the book of Job, wondering together with the patriarch whether God had abandoned me. Year after year, I searched for the hand of God in the life of my son, and in my own life.
It was only after my hopes were completely dashed—after multiple psych professionals proclaimed my son beyond help—that I learned to hope in God alone. Miraculously and mysteriously, I found him walking with me every step of the way. Like Job, I got to experience God up close, to see him with the eyes of faith (Job 42:5).
Job famously said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away, blessed by the name of the LORD” (Job 1:20–21). That was not my first response to suffering. I couldn’t understand why a good and all-powerful God would allow the destruction of my son’s beautiful mind.
Slowly, I came to realize that suffering is an inescapable part of our fallen world. God does not, despite the teachings of prosperity preachers, promise health and wealth on this earth. The meaning of my life, and the meaning of my son’s life, does not depend on our productivity, our achievements, our Instagrammable moments. God only asks that we remain faithful in the situation where he calls us, day by day. I am thankful for this hard-fought lesson—although I wish I’d learned it earlier and easier.
Fight for Gratitude
This Thanksgiving, as you gather around the table, don’t be afraid to name your crisis. Talk about your “fleas”: your struggles with mental illness, your loneliness, your unemployment. Then fight your way to gratitude. Paul describes believers as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). By the help of the Holy Spirit, this can be true of you. Take your broken heart to him. Weep. And then give thanks.
Laura Baxter practices law and teaches at her local university. She attends The Bridge Community Church in Ruston, Louisiana. You can read more of her work at stirfrylaura.wordpress.com.