“…Then your light shall break forth like the dawn; and your healing shall spring up quickly…”
If there is no cure, and a person has to manage a mental disorder, what can I do as a dad? From where shall the light come? And what does healing look like?
Obviously the impact from living with a serious mental illness is enormous in a person’s life. Almost every day, as in taking medications, there is a reminder that the person is hoping to manage the best they can. The first experience that my son had when he became manic was 30 years ago. I was a single dad and he was living with me. It was traumatic. I was fortunate at that point to have had a conversation with a psychiatrist who indicated that when I found my son (who was wandering the city) to get him to the hospital. During those hours when I was looking for him, I was frantic. I was told by the police that I probably would find my son in a straight jacket (this was in 1988), in jail, or in a body bag because of what probably was his erratic and dangerous behavior.
It was then in my exhaustion that I reached out to a friend who lived many states away from where I was, in the middle of the night asking for prayer. She said, “Go to sleep, I will pray.” But, I said, “I called the hospital and even if I find him, there is no psyche bed in the hospital.” She said, again, “Go to sleep, I will pray.”
As a retired chaplain I have prayed so many times for an outcome that would be the best for the patient and those who love them, and those who are taking care of them. I always prayed. Yet so many times, that for which the patient and the loved ones and I prayed did not come. But still I prayed just asking for a divine presence, a compassion and love to surround the people. So, what about my friend’s prayer?
Of all things, my son returned home on his own. I was able to get him into a taxi and we went to the hospital where there was a bed. He does not remember this. Since those many years ago, I have come to believe that my son’s bipolar disorder will not be cured. For all the many times he has been taken by me, his spouse, and by friends, he has been taken to the psych ward rather than the jail, for which I am profoundly grateful.
Still for me, as the dad, each of the episodes has been traumatic. Even for the most recent one in February 2018 which makes the roughly 20 times he has been hospitalized. I still pray for the inscrutable God to be present even when all I experience is a silence. I still talk with my spouse who holds me gently with care. I still reach out to my son through telephone messages and cards, especially when my son is able to speak from the psych ward which is almost across the whole country from where I now live. I have talked with one of his friends. Perhaps those are the connections in the silence.
This is one of my life-journeys. As a dad, I am giving some of my life’s energy to stay connected as much as possible with my son. He is witty, bright, charming, lives in an apartment and has a full time job. So how does a dad care? I am still learning from him that to “care about” him is very different at this time than “caring for” him. He is mature and very capable and competent.
Being the dad of my son who I so deeply love fuels my voluntary work in mental health locally in my church, regionally with the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness, www.inmi.us, and nationally with the UCC Mental Health Network, www.mhn-ucc.org. I love it if everyone would find the resources needed to sustain themselves if they may be a person like me who has a family member or friend who is living with a serious mental illness which does not seem to have a cure, BUT which can be managed. These can be bright lights shown in those times of struggle and which are bleak. Enough for there to be healing? Even if it is not the one for which we ask?
Rev. Alan Johnson
Alan Johnson is a mental health advocate who served on the national United Church Board of Homeland Ministries, 1979-1995, retired as chaplain at The Children’s Hospital, Denver, and serves as chair of the UCC Mental Health Network board of directors.