It has been a very difficult five years. Just before starting college, my son Z. had his first psychotic break. Doctors eventually diagnosed him with schizoaffective disorder, a variant of schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia is a devastating mental illness, affecting approximately 1 percent of the population. Common symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, disordered speech, emotional flatness, and apathy. Not surprisingly, people with schizophrenia have trouble living independently. They find it difficult to make friends, hold jobs, and change their clothes on a regular schedule.
Five years ago, we had high hopes for Z. He was entering college on a full academic scholarship at the age of 17. He auditioned and placed first clarinet in the school band. Not only that, Z. had recently been baptized as a Christian and seemed to have a heart for children’s ministry. While Z. had always been quirky and introverted, he had made several close friends in high school. We had no doubt his college years would be successful.
Suddenly, everything changed. Z. was hospitalized five times in four years, taking multiple medical leaves from school. His behavior was strange, alienating, frustrating, and sometimes frightening. He burned through all the common medications. Some meds came with a steep price tag and no benefit, while others ushered in terrible side effects, including nightmares and panic.
After the last hospitalization, our dear doctor told us Z.’s “frontal lobe was fried” and implied we should be looking at institutions. Even Z.’s Christian faith was splintered; his hallucinatory spirit journeys were more real to him than religious truth. As his mother, I spent five years crying and praying and struggling to understand what had happened.
A Lesson from Corrie ten Boom on Thankfulness
Thanksgiving season was particularly trying. Of course, there are always things to be thankful for, such as food, family, friends, a roof over my head. But these blessings paled in comparison to the hollowing-out of my beloved son. Believers in Christ are called to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). But how could I fight my way to 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, which was crawling with fleas. Corrie’s sister Betsie, the more spiritual of the two, forced 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 discovered this reprieve from harassment was precisely because the guards were afraid of fleas.
If Corrie, as a prisoner of the Nazis, could thank God for fleas, could I find a way to thank God for mental illness? Five years in, the answer is — miraculously — yes. Here are four blessings I have experienced as a direct result of my son’s affliction.
We could not hide the fact that our family was in crisis. We were physically incapable of putting on masks, pretending everything was okay. This was a blessing, albeit painful and embarrassing. We were forced to open up to our friends, and to rely on our church family. Lasting bonds formed in the trenches.
As I continued to read blogs and memoirs about schizophrenia, I realized I was not alone. As bad as my son’s illness was, and is, some families face much greater challenges. I gained literary friends and virtual friends, and we took comfort from each other. I am thankful for the many relationships that came into being and were paradoxically enriched by my son’s illness.
At first encounter, mental illness can be incomprehensible, shameful, and repellent. It is natural to avoid those who are afflicted.
I learned mental illness does not change our essential humanity. My son is still my son, deserving of love and respect. I received new eyes to see the suffering around me, especially parents with adult sons who do not or cannot meet social expectations.
When my students speak of anxiety and depression, or changes in medication, I now have ears to hear. Today, I am ashamed of how I avoided struggling people in the past. I am thankful God softened my heart through Z.’s journey.
As C.S. Lewis said, 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, in my own life.
It was only after my hopes were completely dashed that I learned to hope in God alone. Miraculously and mysteriously, I found God walking with me every step of the way. Like Job, I got to experience God up close and personal, to see God with the eyes of faith (Job 42:5). For that, I am eternally thankful.
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 be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:20-21). That was not my first response to suffering. I could not understand why a good and all-powerful God would allow the destruction of Z.’s beautiful mind. That’s not how God is supposed to treat his faithful followers!
Slowly, I came to realize suffering is an embedded feature of our fallen world. God does not promise health and wealth on this Earth despite the teachings of the prosperity preachers. The meaning of my life, the meaning of Z.’s life, does not depend on our productivity, our achievements, our Instagram-worthy moments. God only asks that we remain faithful in the situation to which he calls us, day by day. I am thankful for this hard-fought lesson — although I wish I had learned it earlier and easier.
For those who are hurting this Thanksgiving, I want to offer an encouragement. Try thanking God for both the obvious and the less-obvious blessings. Talk about your “fleas,” your struggles with mental illness, your loneliness, your unemployment. Then fight your way to gratitude. The apostle Paul describes believers as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Thanksgiving is how earthly suffering is transformed, one broken heart at a time.