what i want you to know: when mental illness strikes close to home

What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here. Today’s guest posts is by an anonymous reader.

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Being the oldest of four girls, I’ve always felt protective of my sisters. One of my sisters had an undiagnosed learning problem in elementary school and was made fun of for crying often. I would take her aside at home and have “dates” just the two of us to help her feel special. After receiving assistance for her learning problem, she did well in high school and much to my surprise, was a confident teenager who did not succumb to peer-pressure; she had a strong faith in God.

After graduating high school, she went to a one-year bible college program many miles away. I remember my mother calling me and sharing that she was struggling in school and that something was not right. The college and my sister explained the problem as “spiritual warfare”. I remember getting the news as a newlywed and praying with my husband for my sister. We did not understand what was going on.

We later found out what was wrong with my sister: her behavior was a result of experiencing psychosis rather than spiritual warfare. She came home for Christmas that year and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. My sister would tell you that her BIGGEST fear was that of having a mental illness and her biggest fear came true.

The psychosis actually began in high school but she thought her experiences were normal. As a Christian, she thought that hearing from God at times and Satan at other times was to be expected. In high school, she had a psychotic episode (a break from reality) at a youth group event and the Youth Pastor and Senior Pastor chose not to tell my parents. I’m mad at them for not sharing concerns with my parents as my sister could have received help much sooner. Instead she suffered in silence and even cut herself at times to help find mental relief.

Our family has been hurt many a time by disclosing her illness in the Christian community. My mother was blamed by a pastor for causing my sister’s mental illness as a result of her personality and parenting (she is a great mom!). There is still a huge lack of understanding and an over-spiritualization of mental health in our churches and Christian communities.

Mental illness stole her young adult years. She never got to experience being a “normal” teenager or establish who she was as a young adult before it hit. If I could choose one thing to change about my life, I would choose the following: for my sister not to have schizophrenia, and if that wish couldn’t be granted, I’d want the youth pastor to have had a conversation with my parents back when.

What broke my heart the most was watching her personality change after being diagnosed. She used to have a healthy self-esteem and now her self-esteem is quite low. She was an independent kind of girl who didn’t need a man to complete her; she now goes from one relationship to another. She has really lowered her standards in the type of men she will date. Her faith has taken a back-seat.

It has been almost 5 years since she was diagnosed and I still grieve today. I grieve for my sister - I grieve for the life she could have had without it. I grieve for my parents. When people would say to my dad, “4 girls!” he used to reply with, “all that mattered to me is that they were healthy”. I grieve for my other sisters who were young when she was diagnosed and as a result, they grew up too soon. I grieve knowing that the general population has a 1% chance of having a child with schizophrenia, and I have an increased chance (approx. 10%).

Having a family member with a major mental illness rocks your world. It hurts deeply and most people do not understand or empathize with you. It’s something you rarely share with others due to stigma and gossip. As difficult as it is for me to share my story, I want others to know that they are not alone.

1 in 100 people have schizophrenia (same percentage whether male or female). 3 in 100 people will experience psychosis (a break from reality) in their life-time.

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