When Grace & Reality Collide: Dealing with Mental Illness, Part II
- 2008 5 Jun
Editor's Note: This is the second half of a two-part article. To catch up on Part I, please click here.
Grace and Mercy, Borderline and Boundaries
In the biblical sense, grace is often defined as “God’s unmerited favor toward sinful man.” He gave His Son to die on a cross—His work—and required nothing from us but acceptance of this and we are thereby saved. Though we are not able to give to others the kind of grace God gives to us, we are to “imitate Him.” Ephesians 5:1 says, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us….”
I have a friend who is one of the most gracious people I’ve ever known. No matter what ill someone may direct toward her, she shows grace. Sometimes I wonder if I could ever be as gracious as she, let alone God!
Mercy, it has been said, is the second head on the Grace coin. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) Paul wrote: Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them…he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness (Romans 12: 6, 8 excerpted).
Mercy is considered a spiritual gift. It’s a wonderful gift to have. For those who have been blessed with it, however, comes an admonition: be careful not to lose balance in your own life because of someone else’s. And, be careful to distinguish between the line of encouraging and enabling, as Bottke explained. “When a parent or grandparent places mercy above God’s clear directives,” she said, “they inadvertently endorse behavior that is the antithesis of faith.”
My loved one has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), ADHD, and is bipolar. These are three of the most difficult mental illnesses to deal with and they all live within the body of this one woman.
BPD, in and of itself, is particularly devastating. The BPD sufferer lives in a world of inner and outer torment. They see themselves as the cream-de-la-cream and, at the same time, not worthy of breathing. Their anger—something akin to fury—is short-lived but brutal, often leaving wounded. Their impulsivity often leads to drug addiction, STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and legal problems. They form attachments to “objects” (people) which become love/hate relationships. This love/hate waxes and wanes frequently. Their lives are considered stormy; they live in constant upheavals. They are both victim and abuser. Though they may try with everything within them to “be normal” or even to “be good,” their behavior is often inappropriate. Rather than living in peace with all, they are drawn to personal confrontations and disputes. They find it nearly impossible to keep a job, goals, values, and relationships with longevity.
And, I love someone with this disorder. “Disorder,” I write, as though it’s a headache that can be treated with a couple of Bayer aspirins. This is a disease with no sure beginning. Some medical professionals attribute it to early childhood trauma while others say it stems from biological or neurological sources.
Love her or not, disorder or disease, this person brought so much havoc into my life I found it nearly impossible to get through a day without total despair. I tried for years, patiently extending the grace and mercy I thought proper to be helpful—to perhaps even lead to a willingness to get medical help and receive wellness—but, in the end, nearly destroyed myself and my home. As a person in ministry, this was particularly devastating. I was torn between believing in God’s examples and miracles and in need of secure and severe boundaries.
It’s More Common Than You May Know
As a person in ministry I have found Christians who love someone with a mental disorder/disease and/or addictions to be more common than not.
One particular Christian author and speaker (who asked to remain nameless, so we’ll call her Denise) is the parents of an adult child with Type-2 bipolar illness, a more severe form of bipolar disease that sometimes includes psychotic episodes. For the most part, Denise’s son Charles (not his real name) grew up healthy and normal. But when he was only seventeen-years-old the episodes began. “This was a child who was walking closely with the Lord,” Denise reports. “So imagine our surprise when the illness first showed itself.”
Denise’s victim of Type-2 bipolar disease typically begins an episode by talking fast, sleeping little (if at all) and eating little (if at all). As his moods begin to swing, living with Charles from hour to hour becomes a tremendous challenge. He displays unusual character traits: cursing, uncontrollable anger, walking off in the middle of the night. His strength becomes increased and—while some become violent, even toward those they love—so far Charles has not physically wounded anyone.
The Type-2 bipolar can become paranoid. “Once the episodes become full blown they can totally part company with reality. In a fit of mania they might spend literally thousands of dollars in a matter of an hour or sink to the lowest places of despair,” Denise says. “This is often when the patient attempts or is successful at committing suicide.”
Within the framework of grace and mercy, Denise and her family had to find different types of boundaries for Charles. “Most doctors will tell you tough love makes a bipolar patient worse. Patience, honesty, gentleness, prayer, kindness, and often simply being quiet are the best ways we’ve learned to cope with Charles when he’s not well.”
Denise also had to find peace within herself as her son’s illness coincided with her mother’s Alzheimer’s. But as Bottke writes, “We have become emotional repositories for everyone else’s problems, and the time has come for that to stop.”
When Denise found the boundaries that worked for her—both with her son and her father—she was able to put the fragmented pieces of her life back together and—drawn closer to God—was then capable to climbing to new levels within her relationships with God, her husband, herself, and her ministry.
Another friend of mine has a father with Alzheimer's and a 54-year old brother--a former homeless man--who suffers from alcohol-induced dementia. My friend often tells me she is suffering from the guilt and anxiety involved in being the only caregiver in town for them both.
Still, she has she placed boundaries so she can cope. After years of giving in to the guilt, she has claimed the promises and boundaries of Psalm 16:5-6. She has come to realize that God never gives her more than she can handle, and when she feels too stressed to handle the situation, that's her cue to back off and let God take care of her family.
Finding the Boundaries/Extending Proper Grace
While it would be wonderful to hand everyone who loves a person with a mental illness/disorder/addiction a step-by-step recipe to healing, I cannot. I have discovered that some issues are universal and some are dependent upon the relationship you have with the patient and the degree to which you’ve allowed the patient to take over your life.
That said, there are things that don’t work. Melanie, a Christian who suffers from a mental illness/disorder, says one of the worst things that happened to her in the beginning of her illness was when people told her to “buck up.”
“That didn’t work for me,” she says. “Neither was it helpful when family members wanted to ‘fix me.’”
Family members and loved ones simply cannot do for the patient what the patient has to do for themselves. This is a lesson I personally learned as well. I spent years trying to fix not only the patient but the mess of our lives she had created only to discover she was no more fixed than before and the lives of our immediate family members were lying in catastrophic heaps.
Finding spiritual guidance for myself with pastors and therapists who were well educated on the subject was utmost beneficial but also critical for my own sanity. Unfortunately, most people focus on the patient rather than those affected by the patient. One pastor I spoke with said, “Because the causes, diagnoses, symptoms and behavioral issues are all specific to the person and the illness, I have found my most important role is to be a support to the primary caregiver and not the patient.”
It is difficult—very difficult—to extend proper grace and mercy to those who cannot mentally appreciate it and—in the end and most often—throw it back in your face. But as Romans 12:18 tells us: If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Emphasis mine).
If it is possible. Sometimes it’s not. These are the times I hold on to another passage of Scripture, which says: And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:7, emphasis mine) In these times I stand firm within my boundary lines. I say, “I love you” while at the same time adding, “but I will not allow you to abuse that love.”
Eva Marie Everson’s book Reflections of Israel; A Personal Journey to God’s Holy Land (Thomas Nelson/Nelson Bibles) will release May, 2008. For more information about the book and Eva’s speaking topics, go to: www.EvaMarieEverson.com