Cleaning Up the Mess

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“Now, what?”

I asked myself a few months ago. After years, consisting of very long days, of  family struggles with mental and medical conditions, the season began to change. At first, I dared not believe it. So many times, there had been brief glimpses of light as we forged through the darkness. But those moments seemed to fade quickly. Once again, we would be left trying to find our footing and walk forward together: my daughter, my two sons, my husband, and myself. To say that the relationships between us were strained would be an understatement. When one person in a family struggles, everyone is effected. 

The dynamics between us does not resemble the picture I had in my mind before my husband and I started a family.  My daughter began treatment for Bipolar Disorder at 9 years old (she is now age 15). My older son (age 18) has battled anxiety and depression along with a host of unexpected health concerns along the way. The youngest son (age 13), whom I call the “comic relief,” manages mild anxiety. None of their conditions define them, but they do effect the climate of our home. It hasn’t always felt like the refuge I hoped my husband and I would create. We have tried to initiate traditions, affirm each other’s strengths, and attempt to carve moments of time together. We have sought out therapy, utilized resources and developed a support system. Humor has even found its way in. Yet, we couldn’t always keep the storms at bay.

Truthfully, the winds, at times, seemed so forceful that I wasn’t sure I had the strength to resist them. My husband and I could be a strong force together; yet each of us developed our own methods of survival. We also felt as if the storm was invisible to everyone else. When your kids are physically sick, it is usually visible and garners sympathy. However, mental illness carries a stigma. There are plenty of opinions regarding how to “fix” your child. “If we would just . . .” Meanwhile, the unpredictable nature of episodes and triggers as well as the financial stress and school concerns mount. And in the midst of it all, you are trying to sustain your marriage, pay bills and pray for endurance, provision, and healing.

It occurred to me one day that this long season of storms may have finally transitioned into a season of calm. When you are so used to living in survival mode, you don’t always realize that the storm has weakened. Weeks no longer seemed packed with doctors’ appointments, evaluating medications, financial distress, school battles, emotional burnout. It may be the beginning of a season of restoration. On the surface, a calm after the storm sounds welcoming. But, truthfully, the implications are daunting.

How do you begin cleaning up the mess?

Branch by branch, piece by piece. I remember a horrific storm that erupted suddenly about 10 years ago. When it was safe, we made our way outside to access the damage. Thankfully, our belongings remained intact. However, our street and our yard were filled with tree limbs and branches scattered everywhere. In order to move toward restoration, you must begin cleaning up the mess one branch at a time. It may take a while. And I’ve learned (reluctantly) that’s okay.

Restoring our relationships with each other will take time. One branch at a time. I often wonder how my kids would relate to one another had our situation been different. I will never know the answer. It would be tempting to dwell on the “what ifs,” but that would require looking back. We are heading forward. The medical concerns have not resolved. The winds may indeed return. We have found space to breathe and rest. We have found our footing once again and set our eyes on God; who is in the business of making things new. I find inspiration in the promise given to the Israelites: 

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
 Isaiah 43:19 (NIV)

Stephanie Thompson

Stephanie Thompson is a graduate of North Park Theological Seminary and an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Stephanie attends Hope Covenant Church in Orland Park, Illinois with her husband Scott and their three teens. She has a passion for encouraging and empowering people toward finding purpose, healing and identity through the Holy Spirit as they pursue life in an imperfect world. Stephanie holds a special desire to help families journeying with a child with a medical/mental illness and speaks at various venues.

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  • Stephanie you said so many important things here. So many things that touched my heart. Yes, when there is a physical illness people know how to respond but mental? Emotional? Things we don’t understand seem to push us away instead of forgetting about the understanding part and just practicing compassion. Thank you for sharing this part of your story. I know it will be meaningful to others. May God continue to strengthen and restore your family, one branch at a time.

    • Stephanie Thompson

      Thank you Debby!

  • Kathy Forsyth

    Thank you for sharing this. I often feel lonely because mental illness is so hard to share with others. I have trouble sorting out what is bipolar stuff and what is the truth and I too often end up feeling hurt by my adult child’s words and actions. It is draining.

    • Stephanie Thompson

      Thank you for your vulnerability here. I understand your struggle. My daughter’s ability to filter is also challenged. It’s a process that demands humility, grace and mercy from all involved.

  • Joanne Peterson

    Stephanie, yes the invisible illnesses are fraught with people giving advice when they don’t know, and the doctor appointments for emotional, physical, school, occupational therapy, and the home environment is crazy. We adopted our grandchildren who were exposed to a lot of different scenarios causing trauma, and other issues. God knew, but we didn’t initially, and now the picture you paint is a description of what we are living in right now. I so appreciate your words and the description that you are walking through a period of calm right now. We have hope, but your story give hope to hang on tight. Blessings to you, I’ve been blessed! Joanne

    • Stephanie Thompson

      Joanne, I’m glad the words God put on my heart ministered to you in this way. My hope is that my writing touches those dealing with other types of difficult “under the radar” types of situations such as yours. Blessings to you.