For the last five years my life has mostly been consumed with caring for my youngest daughter who suffers from a severe mental illness. About five months ago, our psychiatrist was finally able to find a combination of medications that put her illness under control. Now that she is stable, the violence and obvious problems have stopped; additionally, with the passage of time, she has begun making better life choices.
But the stress of the previous five years has taken its toll on me and I’m still suffering from the negative effects. This, I remind myself, is normal. About eighteen years ago, when her biological brother died of SIDS while in our care as his foster parents (he was less than three months old), the repercussions of that sad event rippled out for more than a decade. First there was the grief, followed by the fear of losing our other children during the subsequent investigation; then there was the lawsuit. From start to finish, our lives were under a cloud until the lawsuit was dismissed after about three years.
The consequence of those three years of stress endured for several years afterward, casting a shadow on our lives that made it harder to function in a normal way. In fact, how I’m feeling today is reminiscent, as I think about it, to how I felt during those years following the death of our foster son. Unlike the lawsuit being dismissed, however, the stress of the last five years of my daughter’s mental illness has not come to a dramatic conclusion. The last five years were a rollercoaster, with a series of intermittent shocks from her first decline into violence, to the periodic physical and verbal attacks that happened at random, and usually multiple times a day; the struggles of getting her to stay in school, of finding ways to control her increasingly irrational and violent behavior, to her hospitalizations and finally coming out on the other side with her, at least for now, stable and finally starting to make good choices.
Then there’s the additional stress: the knowledge that stability is not necessarily a forever thing: that medications, over time, can lose their effectiveness due to her body becoming acclimatized to them. There can be changes in her physiology due to aging, changes in weight and overall health, to the unpredictable consequences of stresses that she might face in her daily life, all of which can undermine her medications’ effectiveness. The peace from the preceding storm could easily, and very abruptly end.
On top of that major stress of my daughter’s mental illness, there have been the added normal stresses of life: from the death of a parent, to personal health issues, to broken pipes and clogged drains, to new responsibilities that have come upon me as a consequence of our pastor resigning from our church after twenty-one years of service. Even though his going was congenial and due to his desire to retire to Missouri, I became the one to pick up the reigns and become both the substitute pastor and the head of the committee searching for a permanent replacement (with limited progress thus far).
Recently at our church as we had a potluck dinner and gathered to take down the Christmas decorations. We also decided on the next topic for our Sunday evening Bible studies—as well as who might like to lead such studies for the next six weeks. Unsurprisingly, I got tasked with the job.
Kathy, our keyboardist and music director, asked the question—as we sat around eating the potluck—“How is it that we’ve become the ones to be in charge of everything?”
None of us who were there have ever sought out positions of responsibility, and yet somehow it has happened to us. Kathy not only plays the keyboard on Sunday morning she also is the one who picks out the songs and is in charge of the musical part of our service each week. She never had this as one of her goals in life; it’s not on her bucket list; she didn’t seek it out. It just sort of fell into her lap by default.
Eric who serves as the treasurer (he writes the checks, keeps the books, and pays the bills) likewise has his position because, well, someone had to do it and he had the time. He’s a computer software programmer.
And I’m preaching and teaching simply because I have the formal training for such things and perhaps simply because no one else wants to do it.
In 1980, John Lennon, the musician and former Beetle sang “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” The song line apparently derived from something written by Allen Saunders in 1957: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”
Those words by Saunders seem to describe our reality: certainly all of us have, and had, goals for our lives. To a large extent, we’ve managed to achieve them: Eric wanted to work with computers, Kathy wanted to be involved in music and photography, and I wanted to be a writer. But life is more than our plans or intentions, whether it is winding up as a long-term substitute pastor, or having a daughter who is severely mentally ill. Life presents us with challenges and we generally find that we have little choice in accepting them.