I am grieving today, again, for the loss of a special person.
One year ago today, my dear friend Sandy Barranco received the devastating news that her oldest son, Tim, was dead. He had taken his own life one evening during exam week at seminary. He was to graduate that month.
But the demons visited him in a depressed state of bipolar disorder, pummeling his mind with lies, deception, and despair. They convinced him that life as he knew it was not worth living. Perhaps they twisted the promise of "no more sorrow, no more tears" to be something he could--and should--bring to himself? No one but God knows the thoughts and feelings Tim was battling in those last, dark hours of the soul. He had reached the end of the fight.
I am left, like everyone else, wondering "why?" Why would a young man who had been at the top of his class, a brilliant scholar, a popular camp counselor, a beloved son and brother, a sensitive friend, a devoted follower of Jesus Christ, commit suicide in the spring of his life? My conclusion: mental illness.
It's a topic that, for too long, has remained a stigma in society and in the church.
By and large, Christians have been told their anguish is their fault and all their fault. A sin problem. A lack of faith. Prayerlessless. Unbelief. Unforgiveness. Whatever. Modern psychology says "it's a brain chemical malfunction" treatable by medicine.
My response? It's both. Having experienced a piece of hell on earth for four years (from 2001-2005) I can attest to what helps and what doesn't in terms of helping someone in this fight.
1. The greatest help you can give a mentally afflicted person is prayer.
2. The second is a simple verbal reminder, "God loves you and so do I." Call them, email them, flood their snail mailbox with cards. But don't remain silent. I have always interpreted silence as lack of care on the part of others, whether I'm right about that or not. Perception is reality, as the saying goes .
3. If you have not been a good example of love to that person, don't say "I love you." Instead, confess to them that you have failed to show genuine love. Then start being genuine.
4. If you've never experienced depression, tell them you don't understand what they're going through, but you do care.
5. If you indeed have experienced it, admit it. But DON'T say, "I know how you feel"--EVER--because only Jesus knows how anyone else feels. (This advice goes across the board, not just mental health issues. Even if you've lost a child by suicide, your feelings are not identical to someone who has.)
6. Speak SHORT bits of truth to them at any given time. Don't preach the entire New Testament to them unless the Holy Spirit directly tells you to! The mind can only absorb so much.
7. Encourage them to talk to a doctor. You can't force someone to do that, but the best thing my friend Barb did when I called her one night ready to end it all, was say, "Get yourself a doctor now." She called me the next night to see if I had. She bugged me till I did. Thank you, Barb! You are a Godsend! Thankfully a wise pastor also advised such a move along with a promise from me that I'd deal with the sin that was factoring into my situation.
I had been to my husband, to a couple of pastors, to the internet, to family members, but I was ashamed to tell my primary doctor. Why? Because I had made it clear to her (in visits of unrelated heath matters) that I am a Christian, believe in the power of prayer, have great faith for healing, and so on. I thought that Jesus might be smaller to her if I told her my problems. After all, we are to magnify Christ, not minimize Him, right? Well, that was part of the deception from hell-- that by somehow admitting my uncontrollable sadness, my sweat-producing, heart-pounding anxiety in public (most notably at church while listening to exhortations on confessing sin), my tendency to rage when criticized, and my increasing guilt over not being able to stop the suffering within and without, I would not be a "good witness" to my own doctor. The truth was, I did not see God as MY Defender, but me as His. And what terrible defender I was (I reasoned) if I couldn't just pray my way to a normal life. Warped! God doesn't need ME to show His power. I cannot minimize His power by keeping silent about it. He is perfectly self-sufficient, thank you very much. I can proclaim His power, but if I don't, He is still Who HE says he is.
8. Remember that the brain is an organ, too. If you use acne cream for the skin (the body's largest organ), antibiotics for infections (to keep organs from breaking down), or cholesterol medicine to keep arteries open to the life-pumping organ--the heart, why dismiss antidepressants for the brain? The brain, after all, is the message sender and receiver of the whole body. You can no more tell your brain to just "stop the madness" than you can tell your high blood pressure to just "come down." In both cases you can, and should, cry out to Jesus, for mercy. He is capable of restoring health to both. The problem is that Christians, for some reason, if they are uninformed, tend to categorize thought life as merely spiritual and not physical. That's ignorant. Truly ignorant of biology and chemistry. Not that I'm an expert in either science, but even a 5th grader is smart enough to figure out that if the message sender and receiver of the body is out of whack, it should be treated. You can't counsel your skin into clarity, and you can't always counsel your brain into clarity, either.
9. That said, my best recommendation is to talk to a doctor and if she prescribes a medical intervention, strongly consider it . If you're married, take your hubby along. If you're single, take a single friend along (or a parent) for moral support.
Then don't be afraid to try the medicine for 3 months. See if you don't find a "new normal" that you actually like! As my sister says, "It doesn't mean your boat never rocks, it just means you can sit down and not stand up while it's rocking."
10. Encourage the person to deal biblically with any areas of unforgiveness, bitterness, unbelief, grief, or whatever, within a short time of getting medical treatment. There is probably a combination of things going on, that of course aren't rectified by medication alone. However, without medication, I found that the bombardment of lies from the Enemy (sometimes coming from well-meaning Christians saying that I JUST needed to forgive, JUST needed to have more faith and all would be fine) was too great in my weakness. In case you can't tell, I am not fond of the word "just" in such contexts. Just pray, just believe, just this or that. For the person who can "just" barely get out of bed in the morning, you don't know how "just pray" sounds. It's WAY too big for the despairing heart that says, "But I've tried that, and it doesn't work. I'm still miserable." Nor say, "I'm just going to pray for you," because that sounds like "hey, it's not much, but--" . Truth is, hearing someone pray for me on the spot (in person or over the phone) has done GREAT wonders for my timid heart. (See #1 again if you have any doubt.)
Our God did not fail Tim. God was present and sovereign all along the way. Sandy has assured me that God prepared her to believe those truths long before it happened. He has comforted their family in bountiful and beautiful ways. Sure, there have been some deep valleys from the shadow of Tim's death, but God has sustained the Barrancos. Sandy, if you are reading this, please know how much I love you and how much you mean to me. Thank you for being such a good mother to Tim. I will not wish you a happy Mother's Day because it sounds rather shallow, but I will say that I am praying for you as you walk through this anniversary of the loss of your precious son. We miss him very much. We ache with you and your family. And I count you among God's greatest gifts to me, as a transparent friend who has always cared about me even in the midst of your grief. May you feel God's loving embrace this Mother's Day.