They say that the Christmas holidays can be especially sad for those who deal with mental illnesses. For many years in our household, our unhappy holiday was Easter. You see, it was Easter Day, 1997, 20 years ago, when our son’s world crashed. And though we didn’t recognize it at the time, ours did too.
We had been on the mission field about six months, having uprooted our family, including our high school sophomore son, to begin our great adventure with God. The children were starting to settle into their mission schools and making the kind of friends who help you feel like you belong. For Douglas, it was Tim Ripken who had befriended him and they had already formed a close bond. In fact, Douglas had asked if Tim could come with us to the beach for our Easter weekend getaway, but we had said no, wanting some family time with just our little brood.
On that Easter morning a number of vacationers gathered on the shore for a sunrise service. Many were from various mission agencies, and the man who made the opening remarks was from one of the larger ministries in the country. We were primed and ready for the words of resurrection and of life that one expects at an Easter service. We awaited the ancient refrain: He is risen! He is risen, indeed!
But instead came an announcement. The leader regretted to inform the missionary community that a tragedy had happened overnight, and one of the high school boys (how is it that I knew what his next words would be?), Tim Ripken, had died in the early hours of the morning of a severe asthma attack.
I turned to Douglas who had already turned to walk alone down the beach. I watched as each of his steps carried him into a darkness of heart and mind that would hide him for years. In a panic I searched the sand for that second pair of footsteps the poem promises. I saw none. In fact, the one set I did see seemed to fade in the distance.
There were two deaths that day. Tim’s lifeless body broke Douglas’ fragile mind. The mental illness that was already invisibly incubating began to emerge. It would be years before we knew its name, but from that day on we knew it was with us and part of Douglas was gone.
A few years ago Douglas was in the grip of the worst bipolar disorder manic episode he had ever experienced. We were trying desperately to get him to medical care, with no success. He had shoved his dad when Nelson pleaded for him to go with him to the hospital and he had dodged the police who had come to his door with the mental health warrant.
I was numb with fear and exhausted from tears. I decided I needed to think about something other than our hopelessness. So I picked up a book I’d started reading but had neglected for some time. It was written by a missionary about the persecuted church. I was in chapter 15 and read with great alarm about the horrible situations of believers in Somalia in the late 1990s.
At the end of the chapter the author lamented: “Had our efforts been worth the time, the money, and the energy invested? … There was no way to know, of course, that very soon these hard questions would become even more personal.”
How is it that I knew what his next chapter would hold? I don’t know. All I knew was I was sitting in a pool of panic and prayers for my son, Douglas, when for no explainable reason I was reading the chapter of a book that told the story of Tim Ripken’s death, written under pseudonym (so I didn’t know when I started the book), by his father. Nik recounted the moments of rushing his son to the hospital, of crying out to God on an early Easter morning for the life of his son, just as I was doing on this morning for the sanity of mine. Tim and Douglas together again.
I am sure when Nik Ripken chose The Insanity of God: A True Story of Faith Resurrected as the name for his book he had no idea how the concept of sanity and insanity would hold such literal meaning to Tim’s long-forgotten high school friend’s family. But more than the title, it is actually the subtitle that captures my heart. We had been a part of that “true story” and in the timing of my reading it, my faith was resurrected, my hope was restored. I was able to look back on that Easter morning and see the second set of footprints walking the beach alongside my heartbroken, mind-broken Douglas. And I was able to believe that He was still walking with him, now on the shore of this psychosis.
Jesus told Martha at the tomb of the soon-to-be resurrected Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” On that day He told me, at the door of the soon-to-be restored Douglas, “I Am.”
And so, as Easter is celebrated this year, Nelson and I look forward to being at church with Douglas, who is now walking the shore of recovery from bipolar disorder. Along with his wife and baby, together we will rejoice in the Resurrected Christ who conquered sin, death and a hopeless mama’s heart.
He is risen. He is risen, indeed!
To read more of our story, order Sparks of Redemptive Grace: Seeking and Seeing God Amid a Loved One’s Mental Illness.