That morning was my introduction to Saloma Furlong, though she was unaware of it. Imagine what it would be like to have an experience that you never speak of, something dark and shameful, and then someone gets up in front of a room full of people and tells of their own experience which matches your own in so many ways. That is what that moment was like for me. Although I had lingered after the session in hopes of speaking to her, Saloma was surrounded by people and I could not overcome my shyness to interrupt and introduce myself. But I didn't forget her, and her story stayed with me. It was my story too.
The fact is, no matter what your church or belief system, having a mentally ill parent will affect you in ways that you aren't even aware of until moments happen in your adult years that bring it to light. For me, an inability to know what a "normal" family looked like was a heavy price to pay and took much work to overcome. As a child, we walked on eggshells constantly because there was no way to know when my father's next mood swing or violent outburst could occur, and we feared doing something innocent that would trigger an episode. Knocking over a glass of orange juice could cause an eruption that would end in smashed household objects or walls. Equally unsettling was his random propensity to fly high as a kite, in near manic moods of euphoria. You would smile along and agree readily with everything he said, in hopes that this mood would not pass and there would be no more dark days. Episodes triggered by his illness often led to physically and verbally abusive behavior. Where there is mental illness, there is always some for of abuse or neglect taking place. Dealing with such behavior in your own family is hard enough, but having to cope with it as part of a church community brings a new set of challenges. Families, churches, and communities all have limited power in these situations. No one can demand that a mentally ill person get treatment or seek help. And yet the power they do have can be easily misdirected to penalize the very people they want to help. I'm not blaming any one person or church, people do the best that they can with what they know. But the feelings Saloma described of being part of and yet separate, completely alone, from those around her were feelings that I could identify with in the deepest way.
Once, I can remember as a little girl sitting on the front steps of my friend's house, crying after one of my father's episodes. The confusion I felt as to why he acted that way, and my mother's inability to articulate the cause of it weighed heavily on my young mind. My childhood friend found the compassion and maturity to wrap her arms around me and comfort me in whatever small way another little girl could. Soon, her mother opened the door to see what was going on, and as I tried to explain my anguish and the happenings in our home, she coldly declared that she did not want to hear about this and closed the door. And that was symbolic of how many people chose to "help" us. By saying they did not want to know about it and closing the door. Because if you bury your head in the sand, it will all go away. I got the message loud and clear. If you didn't talk about things, then they didn't exist. That notion still appalls me to the bone. When dealing with abusive situations where families are in jeopardy, silence is the enemy. Always.
But people do the best they can with what they know, and that was the best that we knew. I loved the best of what my upbringing had to offer, but it took many years to find comfort in those things and incorporate them into my life after years of healing. That I can find many things to love in my family, church, and growing up years, is a true mark of my recovery from the unstable and chaotic environment that family life often was. That I could find joy in Jesus after years of a deafening silence, can only be attributed to God's work in my life, and I can take little credit for the positive changes that have happened since.
I have been blessed to see some positive changes in our churches, including a greater awareness of mental health issues and treatment options. There is still much work to be done. It will always be my passion to break the silence about these issues, as hard as it is for me to talk about it, being a somewhat naturally reserved and private person. How we respond to the "black sheep" among us not only affects our relationship with God, but can either encourage or obliterate the spiritual state of someone else. God does not have black sheep in his family, though there are some of us who seem to be set apart, separated for some unknown purpose. Having been raised in an environment that values uniformity, that is a hard thing to acknowledge even today. The painfulness of having a mentally ill family member is eclipsed only by the pain of feeling like an outsider. It serves well to remind us that Jesus was considered an outsider too. Lets reach out and help one another and be an encouragement, not in silence, but with a joyful noise.