My mind swirled in a sea of emotions as I left the doctor’s office. One moment I felt as if I would drown, the next I felt determined to ride this wave to the shore unscathed. One thought overrode all others: “I will need help.”
We finally had an answer to what was happening with my husband. As an occupational therapist, I knew the journey in front of me was not for the faint of heart. Social stigma and isolation were a real possibility with a diagnosis that involved mental health. A local church provided free counseling to those in ministry; my husband was a pastor, so we qualified. I called that afternoon and made an appointment with the counselor, John.
My husband is an amazing man and his response to this diagnosis was not one of hiding in shame, but allowing others to see his journey so they may learn. He makes me proud. We began the process of finding a medication that would work.
It seemed he changed before my eyes – not for the better. The therapist in me was observant, clinical and working hard to suppress my fear. This process of finding the right medications and the correct dosage would take nearly four years and a team of specialists.
I recall clearly telling John my goal was to walk this journey without sinning, to come out the other side still married and to find a way to help others who also travel this road. That was a tall order. Friends and family pulled away. Others judged. I continued to meet with John to work through my grief, loss and loneliness. My husband became a man I did not recognize. I was advised by well-intentioned friends to leave him, move on and find someone else. I meant my wedding vows. I was not leaving.
A year went by. Hospitalization was necessary to make significant medication adjustments. The U.S. Navy sent our sons home to assist me. It became clear that pastoring a church was no longer possible for my husband; resigning his position was the best thing for the church and us. However, when you have planted the church, giving it up is not easy. It shattered my heart.
Harder still was the judgment we received from others who did not understand mental illness. Being told I was a disappointment because I could not heal my husband was one of the most hurtful comments I received. Being told he was a disappointment because he could not heal himself was a comment I considered bizarre. I was furious when a couple informed me my husband could not be a Christian, because they believed Christians could not have a mental illness diagnosis. I knew there was ignorance surrounding mental illness, but I had no idea how ignorant people truly were. I received more criticism and judgment from those in the church than anywhere. I was shocked and wounded. I withdrew into a shell.
I continued working my full-time job, adding on a part-time job to help make up for lost income. I learned how to run our wood splitter, tractor and mower. I fine-tuned my skills with a cordless drill. I shopped, cooked and did everything else that needed doing as my husband was not able to function for nearly two years. I did not possess the mental energy to try out a new church. Some friends felt it necessary to give me a reprimand, advising “all would be better” if I would “honor God and go to church.” John continued to help me understand how my daily quiet times were rich and giving me time to recover, rest and be renewed and refreshed. He assured me that the day would arrive when I was ready to try a new church. I believe the thought terrified me because it felt like I was giving up on going as a couple.
But the day arrived. The pastor of the church I had felt drawn to attend offered me a wonderful gift — the chance to simply sit and recover in the pew week after week. I did just that for five months. I gradually made my way back into ministry without my husband. Was it easy, simple or comfortable? No. Was it scary? Absolutely.
The gift of John’s time for those few years was one of the best gifts I have ever received. Ten years later, I am fully entrenched in ministry. I help lead our women’s ministry team, I write children’s ministry curriculum, I teach a children’s class weekly, and I lead the decor team at church. My husband is doing amazingly well, and we are enjoying doing things together again. He has returned to a satisfying line of work. We have come out the other side still married and in love.
Did I sin in the process? Yes, I judged those who judged me. Later I was able to understand that they were merely uneducated, and I let go of my anger in repentance.
Those who walk the road of mental illness, whether patient or family, often find themselves on a road well-traveled yet without healthy companionship. They find themselves alone and isolated from those they love. For me, the guidance of a godly counselor, who was provided free of charge, was the best gift I could imagine. The hundreds of lives my ministry has changed are a direct result of that gift. In heaven, it will all be known. Until then, I intend to find a way to pass on the gift.
For a church wishing to make a difference in the lives of those dealing with mental illness, please consider providing free counseling to those in ministry. I assure you the need exists. It is not talked about, but it exists.
“He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61:1).
CINDY ANDERSON is a pediatric occupational therapist who teaches and writes curriculum for the children’s ministry at Brockport Free Methodist Church in New York.