Yes, even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid of anything, because You are with me. You have a walking stick with which to guide and one with which to help. These comfort me. Psalm 23:4
I laid there in a fetal position -- crying, screaming, begging. Banging my head on the ledge of the hotel bathtub. The pain and fear were so intense I had to find some way to let it out. We had already been in this season of darkness for four years. Done everything we and everyone we knew could think of. Yet, I still found myself alone, in a strange bathroom, naked and screaming at God. I mean, seriously, hadn’t He promised that if I worked hard, did everything the leading parenting experts of our time advised, and loved Him with my whole heart it would go well for me? Isn’t that the magic formula for a happy life? But now look at me. Why did I buy into such a lie?
Two weeks earlier it had happened again. I got a phone call during a staff meeting and recognized the number, so I excused myself and took the call. It was the director of the local eating disorder recovery center I had checked my daughter into several hours earlier. Our sweet 17-year-old had been doing so much better. She graduated high school two years early, had a part-time job and was taking classes at a local community college. I could not have been prouder of how she had taken on the challenges she faced with OCD. I was told they'd taken my little girl to an emergency room nearby because she'd just used a razor to make another attempt on her life. When Ken and I arrived we knew by the stitches on her neck that she believed she could no longer live with the deep, intense, relentless obsessions, anxiety and depression afflicting her nearly every waking moment of every single day.
We stumbled through the next 48 hours in a fog of grief and hopelessness. Just remembering to breathe was all we could handle. Once her immediate medical needs were met, the ER staff began to look for an inpatient facility to help her stabilize. As usual, there were no beds in any of the pediatric facilities. Even the ones that functioned more like prisons. The ER decided that, since they could no longer help us, we were going to be transferred to the over-populated university hospital where she would spend the night on a gurney in a hallway waiting for placement. Thankfully, we had a friend who was the medical director of another stand-alone ER (looking back this was just one of many examples of the ways God has showed up and let us lean on Him throughout this journey). He had plenty of beds and could admit her immediately for the night. So we left against medical advice (yes, if you are wondering, CPS and the Sheriff were called) and headed to our friend's facility where we experienced kind, gentle care until she was transferred the next day.
Once she checked into the inpatient mental health facility, we were instructed that there was a 24 hours “no contact” policy and sent home. This is when we got to work. Like most parents, Ken and I began to fight. We met with trusted professionals and made a plan to find a facility that would work on her core diagnosis, OCD. They gave us a few names of top facilities in the nation and we went to google for more. We made a list of about 15 highly rated treatment centers that worked with OCD patients. At this point we didn’t care if they were in or out of network, if it was $10 or $1,000 a day, nearby or on the other side of the globe -- we were determined to find her the help she needed. I began making calls, but one after another I was told, “We are sorry we cannot take your child. She is too high risk.” When this answer came from one of the top and most expensive facilities in the nation (you know, the one I thought would take anyone who had the $100,000) I was devastated.
After about 7 days, the mental health hospital where she was staying said that she was stabilized and needed to be transferred for long-term recovery care. Again we were trapped. Insurance said we had to leave, but despite all our efforts, she had nowhere to go. Finally, with the help of her social worker, we found a facility on the west coast that said they could help.
The next day she and I were on a flight. When we arrived, we were startled by the age of the buildings. They looked old and run-down and there was a tall fence around the grounds. Our concerns were somewhat relieved when we were given a tour. We saw that the staff was kind, well-educated and trying new treatment techniques we had heard were helpful for many who suffered with mental health disorders. So, again, I signed all the paperwork and left my child in the care of professionals knowing that she would not be allowed to talk to me for a week.
I had a flight scheduled for that evening so I got into my rental car and headed to the airport. I arrived there only to find out the flight was canceled and there was no way home until the next day. I really didn’t know if I could take on another hurdle at this point, but I took a deep breath and caught a tram to the airport hotel. It is in this hotel where God and I had it out…..
We are now taking on year 6 in this valley. It is painful, overwhelming, exhausting, terrifying and full of grief. And like many who have experienced dark times, I have received endless amounts of well-intentioned advice, correction, “help”, and uncomfortable people looking the other way when they see me. Though I deeply hate this season and the damage mental illness reaps in my life, I am at peace with and almost grateful for it. I have learned deep humility, surrender and a new understanding of what it means to dwell in God’s loving presence.
More and more Americans are walking through the same valley we are. The sad part is, that for the last several decades, we as a nation have become increasingly avoidant of the suffering that comes with being human. The idea of existing in or watching someone we love experience discomfort, let alone pain, causes us to impulsively react through numbing behaviors, blaming or ignorant fixing.
I wonder if this is why the U.S. is in the middle of an addiction epidemic. Rather than walking through the pain of the valley, we numb through alcohol, pills, entertainment, food, sex, social media, gaming, gambling, gossip, overworking, self harm, shopping…. The list goes on and on. And when we are not trying to anesthetize ourselves, we are trying to do it for someone else through codependent behaviors.
Then there are the blamers. Those who cope by trying to find the culprit. Could it be bad parenting, social media or maybe those dreaded vaccines? We, as Christians, are famous for placing the blame when it comes to suffering. Many theologies on the goodness of God leave little room for the suffering of His followers. So when Christians are going through pain, we act like Job’s friends and look to see who is at fault? Typically scriptures like Mark 2, when the friends of a paralyzed man lowered him through a roof to be healed by Jesus, are used to point the accusatory finger at the sufferer's lack of faith or sin. Kathleen Norris addresses the issue in her book Acedia & Me.
“Stand up, take your mat and walk”? What kind of answer is that? To a sick person, a depressed person, that is precisely what is not possible. And don’t try to say, as Jesus does, that it’s my faith that makes me well. That’s just plain discouraging if I take it to mean, as far too many people have, that my lack of faith keeps me ill. Surely we can drop that particular bludgeon from our theological arsenal. Note that in this healing story, Jesus does not impose any conditions. He does not ask the man whether he is a believer, only whether he wants to be made well. This gives me hope that there is a faith for those of us who, like Miss Dickinson, may “believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble.” My Christianity understands that while pain and distress have many causes, lack of faith is not one of them. - Kathleen Norris
In the end, this only leads to greater pain for the individual and bitterness toward the church and even God.
We as a society, have forgotten how to trust God to walk with us through the valley. This is why when we go to care for our neighbor or serve in nations, where suffering is out in the open, we are lost and confused. We struggle to come up with an ignorant quick fix idea to make the problem go away or, at the very least, something that will ease discomfort. We want to go in, solve the problem and head out patting ourselves on the back. The reality is that suffering rarely has a cure. It is a journey that requires a friend to walk alongside. Just like we see in the fiery furnace in Daniel 3, Daniel in the lion's den in Daniel 6, or the sheep in the valley of the 23rd Psalm.
“If you remember with grateful amazement that Jesus was thrown into the ultimate furnace for you, you can begin to sense him in your smaller furnaces with you.” - Tim Keller
Through this, I am learning that our western interpretation of “straight paths” being the easy, happy life is completely wrong. The straight paths do lead through valleys of pain, sorrow and loss. But why would a good God lead us into darkness? Alexander Shaia says “Darkness is not where Grace goes to die, it is where it is reborn.” Could it be that it is in the Valley where we learn how to really live?
“suffering transforms our attitude toward ourselves. It humbles us and removes unrealistic self-regard and pride. It shows us how fragile we are. As Davies points out, average people in Western society have extremely unrealistic ideas of how much control they have over how their lives go. Suffering removes the blinders. It does not so much make us helpless and out of control as it shows us we have always been vulnerable and dependent on God. Suffering merely helps us wake up to that fact and live in accordance with it.” - Tim Keller
Last week in a bible class I'm taking we were talking about Christians in Rome during the first 4 centuries. We learned that Christianity began with the apostles in urban areas where population density was 3X that of Calcutta, India. This meant the infant church was living in communities filled of hunger, smoke, human waste, and disease. Three plagues swept through between 100 to 350 AD. Guess who stayed to care for those suffering, even when the physicians fled to the countryside? Yes, it was the Christians. They understood their call to Overflow Living. They understood that God was walking with them so they could walk with others. As a result, many scholars suggest that the survival rate was 66% higher thanks to the Christians who chose to stay.
Are you going through a valley right now? Are you experiencing so much pain you are unsure if you can take another step? Hold on. Look around you. God is by your side comforting you like He is me. My battle ground hotel room had a view of the San Diego Bay. That evening I felt God’s comfort in the beautiful sunset from my balcony. The pain is very real, but God continues to gently care for me (and my family) along the way. Push into God and He will carry you through the valley so that maybe, just maybe, you can do the same for another.