LISA: In the book, you and your family were first confronted with the fact that your daughter was ill at Christmastime. Could you please briefly describe that experience?
VIRGINIA: I remember an extreme loss of hope during that first Christmas season. I was embarrassed and kept Amber’s increasingly odd behavior a secret from everyone, including the employee working in my home business.
At first, we thought she’d enjoy gathering with friends or attending Christmas programs. However, her paranoia and distrust of people escalated with each outing. As this happened, we tried to get her an appointment with a local psychiatrist and found she had a six-week wait. Still, we attempted to live our lives as though nothing had changed. We just didn’t understand the severity of her illness. Auditory and visual hallucinations manifested until she imagined her life was in danger.
I convinced her to sign into a mental health unit about a week before Christmas. After five days, fearful the doctor had poisoned her, she signed herself out against medical advice. We tried to admit her to a different hospital, but she refused to stay because she didn’t want to miss Christmas.
During our annual, extended-family Christmas gathering in our home, her delusions worsened. She had come to believe that our daughter-in-law was part of the conspiracy against her, and she had a meltdown in front of her cousins, aunts, and uncles yelling nonsense and stomping around in circles. Our home emptied out within minutes. I wanted to weep.
No longer a secret, and unsure of her diagnosis, I sent an email to our families and friends telling them she battled a mental illness. Amber, my husband, and I received the support and prayers that helped me cope. As Amber took baby steps of improvement with treatment, hope returned for me in tiny increments, too.
L: The title for your book (published in 2016) says so much. Specifically, regarding the fortified faith, is your faith still fortified? How do you keep your faith strong?
V: My faith life remains highest on my list of priorities. I try to live with an attitude of gratitude. It’s important to me to spend time reading the Scriptures and several devotional books each morning as I drink my coffee. When I miss this prayer time in the morning, my day feels off until I stop for my daily focus. Oftentimes, a verse pops into my mind throughout the day, fitting the situation perfectly. Mid-day, I try to stop and read reflections using the daily Mass readings.
I typically keep my home quiet. This gives me a better chance to pray as I go about my day, to spend time talking to the Lord about things on my mind, and listening. My favorite times of day are sunrise and sunset, or gazing at the stars. It helps me to praise God for the beauty around me. Hymns sung in Mass play in my heart helping me pray at home between Masses.
I also try to feed my mind through novels and nonfiction books with a Catholic and/or Christian viewpoint or materials that educate me about mental health issues. If you ask my family, I’m picky about the movies or television programs that I watch.
L: You had to suddenly learn the twisting channels and catch 22’s of navigating the mental health system. Have you seen any improvements?
V: I wish I could answer yes, but unfortunately, I haven’t seen enough improvements. Cultural stigma deters up to 50% of individuals from seeking help. And those who pursue treatment often wait many weeks, and sometimes months, to get an appointment for their mental health issues. Our prisons and jails remain filled with people who need mental health care. We need more health care professionals, counselors, and therapists, especially in rural areas.
Those who get treatment can also battle anosognosia, a lack of insight into their illness. The brain convinces them they are feeling better and no longer need medicine. They stop their medicine and/or therapies. As a community, we can educate ourselves so we can support them with targeted responses to help them overcome this.
We prayed for Amber to understand her illness. God answered our prayers and she received the grace to self-evaluate with an awareness of her symptoms.
L: Do you think the Catholic Church community is doing a good job of providing support to families such as yours? Pope Francis has recently met with participants in a Mental Health Conference, what are some thoughts you have on this?
V: In NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), we use the phrase, “You can’t know what no one has told you.” This refers to the lack of knowledge about mental health issues. I think we can say it about the Catholic Community support. Often times, they don’t know. Most families don’t come forward to share their needs. I know, I was guilty of this. My best friends didn’t know the extent of what we dealt with during what we call the hard years. It’s difficult to speak the words aloud because of the emotional pain.
Ideally, each parish would have members trained to give faith-filled support to other families. A person or a group of people to whom the priest could refer those seeking his help. This could help ease the load for him.
I’d love to see faith communities offer mental health education nights with guest speakers who have walked the walk. Ideally, members of the parish. When we see the humanity behind an illness, it gets easier to offer prayerful and physical support. A nearby parish social justice committee hosted such an evening with law enforcement and NAMI speakers. There was standing room only.
We send cards and letters of support to families who face other health crises. I found it comforting to receive them with promises of prayer during our difficult times with our daughter. We even had good friends bring us a casserole, join us for dinner, and cried with us as we shared our grief. As a faith community, each of us should ask, “How do I react when I hear someone has a mental health issue?”
I can remember when cancer was a hush-hush subject. We can all help erase the stigma of mental illness by talking about it as the biology illness it is. Medication, therapy, and support can make the difference between recovery and continuing symptoms for most people. I dream of the day when everyone understands that mental illness is a biological illness, not a character flaw.
L: What is the best way to obtain the book?
V: For a signed copy of Broken Brain, Fortified Faith, contact me, Virginia Pillars, at email@example.com or mail a check for $20 to Virginia Pillars P.O. Box 222 Raymond, IA 50667. Including a phone number helps me in case I need to contact you for any reason.
Also, Broken Brain, Fortified Faith is available through Familius, the publisher, at https://www.familius.com/book/broken-brain-fortified-faith/, from Amazon as a paper back, kindle, or on Audible, or from Barnes and Noble as a Nook book.
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