By Jack Smith
Before I left my home for Houston and treatment, my 14-year-old daughter wrote me a letter. I folded it and placed it in my Bible. I slid it out of my Bible, unfolded it and wept as I read it on the plane. I share it here, just as she wrote it, with her permission:
Tonight is the night before you leave for Houston. I know this is the best thing for you to do right now, but I still don’t want you to go. A whole month seems like forever thinking about it right now, but I’m hoping it will fly by without a second thought.
So many people love you, including our whole family. They’re going to be supportive throughout every step of this whole thing. Memaw, Mimi, Pop, friends, neighbors, Uncle Joel and Uncle Bill, I could go on an on. The point is that all of those people who I just mentioned and more absolutely love you and want you to get better.
I’m so thankful that you’re alive. You were given a second chance at life. Not everybody is. There’s a reason you didn’t have enough pills, and there’s a reason you’re alive reading this letter right now. God is not done with you. Once we make it through this tough little patch, He is going to use you in absolutely amazing ways. Your testimony will inspire people everywhere.
Right now, you just need to do what’s best for you and get better. Houston will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you. You’re going to make unbelievable friendships. You’ll be able to meet and talk to people who have the same situation as you. You will learn how to cope with this disease and have a happy and joyful life.
I’ll be praying for you every single day and thinking about you constantly. I’m so proud of you for doing this. It’s going to change all of our lives for the better. I love you more than words can describe.
At the very bottom of her letter, Sutton wrote a verse of Scripture that not only changed my perspective. It changed my life.
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)
Sutton’s letter touched my soul in its deepest and most vulnerable place. Here was a young teenage girl offering her insights into suffering and her understanding that, at least while fighting for my life, I had to be selfish. I had to put myself first and treat myself with kindness and compassion.
I also found comfort knowing that she was as much a part of my recovery as I was. “Once we make it through this tough little patch,” she wrote, “He is going to use you in absolutely amazing ways.”
She also reminded me that countless friends and family loved me. I learned the love and support of our friends and family doesn’t make real human suffering go away, but it gives hope to our hearts and helps light a path out of the darkness.
It also struck me that she was mature enough to understand that not only was I hurting. I was suffering. The scripture she shared inspired me to read the entire book of Romans in a new light.
I came to know Paul better, to understand on some level his suffering. More deeply, I began to understand the way true believers cope with suffering. In Romans 5:1-5, Paul writes about how he turned suffering into hope. I share the verses below because they may be the most profound words ever written on the subject of suffering.
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the Glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
As my NIV study Bible points out, Paul does not say we should rejoice “because of” our suffering, but “in” our suffering. Paul doesn’t write that we must ask God for suffering or praise God because we are suffering, we should praise God even as we suffer.
I don’t accept suffering as easily as Paul. I still have questions. Why does God allow children to suffer? Why would a God who can do any miracle he wants to do allow children in third-world countries to starve or live in squalor? Why must any of us suffer at all? I don’t believe it is God’s “intentional” will for us to suffer, as Leslie Weatherhead states in “The Will of God.” Rather, God allows us to suffer through his “circumstantial” will.
As Genesis tells us, God created the heavens and the earth, he separated the land from the sea, and he created light from the darkness. God never took his hands off his creation, but once he set the world in motion, he didn’t take away the darkness. He didn’t create a world without death or destruction or natural disasters. He didn’t plan for any of us to suffer, but with the fall of man, which separated us from God, suffering began.
If we believe in an all powerful God, then we have to believe God could have created a world in which there would never be no flood or famine, pain or suffering. He didn’t. In my limited understanding, that must mean God even had a plan for suffering. If God allowed suffering and we are to be faithful, then we must rejoice despite our suffering.
Rejoicing in our suffering and using it to spread the love of God surely cuts the enemy down at his knees. He wants us to give up hope, abandon our faith and wallow in our misery. I know this because I have felt it and experienced it. When I am deeply depressed, I want to give up. I want to isolate myself from people and from the world. I listen and believe the voices that tell me I will never feel good again, that I am not good enough and that God doesn’t want me to have the life I hoped to live. All of those thoughts and feelings come from a dark place, not a place God created. That’s easy to remember when my illness is in remission. It’s just as easy to forget when I am sick.
Paul tells us that when we persevere through our suffering, we serve as an example and inspiration to others. Paul even used his suffering to spread the gospel. He was imprisoned in Rome when he wrote his letter to the Phillipians.
“Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.” (Phillipians 1:12-14)
In no way am I comparing my blog on bipolar and depression to Paul’s ministry, but those words ring true. As I have shared my stories and my pain, countless people who have suffered in silence have told me they wept when they read my story because it sounds so much like their own. They have been encouraged to speak to others or seek help for their problems.
The words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “Confession and Communion” are really about sin, but his words could just as easily be about suffering and shame. One could substitute the words “suffering” or “shame” for “sin” and Bonhoeffer’s profound thoughts tell us a lot about how to deal with suffering.
“In confession the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and seclusion of the heart,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “The sin must be brought into the light. The unexpressed must be openly spoken and acknowledged. All that is secret and hidden is made manifest. It is a hard struggle until the sin is openly admitted.”
I have found that what Bonhoeffer wrote about sin has been true in my battle with mental illness as it relates to suffering. It is indeed a “hard struggle,” until we can tell our story, ask others for prayers and support and break free from the chains of shame. When those of us who suffer from mental illness talk openly about our pain and suffering, our secrets and our shame, we begin to understand that our disease lies to us. It tells us something is wrong with our character. That is a lie. It tells us God must not care about us. That is a lie. It tells us we are not good enough. That is a lie. It tells us we will never get better. That is a lie, too.
A breakthrough moment for me came while flying to Houston for my three-week stay at The Menninger Clinic. While I felt relieved and encouraged knowing I was going to a place where I might get some answers and some help, I was also scared. My biggest fear was coming home the same way that I left or failing to find a treatment plan that made me better. I even put pressure on myself to make sure it worked since family and friends had become so invested in me. I didn’t want to let anyone down, a pathological problem I’ve had all my life.
Flying on a peaceful night on a quiet plane, my views on suffering and my prayers changed when I read my daughter’s letter.
For as long as I can remember, I had prayed for healing. Like Paul asking God to remove the thorn from his side, I had asked God to cure this cancer of the mind that had caused so much suffering and despair.
My prayer changed that night. For the first time, I didn’t pray for God to heal me. I just prayed that His will be done, no matter what that meant for me. If it was God’s will that I suffer, so be it. If it was God’s will for me to go through storm after storm so I could help others, so be it.
When I stopped asking for healing and started praying for the discernment to understand God’s will for my life, an interesting thing happened. I started feeling better. I got better during my time at The Menninger Clinic and kept improving when I returned home.
My story doesn’t have a fairy tale ending, not yet at least. I relapsed for several weeks about two months after returning home. The black cloud of depression came out of nowhere and rained pain and misery on me again. I began to ask all of those some questions again. Why me? Why now? While it was a nasty bout of depression, I never lost hope. I kept moving. I kept hoping. I kept praying. And the black cloud went away.
I am not naive about the chronic nature of Bipolar Disorder. I know it’s a battle I will fight for the rest of my life. But knowing I have a support team of friends and family pulling for me, and a God who will give me hope if only I ask for it, makes all the difference.
This excerpt comes from a draft of my book about my journey through mental illness. More to come from the book, which is nearing completion.