Searching for Hope in Raising a Mentally Ill Child

One last peek into the Mental Health Issue, right before we send off the Food […]

Mockingbird / 1.11.17

One last peek into the Mental Health Issue, right before we send off the Food & Drink Issue to print (in one short week). This one came from Brian and Debbie Solum, who were also featured in the Mockingcast special during that time, which you can listen to here. (Not to be missed!) If you’d like to send the story, or the whole issue, to a friend–they’re still available here

We will be the first to admit that we are cynics when it comes to parenting. After almost twenty years of experience, we feel we can easily dismantle every Christian how-to book on raising children with five quick words: Well, good luck with that. It’s difficult to find an equivalent to raising four boys in our particular circumstances. We’re sure there is an equivalent, but then again, it’s difficult to find a family willing to be honest and transparent about mental illness. Every family has its own brand of dysfunction, of course, but it’s no less true that most do not feel able to speak openly about it. This is what happens when the church tradition you belong to tends to sell itself as a clubhouse for the put-together rather than a hospital for the sick. Thankfully, by God’s grace and mercy, our cynicism has somewhat given way to pity, and our pity to the plea for forgiveness—for a lot of things. For being shitty parents, for compiling years of mistakes, even for the intentional harm done in Jesus’ name. We wanted to do it right, but raising a mentally ill child was the last thing we ever expected to do.

We were each fresh out of our respective Christian colleges and seminaries. Brian had ‘career plans’ at one point, and Deb, attempting to be the biblical wife, felt she should follow wherever that career track led. Our church background promised many things, but it specifically promised that if we “started our children on the way they should go” (Prov 22:6), they would grow into godly adults. Our peers at church only confirmed these expectations: families in the next pew seemed to have three, four, five obedient, kind and patient children. They went to Sunday school. They even sang the worship songs. Certainly God would bless us with the same quiver-full of wide-eyed, matching-outfit abundance.

In short, we felt adequate to the task of raising a few kids, and without the aid of self-help parenting books. We felt our faith was strong and that we were on the upward trajectory of Christian maturity. Our kids, though of course not perfect, would certainly become obedient, well-rounded, and respectable children simply because of our obedience, well-roundedness, and respectability. We would be encouraging parents. We would continue to be involved at church. We would continue trying to obey the laws ourselves. A child’s behavior, after all, is a direct result of proper parenting.

Things didn’t exactly go as planned.piontek

We certainly didn’t plan on parenting a child for whom every boundary became something to ram through and forcefully demolish. It went beyond ‘rough-and-tumble.’ It was more like ‘seek-and-destroy.’ A complete lack of regard for another’s feelings and/or property—especially as he got older. All parents probably wonder (especially with their oldest) if their child’s behaviors are typical. A lot of parents probably raise children incapable of sitting still, children with which every waking minute feeling like a wrestling match. Honestly, parenting our son felt more like raising a badger. At the same time, silly as it may sound, we never really thought to have him tested.

For the first few years of elementary school, we sent him to a small, private Christian school in our community. He was generally able to hold it together in school. One day, however, Deb arrived to retrieve him after school, and he refused to comply and began to run away. To her complete surprise and bewilderment, the (well-meaning?) teacher grabbed him, held him down, and commanded the “demons to release him.” To this day, that incident still leaves us shaking our heads, but it serves as an example of the many inexplicable events we’ve experienced with him over the last many years.

More recently, on Easter a few years ago, as his younger brother plunked at the piano, he came up behind him, pulled him off the bench to “try a new MMA move” on him. This new move resulted in a fractured elbow and a visit to the ER. As the parents of four boys, we could write a book on the stupid things they’ve done. But this was different. His exact words after the incident were: “If he wasn’t so weak, his arm wouldn’t have broken.” This sums up his way of thinking. With little to no remorse or contrition, he can justify any of his behaviors as the fault of others.

Over the years, he has never exhibited much, if any, empathy and it’s hard to say we’ve ever experienced the ‘bonding’ with him that other parents describe having with their children. His siblings became the target of his psychosis; the family pets bore the brunt of it, usually for not being obedient or for making a mess. There’s simply not enough room here to rehash all the incidents of our nineteen years with him. They became so frequent that we began asking ourselves, “Is he choosing to do these things, or is he incapable of doing anything different? Is it that he can’t make a good decision or that he won’t?” This question became the lynchpin for us, the mental bridge that we had to traverse if there was going to be any healing, compassion or understanding of our son’s plight.

The only tether our faith provided in answering this question was a church tradition that basically says God meets us halfway. Oh, sure, it was by grace we were saved, but it was up to us to retain our salvation after conversion. Sunday after Sunday, we listened to three-point sermons on obedience, discipleship and personal holiness, and that the proof of one’s commitments was displayed in the health of one’s marriage and family and in one’s social-material upward trajectory. We would work hard at conjuring up the ‘feels’ during the worship band songs. We would take detailed notes and ask the pastor for his written notes after the sermon. However, before the car even pulled into the driveway after church we would’ve just done everything our pastor demanded we not do, or at least would’ve failed to do what he said God wanted us to do. By 2 p.m. Sunday, Brian would believe his week was shot, and that he had failed once again to be the Christian father he was commanded to be.

This pattern of ‘I can do it…I failed again’ went on for years. We would share this experience with a few friends at church, but we were told, and this is an exact quote, “Just fake it till you feel it and you will get there.” So, for a while, we faked it. Brian volunteered to teach a Sunday School class and was elected as a trustee. He spent non-working hours helping build the new addition and attended building and finance meetings. But nothing changed inside us. In fact, things only got worse. Our tempers got shorter and we got more impatient with our spiritual progress. Eventually we began asking ourselves if personal obedience was the crux of the Christian faith and, if so, how we could keep this up. If God couldn’t love us or accept us as we were, we were lost. At the same time, we were struggling with our finances and with our son. Brian went to a service one Sunday, listened to five minutes of a sermon on the obedience of tithing, walked out, and never darkened that church’s doorway again. He felt that God’s demands on his life were simply too great to bear.


We would wager that most parents of mentally ill children will say it’s not the big blow-ups or drawn-out conflicts that chip away at your psyche, but the day-in, day-out things that wear you down. Of course, the big events leave big scars, but it’s the little things that eventually break you. Things like being berated and demeaned for a week for buying the wrong brand of cottage cheese. It’s being told to “go die in a hole” or being called “idiot” by the boy you gave birth to, the boy you have loved and have made sacrifices for. It is the fatigue that comes when anything good or helpful, any act of kindness or grace shown to him, is regularly met with resentment and antipathy. When you assume a world of logic and order, where a modicum of compassion and common sense are granted, you simply cannot compartmentalize this. It isn’t long before you think that you are the crazy person, not long before something as benign as a ringing cell phone sends you into a panic attack (What’s he done now?). Parenting a mentally ill child is like being dropped into a foreign land where there are no marked paths or signposts to guide you. It is nearly impossible to navigate because you don’t know the language and few are willing to help.

We have found that mental illness tends to envelop even what does not belong to it. It robs children of their potential and it robs parents of their ambition. But we were also slow to notice the emotional toll it was taking on our marriage. In hindsight, we would come to realize that this child, even at three years old, was figuring out how to triangulate his parents, playing us against each other and systematically driving a wedge between us. Normal activities like going to work, shopping, or playing catch in the backyard became moments of fissure. Patterns of behavior consistently left us facing ‘him or me’ ultimatums. This was the beginning of what we would later refer to as ‘the hostage crisis.’

That’s the best way we can paint the picture: you are held hostage to the vast pendulum swings of the unfiltered, unpredictable, and uncontrollable emotions of another.

Family vacations are always cut short by his demand to go home. If you don’t meet his demand, he vows bodily harm or destruction of property. If you are camping, he vows to sabotage your food supply and equipment. If you are at a resort or motel, he threatens to take your car or worse, someone else’s. In his mind, he is the only one who matters. Eventually, you stop doing vacations or family activities altogether. Everyone fears the fallout of a tyrant scorned. Even at home, no one leaves without telling him where they are going, why they are going, and when they will return. Throw in adolescent brain chemistry and the eventual abuse of chemicals and you are paralyzed to do anything. You walk on eggshells all the time. You are afraid to make future plans or leave your spouse and other children alone with him. You’re afraid to start a conversation with him because it will likely escalate into confrontation. Your words are constantly twisted into meanings that are farthest from their intent. You go through your day with the mental burden of what you will come home to, praying the whole commute home: Please, God. I don’t want to go ten rounds with him today. For the sake of others please let there be no conflict. Please heal him of whatever is going on in his brain and help us to show him compassion and mercy. Amen.

With our son, though, there has rarely been a ‘no conflict’ period. Conflicts have tended to result in our crawling into a bottle, calling law enforcement, kicking him out of the house, or all three. We have each dealt with it in our own ways. Brian has inevitably deteriorated into weeklong tailspins of self-loathing and shame, and Deb and the other three boys have kept their distance, afraid of where the conflict was going to go this time. We have continued to desperately search for a solution, something that might help us understand our child and give us a game plan. All the while, we have felt the need to keep our other children ‘healthy,’ to keep our marriage intact, and to keep our own sanity. When we tried family counseling, the therapist actually kicked him out of our first session.

The tendency, of course, has been to isolate ourselves from others because of our constant feelings of shame and resentment. Sadly, the pressure was most keenly felt at church. It was our experience that the Christians in our circle were taught to be masters of denial. Pastors have a hard time communicating human nature, much less mental illness. If you believe that a person’s circumstances are first and foremost the direct result of one’s personal choices, you simply can’t identify or empathize with your neighbor. Many times, we received anonymous gifts in our mailbox, Focus on the Family books. Sunday after Sunday, pressure was applied, both real and inferred, to do better by being obedient, praying more, and working on discipleship. If we only did our part, God would meet us there and fix things. We simply endured, doing our best to secure some normalcy with the other three. But the issue remained: if the marks of God’s love and blessing are verifiable by the circumstances of one’s life, then we were doing something seriously wrong.


By our son’s eighteenth birthday, he had burned through two cars, many expensive electronics and cell phones; he had several drug possession and underage consumption charges; he had lost three jobs, stole thousands of dollars from his family and his employers, and had dropped out of school. By nineteen, he was pawning our belongings, forging checks, stealing his grandmother’s prescription drugs and was charged with a third felony resulting in a longer jail stint. We sometimes wonder how many parents are actually relieved when law enforcement and the legal system finally step in. When it happened to us, he was no longer a minor so we had no say in his charges, sentencing, or mental health directives.

Eventually, our son was dual-diagnosed with both Histrionic and Anti-Social Personality Disorders. We can’t pretend to know what these diagnoses will eventually mean for him or us but I am reminded of the adage that, as soon as you call something what it is, it immediately starts losing its power. This specter now has a form. It has some parameters and boundaries and, somehow, we have begun the course of letting go and not feeling responsible for it. The diagnosis has let us begin to release our need for social damage control and has instead allowed God to make good on his promises. Our son finally got himself into situations where other people (judges, attorneys, etc.) were now making decisions for him and, since God’s office is found at the end of one’s rope, we must trust there is no better place for him to be. We, for the most part, can exercise God’s gift of faith to weather the tempests to come.

Our faith is held by a different tether now. Over the years, we have learned of a different message being conveyed by God in Jesus. A message of grace and mercy, of a God who rescues us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.

At this time, our son is at home (out on bail). We sometimes get a glimmer of hope; we see him starting to develop some ability to see himself and the other people around him. There is grace in seeing this, and it has been the beginning of relief for all six of us. We are not out of the woods, and no doubt we will get into another ugly confrontation that sends us into a tailspin. No doubt Brian will pull an ‘all-nighter’ again, trying to distract himself from the shame and guilt of making the same mistakes over and over. No doubt law enforcement will be in our kitchen again. We hope not, but we need not dwell on these things. Because of what Jesus has done, we are thankfully not the parents our circumstances might reflect, and neither is our son. Nobody wakes up and asks for mental illness, and no parent wakes up and decides to be a complete ass in response to it. What we are is forgiven and free to simply ‘do the next thing’ without fear or judgment. We are going to screw up this parenting thing again, and this son of ours is going to rub it in our face—again. However, day by day and moment by moment, we are reminded that the gospel of grace has set us free, irrespective of outcomes and circumstances.

The gospel of grace is ‘hard to swallow’ in these moments of conflict. We are still conditioned by our church history, and continue to equate our circumstances with God’s activity or inactivity in our lives. We are still hard-wired to fall back to our default modes of trying harder to be better. So even in those moments when we can’t distinguish grace from indifference, we are periodically reminded to simply trust. We wish we had more to offer, but right now that’s all we can give him. Thankfully, that’s all God asks of us.