I learned how to make pie the year my mom had cancer. She was recovering from surgery over the holidays and confined to the couch. I carried lumps of pie dough and bowls of meringue to where she lay, for her to inspect and coach me through to the right texture. Sometimes, I would walk in and find her asleep, and I would quietly tip toe back to the kitchen and go with my gut and my memories from sitting in the kitchen when she’d baked them year after year. It was a strange role reversal—I was the one in the kitchen, she was the one ill on the couch. I felt maternally protective of her rest.
My dad became caretaker as my mom went through the cycles of treatments, those monosyllabic poisons they pumped into her chest to ward off a deeper evil. I was away for my third year of college, trying to support from afar. My mom dealt with prescription changes and side effects. We all found ways to keep ourselves sane.
Casseroles and baked pastas would appear and reappear in my parents' kitchen. A friend, who in the following years would win my heart and become my husband, made a chicken pot pie with his mom and drove it to our house. We had friends who prayed, who gave rides, who kept us company on the hard days. They let us vent, cry, hope. They kept showing up.
There are many families with our story. There are many who have walked longer roads and darker ones. There are many whose story didn’t end as happily as ours.
For many of us, the Christian community rallied around us. They were a safe place to share the news of what we were going through. We knew we would be met with sympathy, with support, with prayers, and a meal train.
But what if my mom’s diagnosis hadn’t been cancer? What if she’d started exhibiting erratic behavior or paranoia? What if she heard voices telling her to harm herself? What if depression suffocated all delight? What if, instead of a breakdown in the cells in her chest, there was a breakdown in her brain? What if she had been diagnosed with a mental illness?
For the families I know who have been crippled by mental illness, the response is quite different. They may hesitate to share out of fear or shame or awkwardness. If they do garner the courage, they’re often met with spiritualized criticism or silence.
And yet they are experiencing a lot of the same challenges my family faced as my mom went through the crisis period of diagnosis and treatment for cancer. They face strange role reversals. There are increased and ever-shifting caretaking responsibilities. They go through cycles of doctor appointments and prescription changes and side effects. A spouse may need to step away from a job, causing financial strain. They feel lonely and tired and wonder if there will be a day when life will return to a normal rhythm.
The churches I have been a part of know how to support families through challenging illnesses. (And new babies, but I digress.) We have our traditional tools: food and prayer. Sometimes we raise money for medical bills. Sometimes we volunteer to watch young children or chauffeur to appointments. We send cards and notes. We know how to support our extended family of brothers and sisters in Christ. Mental illness shouldn’t be excluded from this extension of love and support.
Do you know a family going through a mental health crisis or strained by severe mental illness? Respond like you would if it were any other illness. Send them an encouraging card. Let them know you’re praying for them. Take them a meal. Offer to watch their children. Ask them what practical things you can do to help. Be a friend—and keep showing up.