written by Paul Olsen as a eulogy for his brother
It is no secret that my brother, JT, struggled with severe mental illness for most of his life. He had Borderline Personality Disorder, a diagnosis considered difficult to treat. But, it would be tragic if we defined him by his sickness. A cancer patient retains her personhood apart from the sickness. No matter how far the cancer progresses, we think of the sickness as being an outside invader consuming the body. Though the sickness may dominate the patient completely, we never consider the patient to BE the sickness. And yet, too often in our culture we make this very mistake when it comes to people with mental illness. It’s important to differentiate between JT, who was beautiful, and the illness that made him miserable. He was a person of humor and wit. A lover of justice, truth, honesty, and perhaps most of all, of integrity. JT may be the most authentic person I have ever known. He refused to make himself acceptable to others by hiding himself.
The starting point for his sickness was a depression deeper and darker than anything I am likely ever to know. Then, on top of that darkness, downward cycles would plummet him into the deepest states of despair imaginable, his sickness hiding all hope from his view. For him, there was no reprieve from the hellish cycles, one after the other, year after year. While he was with us, his brain chemistry rendered him unable to experience joy or happiness. Consider a few joyful occasions in your life. Maybe you got married. A child was born. You reunited with a long-time friend. Imagine if, in these times, your experience of happiness was limited to an empty cognitive awareness that this is the place where happiness should be. Imagine your whole life, being with others around you as they experience joy; and because you care about those people you desperately want to come alongside them and share in their moment. But your only reward is an even sharper familiarity with the jagged cutting edges of the joy-shaped crater in your own heart. What if every happy moment experienced by those closest to you just wounded you deeper?
If that was your world, what would you do? What would I do? I would learn to protect myself. I would learn to distance myself from the pain and the loved ones who, through no fault of theirs, caused me to ache so deeply. And once I succeeded in distancing myself, I would look around and see that I was alone. With a panicked sense of abandonment, I would realize what I had done and frantically try to pull those same people close again before they leave me for good. Only to start all over.
Most tragically, when the sickness was at its worst, even JT would lose sight of himself. The sickness would fool him into believing that above all else his misery was his very identity. The sickness guarded the misery with ferocious jealousy, lying to my brother that he was only unique in the world because no other person had ever been so miserable and that nobody would ever be so miserable again. And if JT ever saw the slightest glimmer that he might escape the misery, or if somebody might say something suggesting he could, the sickness only tightened its grip and thrashed about in a violent rage inside of him until it could once again take another swallow and suck my brother deeper still inside its bowels. Slowly, the sickness taught us that we were not allowed to help JT except within carefully prescribed boundaries designed to protect the precious misery.
But God, in His amazing grace, provided a lifeline to JT. Our mother fearlessly stared down that all-consuming beast and from her knees she daily reached down its wicked throat and held on to JT. She would never lose sight of him. No natural force could have sustained her, BUT GOD buttressed her. Time and time again she loved JT back from the abyss. Our father engaged in daily, hand to hand combat with the sickness, and against all human inclination would not give up. He often felt like it, BUT GOD strengthened him even when he didn’t feel the Lord in it. Left alone, the sickness would have fully consumed JT. BUT GOD gave JT a mother and a father who together kept open a window of hope. I mean HOPE in all capital letters. Because of HOPE, JT was always able to find himself again. Because of HOPE, JT knew, and said with his mouth, that he believed in Jesus even if he didn’t understand him. But who can understand the One whose ways are so vastly higher than our own?
Today, JT has been saved from the menace of his broken flesh. Today, JT is finally freed from the terrible shroud of sickness. For the first time, he no longer needs to fear other people’s joy bringing him pain. Praise the Lord for his ultimate healing!
Brother, we will see each other soon. So, close your eyes now, JT, for just a moment. When you open them I will be there, and finally, we will be the brothers both of us always wanted to be.
If you would like more information about support groups and counseling for family members caring for a loved one with severe mental illness, please call Andrea at 314-498-0186. We are grateful to The Lutheran Foundation of St. Louis for their generous funding for these specific ministries.