The Family Secret by Lisa Burkhardt Worley

It used to be the secret no one talked about.

A family weakness brushed under the rug.

But now mental illness is no longer a hush-hush subject, and as we approach the end of mental health awareness month, I want to share my personal feelings about this issue that impacts many families across the globe—and for many years—my own family.

I first became aware that there was an entire month dedicated to mental health awareness when I began seeing public service announcements produced by the NFL Players Association concerning the issue. Several players have admitted to struggling with their own mental health, including the Las Vegas Raiders Solomon Thomas who experienced depression and anxiety after the suicide death of his sister, and D.J. Clark of the Jacksonville Jaguars who struggles to overcome fear.

Then I read a People Magazine article featuring well-known actress Glenn Close. Her sister is bi-polar and her nephew was just diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. In the article, Close said something profound: “You can’t solve problems unless you start talking about them—and not whisper. That changes everything.”

Talking about it is the first step to healing. In recent years, I have been very open about my mother’s mental illness, but that was not always the case. Until I was in my fifties, I never told anyone about her struggles because of a fear of judgment from others. I had forgiven her for many years of emotional neglect and honored her at the end of her life, but still kept it all to myself. However, until I began facing the truth about my mother and opening speaking about her—that this was a reality in my life—there was no healing, nor could God use me to help others who needed some tools to be stronger.

So maybe you are still trying to hide this part of your family history. I hope this blog helps you as I thought I’d share some things I learned through my experience with a mentally ill loved one.

While this situation affects you, your mentally ill loved one is not you. I kept it quiet because I didn’t want anyone to question my sanity. Mom started out with depression but was later diagnosed as “Paranoid-Schizophrenic.” As a preventative measure throughout the years, I have claimed 2 Timothy 1:7 over my life that God has not “given me a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” While I can be a little quirky, I think my mental health is overall normal.

Embrace the good in the person. My mother was a beautiful woman who had an incredible musical talent, an expert at both the piano and the harp. One of my fondest memories is watching her fingers glide across the piano keyboard, playing a song that I labored through, yet she did it effortlessly. In addition, mom had a calm demeanor. She was never violent, and often had a smile on her face.

Know that they cannot help themselves. In most cases, mental illness is the result of a chemical imbalance in the body, or as the result of some post-traumatic stress disorder. My mother forever changed after witnessing the sudden death of her beloved husband, my dad, while she was seven months pregnant with me. The loved one doesn’t choose to, nor do they want to behave poorly, but it’s the short-circuiting in their wiring that causes inappropriate behavior.

Release expectations. I used to beg my mom to work outside the home so we would have more money to provide for basic needs. Again, they are not you. My grandmother didn’t understand why she couldn’t do normal things. Mom simply couldn’t, and in retrospect, that was okay.

Love unconditionally. In John 13:34, Jesus gave us a new commandment saying, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” God had me turn down a full-time reporting offer from ESPN to go home to San Antonio and love and honor my mother for the first time. It did not come easily at first. It was a process, but eventually the LORD helped me to see her through His eyes. I have never regretted the decision to take a step back in my career to love my mother. It’s now a big part of my testimony. Unconditional love means you love without expecting anything in return.

So today, I can honestly say I am thankful for my mentally ill mother. Because of her, God has given me a love for broken people. Whether it’s good or bad, I don’t know, but I am a hopeless overachiever, something that began as a mindset to not be sedentary like my mother. While I never pursued music as a career, I adore music, start my day in worship and often write songs. It’s in my DNA. Because of the scenario I grew up in, I was open to a relationship with the LORD, and it was through that bond, I received the strength I needed during difficult teenage years.

I am glad this is no longer a secret in my life. And in whatever scenario you endured, know that if you’ve placed your trust in God, He will take the past dysfunction or problem and eventually create a beautiful pearl out of it—and that is a promise.

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