David telephoned from his university campus, his voice sad. “Mum, something’s wrong.”
“What is it?” My voice sounded calmer than I felt.
“I’m crying all the time. Tears are pouring out of my eyes.”
“Do you think you can make it to the end of the semester?” I asked.
“No. I haven’t been to class for days. And I can’t sleep.”
I took a deep breath and forced myself to ask the dreaded question: “Are you having thoughts of suicide?”
David’s admission shocked me. Suicide, like a terrorist, lurked at the doorway of our family, ready to detonate a bomb—and I’d been unaware of it.
Throughout his teen years David had suffered from panic attacks, irrational fears and bouts of gloom. Many times he had wanted to quit high school, thinking life would improve if he didn’t have to face his teachers and classmates every day.
I urged him, as much as I could without ruining our relationship, to graduate. I cried with relief when he received his certificate.
After graduation, to our amazement, David applied to a university in another state. Before he left for university, he worked and hung out with friends.
My husband, Ian, and I thought our prayers for a normal life for our son had been answered, but on the day we moved him into on-campus accommodation at university, he had a panic attack. That made it difficult for us to leave him, but parents can’t pick up a 1.8-metre son and carry him home. We comforted ourselves by believing he’d be fine after the initial few days. I prayed nonstop for him.
I dreamed about David one night about two weeks before the suicide-alert phone call. In the dream he appeared to be about age 12 and he was standing on the edge of a pool of black water. He dove in— and didn’t resurface. I ran to the edge of the pool to rescue him, but he had disappeared under the black water. The horror of the dream woke me. I called David the next morning. He sounded fine and the message of the dream faded.
After David returned home—10 kilograms lighter—we sat in the living room to talk—Ian, David and
I. I thought of the dream and how close we’d come to experiencing disaster. David is good-looking, smart and fit. He appears an unlikely candidate for suicidal thoughts, but appearances can be deceiving. During our talk, he explained to us that all the while we thought he was getting better, he’d actually been getting worse.
“But at least now I know what’s wrong with me,” he said. “I’ve taken a depression test and I’m as bad as
it gets. I’ve decided I’m going to do whatever it takes to get better.”
The next day, David visited a local clinic. The doctor prescribed an antidepressant and arranged for him to see a psychiatrist. This same doctor called a few days later to caution David that depression often worsens during the first few weeks on medication and to warn him that it was important not to stop and start the medication. He encouraged David to persevere.
After the conversation with the doctor, David said, “Finally, somebody understands what’s wrong with me!” This gave him enormous relief.
Neither Ian nor I had known enough about mental illness to recognise our son’s need for intervention. We had previously offered to take him to a counsellor, but he had refused. In retrospect, we should have insisted, because a counsellor would have educated us about the seriousness of David’s condition.
In the deepest phase of his depression, David roamed the house at night, unable to sleep. So he would never be alone, Ian slept downstairs and I slept upstairs. We dozed as lightly as when we’d brought our newborns home, like shepherds watching our flock by night.
One night about 2.00 am, David flopped on the bed beside me. “I wouldn’t wish this pain on my worst enemy,” he groaned. He told how he sometimes thought of stabbing himself in the chest to extract the ball of pain. His need seemed larger than my ability to pray, but I laid my hand on his chest and lifted a silent plea to heaven: Lord, release my son from this pain.
To pray effectively, I broke David’s needs into manageable chunks. First, I prayed that he would want to become well—something he had already shown by seeking medical attention. The magnitude of David’s need overwhelmed me. I felt like I was attempting to walk on water.
Beginning my prayer journey for him with a petition that was partialy answered reminded me that Jesus wouldn’t let me sink. Other aspects of this first step were that he would take his medication as prescribed. As one prayer was answered, I added another.
Sleep. For several weeks David’s days and nights were turned around. Gradually, his inner clock righted itself. His breakdown and the medication both contributed to jumbled thoughts and forgetfulness. I prayed that God would give him clear thinking. Gradually, this prayer was also answered.
I prayed for simple things like a return of his love for reading. Good books are a solace. I purchased a few I thought he would like and rejoiced when I saw him stretched out on the couch reading one of them.
I prayed that David would sense God’s love for him. When people break down emotionally or mentally, they often feel rejected by God and disappointed by Him. They may rail against Him, but it’s the illness speaking, not the true person. In time, our faithful God shows Himself to the broken and wounded. One day David told me that no matter what happened, he would never give up believing in God.
For David, an hour here and there of feeling good gradually stretched into a whole day until, over a period of many months, the feeling-good times outnumbered the depressed times. Six months after coming home from university, David became well enough to work part-time. This also helped him to regulate his days and nights and to feel better about himself.
When dealing with depressed people, nothing is more important than patience. Nevertheless, I sometimes felt impatient. I wanted David to get better so I could get on with my life. But I had to submit my desires to Christ in order to allow Him to use me to effectively intercede for my son.
It isn’t easy to find a good counsellor. David tried two but wasn’t able to talk to either one. He told me that I had always been the person he could talk to best, so I became his listener. While listening may sound non-wearying, it isn’t. I lifted many silent prayers for strength and for the ability to keep my words to a minimum. When I did speak, I needed God’s wisdom.
After two years, David found a full-time job away from home. It wasn’t the end of his journey with depression. Even after eight years, he occasionally experiences a down- turn, but these times are less intense and much shorter than his initial breakdown. He has worked hard at becoming well, but without prayer, I believe he would not be where he is today.