Christmas, 1972, I gave my wife a gold watch. On the back was inscribed:
To Kaye, with love
“A Very Good Year”
I didn’t know it was the last good year we would have for quite a while.
Early in 1973 our 15 year-old son, Ronnie Jr., seemed suddenly, as it appeared to us then, to change personalities, as though he had become a different person. His school work began to suffer; he became moody, one day feeling on the top of the world, the next, angry, withdrawn, irritable, hostile – the next day loathing himself for having acted so badly.
We had no idea what had been happening, what was happening, to our son. At first, we assumed it was a spiritual problem – or just normal teen-age rebellion.
For the next three years, in spite of our prayers and best efforts, the situation worsened.
After a suicide attempt, we admitted him to the psychiatric ward of a hospital for two weeks of tests. He was diagnosed with manic depression, a mood disorder caused by a chemical imbalance in the blood, which recurrently plunged him into deep depression. His illness was bipolar, which meant he alternated between elation and despair.
The doctor put him on a new miracle drug, Lithium, plus Stelazine and Elavil. He improved immediately. One of my most vivid and happiest memories was when Ronnie found out that it wasn’t his fault, that there was an illness making him act that way.
Encouraged by knowing what was wrong and that medicine and treatment were available, Kaye and I prayed with greater confidence. We had no doubt God would deliver our son; we had a number of promises we believed God had given us. I knew that one day Ronnie would enter the ministry (He had made that commitment when he was 13) and live a fruitful life serving God. Our nightmare was over. That was August 1975. Three months later, on Thanksgiving Day, he took his life. And most of mine.
Everyone said we handled his death admirably, an inspiring example of faith. Surrounded by family and friends, tasting the sufficiency of God’s grace and overwhelmed by peace that passes understanding, we made it through those horrible days.
Being newcomers to tragedy, we assumed the worst was behind us. The most terrible thing that can happen to parents had happened, and we had survived.
This was in 1975 – before (to my knowledge) the deluge of how-to-books, Christian counselors and family seminars. In Christian circles, at least in mine, no one talked about suicide, depression and the grieving process. No one told us that regardless of how well we were handling things now, we had been traumatized by an unfathomable tragedy. There was no one to guide us through the grief process. If there had been, perhaps we could have escaped the things that followed. But I thought I was dealing with spiritual issues only.
The Dark Abyss
Early in 1976 a sense of foreboding and malaise began to settle on me. A quiet desperation took hold of my mind. As the reality of Ronnie’s death (no, not just death – suicide sank in, I decided I had outlived my happy days. The best was past. Regardless of how good things might be in the future, they could never be as good as they were in the past. I had unknowingly entered the abyss of depression.
You have to understand that to a Christian, especially a preacher, brought up in the ultra-conservative Bible-belt Christianity of the South, depression was something you didn’t have. And psychiatrists and psychologists were doctors you didn’t go to. There was no such thing as a “Christian” psychologist (still isn’t, according to some).
Meanwhile, the depression dug in. I began to withdraw more and more, neglecting family and ministry obligations. It is an anguish to know that for those years (from 1976 to 1986), when my children were growing up, I was not there for them.
I was not there, period. I had relocated, living in my own benighted world, coming out only to preach, which became increasingly difficult to do. Panic and anxiety became frequent occurrences, times when I would seethe with rage – not an angry rage, but a revved-up sensation that I could feel in my teeth and gums and finger tips. I often found myself standing in the middle of a room, paralyzed, staring at nothing. In the middle of sermons my mind would momentarily go blank. Preaching became a painful experience.
The knowledge that genetics often play a part in manic depression cause me to wonder if I was to blame for Ronnie’s illness and death and if I would come to the same end, and end, I admit, that became increasingly appealing. Oblivion seemed the only escape from the pain.
What do you do with such an unspiritual affliction? Deny it? I tried that. Defy it? I tried that. I tried everything – prayer, praise, rebuking the devil, pleading the blood, binding Satan – I would have worn garlic around my neck if I had thought it would do any good.
But it was only when my desperation for help overcame my fear of stigma, that in 1986, with the strong encouragement of my wife, I walked into a room that had Doctor of Psychiatry painted on the door. As I opened the door, I thought about the old line, “Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist is crazy.”
About three years ago I was weed-eating my Dad’s lawn and reflecting back on the past few years of my ministry. It occurred to me that one word had come to characterize it of late. It was not my word, but the word of those who listened to me preach: encouragement.
I didn’t set out to become a preacher of encouragement. It just sort of happened. But the remarkable thought I had while I chewed up my dad’s weeds, was that all those sermons that were encouraging people, were prepared and preached during the darkest days of my life. Go figure.