Surviving the Storm When Everything Falls Apart
[This article is an excerpt from a chapter in the author's best-selling devotional book, Release My Grip, Hope for a Parent's Heart as Kids Leave the Nest and Learn to Fly
Part 1: When the Dark Clouds Roll In: Facing (and Surviving) the Storm of a Mental Health Diagnosis
My daughter, Paige, started struggling with generalized anxiety and panic disorder around age 19 during her sophomore year in college. I thought it was just normal college stress at first, but when I got a call from my daughter’s roommate that Paige was “NOT OK,” I felt the world as I knew it begin to crash down around me. Paige had always been the most emotionally steady of all five of my kids. Responsible and even-tempered, she was a hard worker and calm problem-solver—a drama-free, easygoing kid who seemed mature beyond her years. But this time she was truly not OK, and it was not just normal stress—she was potentially a danger to herself. Thus began our journey into a territory called “mental illness” that I struggled to wrap my head around. I couldn't even bring myself to say the words "mental illness" without wanting to choke. She was anxious—not mentally ill—I kept telling myself. She’ll snap out of it and be fine. After wrestling with doubt and denial, I then battled with guilt and fear. I wondered if I’d done something in her life that had caused this, and I was terrified what this meant for her future. The stigma of the words mental illness was so real and scary. I feared others would judge or reject her. As her mom I just wanted to “fix it” and I dove into research to try to understand what might be causing my daughter’s anxiety and panic attacks—and how we could just make it go away. I hoped we could find a simple cure like changing her diet and having her take supplements; perhaps she just needed vitamin D from a good dose of sunshine. In the meantime, I got her connected with an incredible therapist—a woman I knew and deeply trusted. The therapist was licensed to give counseling sessions through a webcam so my daughter could access her conveniently. This counselor was a literal lifesaver for whom I’ll be forever grateful. The more I researched, the more I began to understand today’s huge epidemic of anxiety and depression—and how rampant it is with kids as well as adults. College is often the time the state of one’s mental health is revealed. My daughter wasn’t crazy, nor was she alone. But this problem was big and it was for real. Her anxiety gave me anxiety, as I felt so utterly helpless and ignorant about how to help her. So, naturally, once I’d gotten to the point of complete despair, I remembered to reach out to God. Only in God’s presence did I find comfort and relief. I was reminded that he had created her exactly as she was, and he doesn’t make mistakes. I knew the path of her life was planned by him, and he was alongside her. I shared with Paige about how I’d found hope in God’s presence, and we both journeyed in this truth for the next 10 months, discovering the meaning of “peace that passes all understanding.” Through the ongoing process of managing her condition, my daughter not only survived, she thrived. It was not easy. There were days she struggled. But she no longer tried to hide her anxiety and pretend everything was fine. The diagnosis I’d once thought was life-shattering turned out to be the opposite. It gave her the freedom to pursue her mental, physical, and spiritual health from a place of honesty. Her faith grew deeper and her sense of purpose and identity was reframed by rooting herself to Christ. Through what was once a sense of being "broken" she'd discovered the truth of her wholeness. And I realized she was stronger and more confident than ever. Little did I know how much she'd need this for what would come next...
Part 2: When it Rains: Facing (and Surviving) the Storm of Disappointment
Shortly before her diagnosis during her sophomore year, Paige had been accepted into a prestigious international study abroad program in which she would spend the second semester of her junior year on board a cruise ship traveling around the world. We allowed her to keep this trip a hopeful reality, something she could work toward and look forward to as she progressed in therapy. As the study-abroad departure time grew closer, I started feeling my anxiety and fear increase. She’d be gone for four months, on a boat, visiting 11 countries. She’d be rooming with one of her best friends since childhood, which eased my worries somewhat—but I couldn’t shake the uneasiness that I felt. I spoke with her therapist, and she assured me that Paige was fine to go. She’d also still be able to continue on with her therapy sessions as needed through internet webcam. Despite my worry, Paige was thrilled to be going on this program abroad. She meticulously planned all the details herself, getting vaccinations and travel visas for the various countries as well as a scholarship and a student loan to help pay the expenses. She moved all of her things back home at winter break since she’d sublet her room for second semester. On December 21, just 10 days before she was supposed to depart on the program’s ship, my phone rang. It was my daughter, crying hysterically. “I just got a call from the director,” she sobbed. “They reviewed my health records and told me I’m unfit to sail! They’re pulling me off the trip!” And once again I felt the world as we’d known it begin to crash in around us. I told her to call her therapist immediately, and I would call the program director. We could surely work this out. Despite a conference call which included the program’s director and head doctor, myself, and Paige’s therapist, they refused to change their decision. Paige had filled out her medical background honestly, including her struggle and diagnosis with generalized anxiety disorder. Earlier in the fall a medical professional from the program had called her after reviewing her file to inquire if she was on any medication. When she said she was not, the medical professional recommended she get a prescription for anxiety “just in case.” Unfortunately, that advice was now the problem. When Paige submitted the final medical paperwork—including her new prescription which she had filled in early December—it raised a red flag. There was a strict rule that students weren’t allowed to set sail if they had been prescribed medication for a mental health issue within a certain time period before departure. I was in shock. Her world had just been torn apart…all because of her anxiety diagnosis. It seemed cruel that a program that was so concerned about her well-being on the trip would brutally cast her off as a liability a mere 10 days before departure, leaving her behind to pick up the pieces of her life. Paige had no college classes scheduled for second semester since her full course load would have occurred through the program on board the ship. She'd quit her job in anticipation of studying abroad. She no longer had a place on campus to live. And most of her friends were going abroad to various places that semester. She was alone and without a plan. I was in full panic mode. What would this do to her? Would this spin her backward and cause her to spiral into a deep depression or anxiety-fueled breakdown? Would she now only see herself as a liability—unfit to be out in the world with her peers? I cried. I raged. I begged God to make the people at the study-abroad program change their minds and tell us it was all a silly mistake. I dropped to the floor of my bedroom in utter despair and grief for what this could do to my daughter’s mental health and well being…and then I suddenly felt awash with God’s peace. It was as if I could hear him say, "I am here—and I have other plans. Better ones. Trust me, you’ll see." At that moment Paige pulled into the driveway, and I ran to hug her. I held her, and we cried for a minute. Then I told her that I believed that when things go so crazy off course it could only be the hand of God pointing to somewhere better. Her heartfelt response was, “I know. He’s been telling me the same thing. I think he has a different adventure in mind for me.”
Part 3: A Ray of Light in the Darkness: Finding Hope in God’s Plan
A week later she found an international organization that placed volunteers in remote places all over the world to serve in impoverished areas. She was accepted into a 10-week program to teach elementary school in a remote village on the east coast of Fiji. And on January 21, 2016—exactly one month after Paige had been disqualified as a liability for sailing around the world on her study-abroad program, we stood in the airport and hugged goodbye. All of her belongings were packed in a large hiking pack that was almost the same size as she was. She looked like a tiny child on her first day of school. Excited but quite nervous, she turned to me as she got to the security line and said, “I’ve never traveled alone.” “You’re not alone,” I reminded her. “God is with you. He brought you on this journey for his purpose, and he is with you every step. Just reach for his hand and you’ll know.” As I drove home from the airport, I briefly wondered if this was a good decision. She’d been turned away as a medical risk from a program on a well-equipped cruise ship with the security of staff doctors and psychologists aboard. Now she was venturing off across the world all alone. She’d be living in a grass hut in a poor village that had the barest of necessities. But I had peace that it was God’s plan. Once she was in Fiji I heard from her weekly when she was able to get a local SIM card for her phone. She messaged me pictures of the mat she slept on, her bedding infested with bedbugs. Her legs were covered in festering sores and tropical ulcers from mosquito bites, and her hair was crawling with lice. She’d been having some bad headaches lately that made me worried. I secretly wondered if her anxiety was beginning to rear its ugly head again. But she had fallen in love with the kids she was teaching in "her home" of Silana Village. In an Instagram post on February 15th she said: "I came to teach them, but they are the ones teaching me." She also developed a deep bond with the host family in the village. She called her host mom “Na” and host dad “Ta,” and she felt safe, loved, and accepted. And she was excited to be making a difference in people’s lives. God’s plan for her was good…God is good.
Part 4: When it Pours: Facing (and Surviving) the Storm...Literally
On February 20, one month after I’d said goodbye to her at the airport, I got an urgent message from her. My heart leaped into my throat as I read her words: “Don’t freak out, but there’s a Category 5 tropical cyclone headed our way. We’re securing the village. If things get too bad, we will evacuate to the city of Suva. Pray for my family here.” I immediately went online to search for news about the storm, subscribing to every internet feed for weather in that part of the world. The radar introduced me to Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston—a giant mass of red and purple making its way toward Fiji. It was being called the “perfect storm”— unfolding the worst possible case scenario. And it was aiming for a direct hit on Fiji, predicted to make landfall on the east coast of the island—exactly where my daughter’s village was located. Her world was about to come crashing down again—literally—and potentially right on top of her. “Get out of the village! Get everyone out of the village! THIS STORM IS HUGE AND IT COMING STRAIGHT AT YOU!” I quickly messaged her back. “Evacuate NOW!” “We’ll go if it gets bad enough,” she calmly messaged back. “Right now we’re focused on keeping the villagers safe. Just pray. And don’t panic if you don’t hear from me right away because phone and internet lines on the whole island might be down.” I prayed like I’ve never prayed before. I also reached out to every group of prayer warriors I knew and asked them to pray. In between praying I watched the weather radar with fascinated horror. The storm grew bigger and meaner. Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston now had sustained wind speeds of 175 mph and gusts over 190 mph. It was now being labeled the most intense tropical cyclone to ever make landfall in the southern hemisphere—the second most intense storm ever recorded in the history of the world. And it was headed for landfall in the exact spot my daughter was located. Perhaps it was shock, but despite the impending drama I felt a deep peace I couldn’t explain. I like to call it God, because I felt it with such certainty. This was all in his plan; he was holding Paige in the palm of his hand. She would endure the storm with him, and somehow good would come. My heart held on to this. For the next 24 hours I watched the internet news reports as Cyclone Winston tore directly into the island of Fiji engulfing the entire country, followed by a massive storm surge on the coastal areas. As the storm passed I searched the aerial news footage of the aftermath on the island. Destruction was everywhere. Silana Village was now nothing but a rubble of cinder blocks. The palm trees were bare. The grass huts where Paige and the volunteers lived in were gone. I couldn’t imagine how anyone had even survived. Paige finally contacted me later that night, her voice calm but concerned. She and her team of eight volunteers had evacuated at the last minute and made it to a small youth hostel in Fiji’s capital city of Suva. The storm had ripped the roof partially off right over their heads, and they had hunkered down all night under mattresses in the small lobby. “Mom, I don’t know if the people of my village are OK. The roads are washed out…we can’t get to them. Please pray!” she said, now crying softly. I was so relieved she was alive and safe, but unsure what was next. I learned it would be at least a week or more until the airport was usable for commercial flights. I wouldn’t be able to bring her home from this right now, and there was nothing I could do. I now fought my own panic and anxiety as a mother who had no way to help her child in a desperate time of need. I could only wait, pray, and trust God. For the next several weeks we remained in steady contact. She and her team of volunteers were working with local agency relief efforts and doing online fundraising campaigns to help rebuild their village. They were all living in one little bunk room in the hostel. They had small rations of fresh water and cans of beans, and they had contracted some sort of stomach virus that made life even rougher. But every time I talked with Paige, she could only talk about her village and her desire to go back and help rebuild. “I’m NOT coming home!” she declared. “I need to extend my stay because I need to get back to Silana Village and show them I didn’t leave them behind. I NEED to see my Na and make sure she’s OK. God sent me here to serve, and they need me more than ever.” I wasn’t going to argue with her direction from God, so we extended her stay for another month. She and her team were finally able to go back to the village in March, and they’d already raised enough funding from donors to begin to rebuild. The only structure that remained somewhat intact in Silana Village was the school, which now housed the 200 homeless villagers. Despite the area’s catastrophic loss of life, limb, livestock, crops, and homes, the stories being shared were ones of miraculous survival and gratitude. Paige marveled at the resilience of these people and how they were still full of joy and hope. The kids still played in the puddles, and the men and women of the village went straight to the task of rebuilding their homes, singing the traditional Fijian songs of their heritage. “When I saw my Na, she ran to me, screaming my name,” Paige shared. “As she hugged me, she sobbed into my neck and kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you.’ I asked what she was thanking me for and she said, ‘For coming back to me, Lewa!’" "My Na was so happy that her whole family was safe," Paige marveled, "and she was also one of the lucky ones, because some of the walls of her house were still standing after the storm.” And with that, I suddenly realized why God had sent her there. She and the villagers had faced the worst storm imaginable and survived. The world as they knew it had come crashing down around them—even the walls caved in. But not all was lost. Despite the terror of the cyclone and the hardships that resulted from it, peace, love, and hope remained. They had true grit because they had each other, and they had God.
Part 5: Love Survives (and Thrives) Despite the Storm
I knew, without a doubt, that this experience had taught my daughter a profound lesson about anxiety, resilience, and God’s goodness: No matter how bad things get, when the storms rage and the world comes crashing down, God has a plan. Do not be afraid—just reach for his hand. He will not release his grip. It was a lesson she could only truly understand with the perspective gained from having lived through it. She had a new experience of being a survivor...surrounded by other survivors who were picking up the pieces and soldiering on. And it was a lesson I, too, had needed to learn as a mother. The world as we know it will sometimes come crashing down; it’s just how life works. And one of the worst feelings a parent can experience is not being able to protect our kids from the pain that surrounds this tumultuous life. Trusting God through the storm is the only way to survive it. Especially if you’re a parent watching it all unfold on your child as you sit helplessly on the other side of the planet.
“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed” 2 Corinthians 4:8-9. (NLT)
Digging Deeper: Devotion questions for reflection
Read and reflect on the following Bible passages: 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 and Psalm 91:1-4 Recall storms in your life—times you felt as if your world was crashing in around you. How did you survive? Journal how you were able to experience God’s peace and presence in the storm—if that’s what happened for you. If you’re in the midst of a storm right now, ask God to walk with you and provide refuge. Read and reflect on the following Bible verse: 1 Peter 5:10 Recall a time in your life in which you faced rejection or disappointment. Was there something better in store that you’re now able to see in hindsight? Journal about something positive that came from a negative situation in your life. Up for a Challenge? The next time your child faces a storm in life, pause before you jump in to remedy it. Ask God to show you what His plans are in the situation, and pray with your child together for His peace and guidance through the struggle.