Letting Go without Giving Up


Our mentally ill son and his substance abuse changed our lives dramatically. Could we ever learn to deal with his destructive actions?

When he was a boy, our son’s report cards were often disappointing even though he was intelligent. He sometimes became angry and aggressive. At other times he showed unusual anxiety. By high school he seemed increasingly unhappy and unable to fit in with friends. He began to skip school frequently. His bizarre haircuts and odd clothing became a source of friction.

A doctor told us these behaviors were normal teenage rebellion and he would grow out of them in a few years, but my instincts told me otherwise. Other actions made us more apprehensive. Our son spent long periods of time at the sink, washing his hands over and over again; he wouldn’t touch things for fear of becoming contaminated. He isolated himself in his bedroom.

I became consumed with uncertainty and fear. My husband and I were trying to rear our two children in love and righteousness. We prayed together and taught our children the gospel. We read the scriptures together. We sang Primary songs and hymns at family home evening. We attended church together. Our son’s Church teachers and peers often praised his gospel knowledge. Yet in spite of this, his life and his interest in the gospel were crumbling.

My husband and I felt something was seriously wrong. Our son’s behavior did not seem normal, while our daughter was doing well. For years we searched for answers but found none that helped. Then, at last, a psychiatrist correctly diagnosed our son as having a serious mental illness. Though the diagnosis sounded formidable and we left the doctor’s office feeling numb and afraid, it was a relief to finally have an explanation for our son’s erratic behavior.

Learning to Cope

Though our teenage son’s future looked bleak and forbidding, my husband and I prayed that through love and stricter discipline we could help him. But discipline was met with fierce denial and anger. Innocent comments were interpreted negatively. The tension in our home became almost tangible. Because I was doing most of the disciplining, our son directed most of his anger at me. It came to the point where he couldn’t even stand next to me without becoming defensive and angry. It seemed that everything I did was wrong.

As my husband and I searched for answers, we went through a time of intense personal struggle and individual testing. As solid as I thought my faith in Jesus Christ was, I soon realized that my level of faith was inadequate for the trials I was facing. I needed faith to move mountains, yet I felt equipped with a shovel instead of dynamite and earthmovers. I began to pray more fervently, pleading many times each day for wisdom and strength. I attended the temple more frequently for solace, peace, and revelation. I received priesthood blessings that gave me hope and guidance. I began fasting weekly with my husband as we realized the need for greater spiritual strength.

Inspiration and insight began to come. Once I was sitting in church on Mother’s Day, wondering if I was up to the challenges that my son presented. The children began singing, “Mother, I love you; mother, I do. Father in Heaven has sent me to you” (Children’s Songbook, 207). The words stunned me and brought an important realization: Heavenly Father had sent our son to us. Whatever the reason, he was meant to be ours, and we were trusted to handle the difficult assignment of raising him.

Letting Go

Our son moved out of the house shortly after graduating from high school and began living a lifestyle totally foreign to us. We worried that he was now using drugs regularly. Occasionally, he came home for Sunday dinner and attended church with us, but his behavior continued to deteriorate.

Of necessity, we began letting go of the hopes and dreams we once held for our son and gradually came to accept the full reality of his situation. His illness was the major cause of his substance abuse and greatly complicated any recovery attempts. Our lives became a roller coaster as our son took us on a wild ride of ups and downs. He initially chose not to take the medications his doctor prescribed, preferring to medicate himself with illegal drugs. Every day seemed to bring a new crisis, and every phone call seemed to bring unwelcome news: “I quit my job,” “I’m in jail,” “Someone stole my paycheck,” “My car has broken down,” “I have hepatitis.” I often felt completely drained and wondered if our years of fasting and prayer were making any difference.

On one such day, I opened the Doctrine and Covenants and read: “Blessed art thou for what thou hast done; for thou hast inquired of me, and behold, as often as thou hast inquired thou hast received instruction of my Spirit. If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time” (D&C 6:14). The Spirit whispered that our son was indeed being helped by our fasts.

At first I tried to override my son’s agency with my prayers. Finally understanding that no amount of pleading could make our son come back, I began to pray that he would receive the experiences he needed to help him want to come back. I believe that even with his illness, our son has some ability to choose for himself. My husband and I came to realize that we needed to learn to control our own feelings, attitudes, and reactions to his choices.

While our son is often not open to gospel discussions, I have found other ways to bear my testimony to him. I have made our home a place of “silent sermons.” On our walls hang cross-stitched scriptures and framed pictures of the Savior and temples. I once noticed my son studying one of these pictures. Whenever he comes home, he is reminded of our faith without our saying a word.

Finding Hope

Throughout this long ordeal, the scriptures have helped me to endure. I have often found comfort by reading that the sons of Mosiah were the “vilest of sinners” (Mosiah 28:4), yet through repentance were totally forgiven and became great missionaries. When I read about Jesus Christ calling forth those with any manner of afflictions to be healed (see 3 Ne. 17:7–9), I find comfort in the thought that He can heal today just as He healed then.

One day I was dusting a framed saying that I had purchased for my son when he was a child. It described the meaning of his name, accompanied by an appropriate scripture. Although I had read it many times before, the scripture suddenly had new meaning. It said: “The Lord stood with me, and strengthened me. … The Lord shall deliver me … and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:17–18). The Lord is mindful of our son, from day to day, and when our son is ready, the Lord has the power to help him overcome his addictions. A warm feeling came over me as I realized that the Savior was indeed watching over him.

Living with our son’s mental illness and substance abuse has not been easy, but through my experiences, I have come to know and love my Savior more deeply. I have found that the only way to find true peace and happiness is by putting my trust in Him. I have come to know that eventually—whether in this life or in the eternities—my son will find the same peace in the gospel that I have found. My testimony of the Savior and the power of His atoning sacrifice increases daily. The Savior suffered for my sins. He suffered for my son’s sins. And I believe that one day, through His sacrifice and His love, our son will return to the teachings of his youth.

More on this topic: See John K. Carmack, “When Our Children Go Astray,”Ensign, Feb. 1997, 6; Jan Underwood Pinborough, “Mental Illness: In Search of Understanding and Hope,”Ensign, Feb. 1989, 50; “When Children Rebel,”Ensign, Mar. 1985, 30; Marvin K. Gardner, “Keeping the Door Open and the Stew Hot: Loving and Helping a Wayward Child,”Ensign, Aug. 1982, 8.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Keith Larson