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How 'Losing' a Friend Changed My View of Mental Illness

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Kathy’s friend, Misty

She is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever known. Truly, both inside and out. She loves people well and gave generously of herself. She is an amazing mother to her four children, an incredible teacher to “her kids,” and a friend, who would do just about anything for you when she could. She loves Jesus in the biggest of ways, her smile can light up a room and her laugh is infectious. She loves unconditionally, rarely judged or criticized and encouraged those around her. She was one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

Misty was one of those friends who was easy to be with, and one of the few people I’ve ever really “done life” with. We taught together at the same school, our children were good friends, we went to church together, were in small group together and spent hours of time together outside of those things. We went to lunch together every day. We loaned each other money without keeping track, hauled each other’s kiddos to numerous activities, had many family meals together and frequently popped into one another’s homes unannounced. No need to clean up our messes for one another, that’s when you know it’s true friendship. We went to Disney together, danced the night away and stayed up way too late in our hotel room when we attended a conference together, laughing and eating chocolate-covered caramel corn.

Then one day, I began to notice some changes. She couldn’t go to lunch anymore. She would smile and wave from down the hallway instead of approaching me. She didn’t feel well enough for church and couldn’t come to small group. Honestly, I assumed she was upset with me, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of a reason why.

I had planned to talk to her one day over lunch break at school, except that day, she left for lunch on her own and didn’t come back. This was completely unlike her. We searched the parking lot, called her husband, covered her class and tried her cell number over and over again.

Voicemail. Where was she? Her children came home with me after school while we continued to look. She was found late that afternoon, confused and upset, at the local airport. This was the day that changed everything. Nothing could have been further from her character to abandon a class of students she loved, not to mention her own children. Something was wrong.

As we moved forward, she continued to show signs of mental illness, confusion, depression, psychosis and erratic behavior. What had happened to my friend? There were glimpses of her there, but honestly, it felt like she was gone. I felt hurt, lonely and confused myself.

Time went on and her condition deteriorated. It was hard on everyone around her and we scrambled to figure out how to best help her and how to best care for the kids. She went in and out of different treatment options, but it was difficult to get her to comply. This is a hard thing about mental illness. It’s up to the person with mental illness to decide whether they need treatment and to comply to it. Medications make them feel groggy and not like themselves. Their perception can be they are better when they are off the medication.

Misty’s family struggled under the weight of the stress. The situation finally became such that her children came to live with us full time for a while. I felt fortunate to still be working at the school they attended and have a supportive community helping us through that time. We loved these kids like our own. We cared for them the best we could, although I’m sure they wished for their lives back.

Eventually, they returned back to their family, although under much different circumstances. Misty’s mental health wasn’t good and their family continued to struggle. As of now, Misty is missing from all of our lives. We don’t know exactly where she is and haven’t seen her for years. She has no contact with her children or family. My prayers for her include healing, God’s protection and provision, and for blessings in her life. I still miss her many years later and find it hard to believe things turned out this way.

Here is what I need you to know: She is capable, kind, generous and a ton of fun to be around. She held it together longer than a lot of us probably would have as she was surely struggling before any of us knew. She cherished her children and loved the people in her life. She is gorgeous and looked like she had it all together. I would often hear people wonder how she “did it all.”

Misty, Kathy and their friend, Stephanie

But mental illness can be a thief.

Mental illness has taken Misty from our lives. It’s robbed her children of a mother, her parents of a daughter and the rest of us from an incredible friend. It’s not fair. It’s not right, and it seems like it should be fixable. Mental illness can destroy people’s lives.

Over the years, I’ve heard people speculate about the reality of mental illness and the things it causes people to do. “How could they abandon their children? How could they just run off? Can’t they keep a job? Can’t they just snap out of it? Why don’t they just get help?”

We would be wise to hold very loosely to our judgement. Mental illness is real. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It causes people to do things so very out of character for them, all while they are convinced they are doing the very best thing. You can’t understand it, you can’t make sense of it and most often you can’t fix it.

Our jails, prisons and homeless shelters are full of people who struggle with mental illness. These people need our love and our grace. They aren’t always easy to love, and their situations are messy. They leave loved ones behind in their wake and hurt those who are closest to them.

I don’t have the answers, but I encourage you to see mental illness through different eyes, through compassionate eyes. See mental illness through a lens that offers a listening ear or an encouraging word, that loves on people who are grieving a loved one they’ve “lost” to mental illness and gives understanding instead of judgement. I know my perception is forever changed.

This post originally appeared on Kathy Garrison’s website.

Originally published: July 2, 2016
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