I write this not as medical person, nor a pastor, nor as disinterested third party. I write as a father, a participant, a sufferer, and in a sense a target. It is not pleasant, and there are few bright spots in this story.
The movie Bringing Ashley Home has been shown a few times over the past year, the latest yesterday morning (09/22/2012). It is a Lifetime Movie based on Libba Phillips. The true story follows Libba’s journey of locating her missing sister Ashley, a process that began in 1999. Prior to her disappearance Ashley had been diagnosed as Bi-Polar. When Ashley went missing, there was little help for the family. As Libba described it:
When Ashley went missing, my family did what most families would do. We appealed to authorities to file a missing persons report. It seemed simple enough. Ashley was missing. For the next four years, this report went unfiled. We searched for Ashley on our own.
No one seemed to care about a missing homeless woman who appeared to be choosing to live on the streets. And to others, she was nothing more than a drug addict whose disappearance was not deemed worthy of an official investigation.
I began to realize that if Ashley was not listed as missing, the odds of her ever being found and helped, if she indeed was still alive and lost somewhere on the streets among the homeless, were slim at best. The odds of her body being identified if she was dead were even lower.
Everywhere she turned there was no help. As she investigated, she made contact with others who ran into similar problems locating missing persons. Eventually Libba founded Outpost for Hope to help other people find the “missing missing persons” and “kids off the grid”.
The first time I saw the movie, it was almost too close to home to watch. But I did watch, with tears streaming every ten minutes. I recognized so much of what Libba and her family went through with Ashley. The sleepless weeks, the efforts to drive the streets, not sure who or what we would find. Occasionally getting phone calls from police departments in surrounding communities, telling us that our son was arrested. Calls came at 11:00 PM, 1:00 AM, 3 AM, you name it. And fearing the next call that may have been his death notice.
In 1985 our older son (at the time 15) was diagnosed as Bi-Polar. That “official” diagnosis gave us some understanding of what had been a disastrous five years prior to that. We had experienced life with him through those five years, prior to the diagnosis—and it was not easy. Not one holiday or birthday or anniversary was enjoyable. We knew that 2-3 days prior to the event our son would go into the slide that would destroy any kind of home life or happy event. Drugs became part of his scene at age 14, and remains a problem even today.
Even the diagnosis was little help, as the intensity of his episodes increased. I remember driving the streets of the several cities near where we lived, hoping to find a glimpse of him, whether on a street corner, under a pile of cardboard boxes. Within two years it was not safe for us. Sadly I had to have him arrested in our own apartment. I still cringe when I think that I had to have my own son arrested. How could I do that? How could I not do that?
For years we had lived with guilt. Did we do something to aggravate him? Was I saying the wrong things as a father? (I still look back and wonder…)
We lived with fear. What would he do next? Would our own lives be in danger? Did I act too soon? Did I do enough?
We lived with shame. My sense of failure as a father increased to the point where it was difficult to discuss family with friends or acquaintances or even extended family, because it was always focused on this prodigal son, and his latest disruptive episodes. And that was too painful.
When he was 16, after I had him arrested, we had him put into a psychiatric hospital, eventually transferring him to a long term psychiatric facility. As long as he was on his meds, he was reasonable. We saw him only once during that 14 months. Eventually (when he was 17) he could check himself out legally, so I drove cross country to pick him up. And he lived with us for a few months before we had to ask him to leave.
From 1987 to the present he has been in prison at least four times, mixed up with drugs almost continuously, nearly died twice in accidents. We went 10 years not hearing from him, not knowing whether he was alive or dead. In the last 14 years we have spoken face-to-face with him one time, 4 1/2 years ago. And no contact since June 2011. We don’t know where he is, but we suspect he is back in prison if not dead. We pray for him, for his life, and for salvation.
This section heading comes from the book The Wounded Healer by Henri J.M. Nouwen (1979). Ministry to, for, and especially with, people means that we join people in their suffering and hurting lives. Only then can we speak to the heart and the hurt.
For me, the wounds of the past 30+ years are deep, so deep that I seldom discuss much of this even with close friends. Many did not know what to say or do, and the distance between us increased. Some friends walked with us through many years of our turmoil. We thank God for those who were close to us, even when I could not respond. It was a long, lonely walk, but these faithful people were God’s instruments with the right mix of hope, peace, and comfort when we needed it most. Often they listened and cried with us.
As one who has been wounded deeply (and I have not shared any of the bad stuff), I have found the past three decades to be difficult, painful, sobering, and many times discouraging. When I saw the movie, Bringing Ashley Home the first time last year, and again yesterday morning, I was flooded with so many memories of what we had endured, and the tears flowed again. I could so identify with Libba and her struggles with Ashley. And I can identify with all the others who have experienced similar problems. My heart goes out to any family member who walked this road or who is just beginning this road. I am so glad that Libba founded Outpost for Hope; there has been and still is a great need. If you are in this situation, contact Outpost for Hope, now!
If you see someone that might be going through such a crisis, and you ask how they are, don’t be surprised if they give a tight smile and say “Fine.” To say anything more might open a floodgate of emotions they might not contain. I know, I have lived that existence. But don’t give up on them, either. They need to talk to, cry with, hold on to, or silently sit with someone. Maybe God has placed you right there for such a time.
The Ultimate Outpost
The ultimate outpost for hope is Jesus Christ. He is not a crutch, a scapegoat, or even a helpless “friend.” He came into this world for this very reason: to endure and share in our temptations (Hebrews 4:15), suffering (Hebrews 2:18), and ultimately to die because of our sins (1 Peter 3:18), so that we might have life with God forever.
Yes, we have temporary afflictions (2 Corinthians 4:17), and they can be life threatening (2 Corinthians 11). But we know that because of what Jesus has done, nothing can separate us from the love of God, not life, not death, not cancer, not Bi-Polar disorders, nothing! And that is true comfort. As Paul wrote:
Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort also overflows. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is experienced in your endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will share in the comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7 HCSB)
If you have been wounded, may you find healing in Jesus Christ. No wound is too deep, no scar too hardened, that Jesus cannot touch and heal. And while it seems impossible now, you might be God’s next wounded healer.
Come, this outpost is always open for someone like you, and for your family member who is missing.