My Family Tree

By JMathis

I always joke around that my family tree resembles that of the Kennedys (minus all of the wealth and extravagance). Like the Kennedys, we are fiercely devoted to social causes and passionate about serving in the public interest. Instead of using government as our platform to reach the masses, though, my family’s preferred vehicle of service comes in the form of ministry.

I have family members who are Christian educators, authors, activists, scholars, philanthropists, social workers, songwriters, musicians, missionaries, pastors, evangelists and seminary students. You can find us anywhere from the mission fields of third world countries, all the way to the staff of America’s largest megachurch—we are in every pocket of Christendom imaginable and we are relentless in our ambition to do God’s work.

Yet, despite all of this tireless fealty to things of a spiritual nature, we have another very pronounced commonality with the Kennedys—our family is continuously plagued by tragedy. While our tragedies don’t take the form of assassinations, allegations of rape and plane crashes which seem characteristic of the Kennedy clan, our tragedies instead revolve around one thing: mental illness.

Every branch of my majestic, stately family tree has been impacted by mental illness. We are cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, siblings, grandchildren, parents and even children of the mentally ill. We see it all around us and we say nothing. We pretend it doesn’t exist even though it is the imposingly large elephant in the room of every single family reunion and gathering.

When one of us falls too far into the deep end, instead of throwing that person a life preserver, we whisper in hushed tones to each other, swapping knowing looks that simultaneously say “another one bites the dust” and “glad it wasn’t me”. We then proceed to step over the lifeless body and march towards our next assignment from God.

Apart from the obvious hypocrisy that runs rampant in my “spiritually oriented” family, we are still a family that is deeply rooted in the love of the Lord and one another, as confusing as that may sound. Unfortunately, these same roots are invasively thick with shame and silence. My family reminds me of the ficus tree—graceful, elegant and capable of growing in poor growing conditions. Yet at the same time, so rapidly destructive that it can rip through beautiful gardens and seemingly solid foundations such as sidewalks, patios and driveways. My family tree is both glorious in its legacy, while often heartbreaking at its core. 

A year after giving birth to my lovely babykins, I found myself still in the clutches of postpartum depression. I thought the “baby blues” were only supposed to last a few weeks, maybe months, but mine trudged on with a happy face, seemingly without an expiration date. I masked it well, staying busy with work, community volunteering and church involvement. However, deep inside, I knew that my internal compass was completely out of sorts. Looking back, I can remember feeling that pregnancy had caused every neuron and fiber in my body to be thrown off whack—as if someone had tried to rewire my neural structure, but did so incorrectly, with my orderly inner alphabet of “ABC” suddenly turning into a chaotic “ACV”.

After one year of this uneasiness and inner turmoil, it then hit me like a freight train. How many of my female relatives had languished in untreated postpartum depression, eventually hitting the point of no return? How many of my male relatives experienced intractable breakdowns after coming face to face with repeated stressors that could have been removed? How much could some of this mental illness have been avoided? Why was there such shame in taking the proper medication for something like this, or for sharing this with family members?

While the Christian holy-roller side of me would love to tell you that I broke this generational curse through prayer and fasting, the truth is, I finally caved and got help by seeing my doctor. She put me on anti-depressants and overnight, my world got much clearer and brighter—my wiring finally started to fuse in the proper order. Even though I was praying and reading the Word throughout this dark period of my life, it was not until I went on “happy pills” that I could say there was a light streaming in over the horizon.       

From a Christian perspective, I have no idea what this means. I know that God could have healed me without the use of any medication, but for some reason, medication was the course of action I followed. I would like to believe that the Lord took down my pride and led me to that decision just in the nick of time—still early enough where I could continue to fulfill my purpose and destiny in Christ. I have to trust the Lord and not over-think it theologically. After all, how should I know if Christians are to avoid anti-depressants? Maybe they should, maybe they shouldn’t; it’s not for me to decide or debate.

At the same time, I know very few people who would sweat out cancer, like some faith-healers, by relying solely on the Word of God. Most of us would seek treatment like chemotherapy, in addition to strengthening ourselves through daily meditation of scripture, prayer and fasting. Furthermore, we would enlist the help of family and friends for care, comfort, support, and more importantly, to wage spiritual warfare against this disease. Why should mental illness be treated any differently? Why is it sacrilegious to suggest that medication might be beneficial to someone facing a bout of mental illness?  Why is it taboo to share with friends, family and church leadership that you’re depressed?

In terms of my own experiences with post-partum depression and in light of my family history, I have learned a few things that I feel blessed and compelled to share with you:

1)      If you see someone sinking, throw that person a life preserver. Put aside years of shame, anger, guilt and fear of awkwardness, and help that family member or friend get through this difficult season.

2)      Throw away your pride and see if medication might help. As my doctor said, physiologically, we are a large mass of chemicals. When your inner chemical makeup is off-kilter, correct the imbalance through diet and exercise, and if necessary, the proper medication. 

3)      Seemingly normal, well put-together people experience depression—even people who are involved in ministry. If someone had a baby, even as long as a year ago, reach out to her and probe; ask the right questions. If someone just lost a loved-one, really assess how she’s doing a year later and offer a shoulder to cry on with continued support.

Even King David went through several seasons of depression throughout his life. “When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was turned into the drought of summer. Selah.” Psalms 32:3-4.

However, David prayed for wisdom, repented and sought the face of the Lord during emotional famines like this:

Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me hear joy and gladness, That the bones You have broken may rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, And blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.” Psalms 51: 6-12

Have you prayed for wisdom for you and your family members in the area of mental illness? Have you repented of any unrighteousness in your life? Have you sought God’s face in how to deal with your depression?

I’m sick of the stigma that mental illness carries, and I will continue to engage in spiritual battle against the strongholds of shame and silence that repeatedly threaten to bring down my family’s long-lasting Christian heritage. I’m tired of the tragedy of mental illness that perpetuates itself in my blood line, and I take authority over it in the powerful name of Jesus. I’m also done with my pride that seeks to distance myself from getting the proper help and support that I need to move forward in the things of God.

I am ready to find my true legacy in Christ—not the one my family bestows upon me through genetics or in the way that my family members and I were raised.

I don’t want to be a Kennedy or even a descendent of Billy Graham. I just want to be a member of the family of God.

Furthermore, I may never fully understand why my incredible family tree produces both sweet and bitter fruit, but I do know one thing: I am of the lineage of Jesus Christ and I will do everything I need to do to help my family to continue serving our Father.

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