While on our journey here below,
Beneath temptation’s pow’r,
Through mists of darkness we must go,
In peril ev’ry hour.
MY MIND SPUN IN DARKNESS as I tried to comprehend the twilight zone this special day had become. Caitlyn, my eight-year-old daughter, was sitting in fetal position in the dressing room. The meeting should have started ten minutes ago, yet her baptismal outfit was still hanging on the door. As she rocked, she argued with herself Gollum-style, “This is the worst day of my life. But I should be having a great day. Only my wedding day will be worse. I’ll just pretend I’m at the zoo. But it’s not the zoo; I hate it. Maybe I’m at the beach. I’ll never get married!”
“Go away!” she screamed at me if I got too close.
Fifteen minutes later, my face red and blotchy, we finally sat down and sang the opening song. Caitlyn wouldn’t look at anyone, including her favorite Uncle Dan as he gave the baptismal talk. As she got up for the ordinance she turned to me with narrowed eyes and whispered harshly, “NO KIDS CAN WATCH!” My voice broke as I explained that Caitlyn was having a hard time, so would the parents please keep their children from coming up to the font. The end of the meeting couldn’t come soon enough. Afterward an observer thoughtlessly remarked, “She really is too shy. You should do something about that.”Caitlyn was always a challenging child, but when her behavior turned violent and irrational a few months before her eighth birthday we searched and pleaded for answers. Doctors, friends, and counselors smothered me with the vocabulary of mental illness—terms such as bipolar disorder and sensory integration dysfunction. The mists of darkness had come to my house, my family, my child’s mind.
To Nephi, seer of olden time,
A vision came from God,
Wherein the holy word sublime
Was shown an iron rod.
“Play it one more time, please, Mom.” I smiled as the image of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir again filled my computer screen. For the umpteenth time we blasted the choir’s incredible rendition of “The Iron Rod” set to an arrangement of Holst’s The Planets— Jupiter. During the previous general conference, Caitlyn had been drawn away from her activities in the playroom to watch TV with us because of the familiar and well-beloved melody. We listened to it daily. Her happy and peaceful face showed none of the rage, irrationality, or violence that had characterized the previous week. I marveled at the enigma of my child. Which was the real Caitlyn? The beautiful, kind, helpful child of this week or the raging hellion of last week? It was easy to hold to the rod this week, but what about the next?
And hand o’er hand, the rod along,
Through each succeeding day . . .
I could barely hold on; after four months of my daughter’s cycle into the valley of shadow I was physically, mentally, and emotionally spent. I sat sobbing outside her door as the demon raged its war inside her room. There were holes in the wall, broken pictures on the floor, and bruises on me. My overriding goal was to protect the other four children. Blessings, counseling, changes in diet, and medicinal therapy did nothing to calm the inferno. After her energy was spent Caitlyn would curl up in fetal position and rock herself for fifteen or twenty minutes. My heart ached to see her struggling with this disability of the mind.
I constantly pondered my culpability. Was it my fault she suffered from this ailment? Logically, I was coming to understand that it wasn’t my fault. I had studied mental illness extensively, including Elder Alexander B. Morrison’s wonderful book “Valley of the Shadow.” But still, I plagued myself with questions. Was there something I did or didn’t do during pregnancy? Poor parenting? What should I have done differently?
I also questioned my ability to parent such a child. Why couldn’t I handle this? Why did I so often unknowingly (and sometimes knowingly) do things that pushed her over the edge? Why couldn’t I always say the right nurturing words? What about the other children? Expending all my patience and energy on this child, at times, left nothing for the others.
Hourly pleading pulled me “hand o’er hand” along the rod, propelling me past my snapping and yelling, to collapse on my knees with broken heart by my bed, begging for strength, patience, and forgiveness. I couldn’t even hold on to rational thought, let alone something as lofty as “the word of God.” I was doing the best I could and I was failing.
With earnest prayer and hopeful song,
We’ll still pursue our way.
“Mom, I haven’t had an explosion since January!” Caitlyn’s face beamed as she announced her triumph. After almost three months on the upside of her cycle, normalcy and humanity had returned to our family. During Primary that morning, Caitlyn found a new child in her class. After introducing herself, she grabbed the new girl’s hand and they bounced off to class together, a far cry from the smoldering rebellion I saw brewing in her narrowed, glaring eyes during her last depressive cycle.
This creative, kind, energetic child was such a joy. But the joy was always tempered by the wary and weary recognition that an emotional plunge could be just around the corner. I, as a semi-rational adult, struggled with these ups and downs. What fear and confusion must this constant upheaval inspire for my daughter? Could the straightness of the rod guide us through these never ending roller coasters? Though my mind accepted the unique gifts and challenges this child had brought to earth, my heart ached for her pain and mine, her despair and mine.
As Nephi, Seer of olden time
We have the iron rod
They who search its word in every day
Shall know the love of God.
I had always considered Nephi’s declaration, “O wretched man that I am!“ (2 Nephi 4:17) a bit melodramatic; but this time was different. I had just completely lost it. My second daughter was sobbing in the laundry room, having a time-out because of the force of my unjust wrath. I truly felt wretched, and Nephi had my attention. “I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me” (v. 18). Caitlyn had again been struggling with insomnia, belligerence, and violence. Somehow I made it through the morning with her, but once again her younger sister had borne the brunt of my mounting frustration. Disrespect from my second daughter was unacceptable, to be sure, but my reaction had been way out of proportion. How could I be so unfair? How could I lose it like that? If I could just stay rational I could handle these situations. But emotion, whether anger, fear, or despair overwhelmed me, wave after wave—just like it did my daughter.
Tears clouding my vision I continued to read. “Nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted” (v. 19). My heart was opened and I started to understand Nephi. I felt so wretched and weak, but at the same time I felt such overwhelming love and understanding from my all-knowing Father in Heaven. He knew of my many deficiencies, He knew of my tantrums, He knew of my despair, and yet He loved me and encouraged me to accept the power of the Atonement to overcome my weakness. I had no strength to move forward along the rod, but I would not let go of the hope and love found in the word of God.
And when temptation’s power is nigh,
Our pathway clouded o’er,
Upon the rod we can rely,
And heaven’s aid implore.
A chat-room post by a woman I didn’t even know sent a new shadow over my path. “My oldest son’s beloved uncle committed suicide earlier this week. He was only twenty-five. His mother is heartbroken . . . He was diagnosed six years ago with mental illness . . . His mother was recently hit by an SUV and spent four weeks in the hospital. It seemed to throw him off track, but no one knew how badly until this week. By then it was too late.” Such pain! Would this be my daughter? Would her illness take her to this place of blackness? In a rage, rational thought is lost and she doesn’t care who she hurts: family member, friend, stranger, herself. What is to become of the sweet little baby who smiles at me from the refrigerator magnet?
Returning from the Saturday evening session of stake conference, my thoughts swam between hope and despair. My husband was out of town and Caitlyn was having a bad week. Knowing I couldn’t handle Caitlyn and the other children alone during the Sunday session, I had prayed that the Saturday night session would strengthen and heal my aching heart. My stake president’s talk was for me. In speaking about the healing power of the Atonement, he specifically addressed mental illness. Christ, he taught, suffered for my daughter’s pain, her irrational thoughts, and for the mistakes she would make under the influence of her illness. Like the father who asked Christ to heal his afflicted son, I wanted to believe, but found it just beyond my reach. I prayed over and over, “Lord, I believe. Help, thou, mine unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Afar we see the golden rest
To which the rod will guide,
Where, with the angels bright and blest,
Forever we’ll abide.
A few weeks after stake conference we were again listening to the Tabernacle Choir’s “Hold to the Rod.” The fifth verse had long been my favorite, and as I closed my eyes I once again tried to envision the “golden rest.” My continued prayers to more fully understand and believe in the healing power of the Atonement echoed with the music. This time “the eyes of my understanding” were opened and I saw “the angels bright and blest.” This time I was with Caitlyn. Through Christ her illness was removed, and I caught a glimpse of the beautiful person she can become. This time the other children embraced me and frankly forgave my many faults and weaknesses. Through Christ, they knew I loved them, even during the hard times, and that I had done my best. This time I truly had peace, comfort, and a “golden rest.”
challenges of life continue and the roller coaster ride is not over. I am still imperfect, impatient, and overwhelmed. Caitlyn is still irrational and unyielding. The siblings still fight. But, on dark days when I can manage no more, the image of my healed daughter keeps me hanging on. On brighter, more hopeful days, the love and joy I envisioned push me forward to my golden rest.
The promise of the iron rod is true.
Hold to the rod, the iron rod;
’Tis strong and bright and true.
The iron rod is the word of God;
’Twill safely guide us through.