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Helen is a former ITC resident and ATI student survivor, and a mostly sane mother of three teens.
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Bill Gothard teaches many things that are erroneous. Even dedicated followers admit the need to pick and choose. This story outlines only a few of them in relation to what I experienced starting in 1992.
Bill’s teaching on mental illness is that it is caused by irresponsibility or a character deficiency. I disagree.
I was schizophrenic for three years … on and off. This is still very hard to talk about, and very few of my friends know. I realize this shoots big holes in my credibility: It could affect how people see me, what jobs I can have, what I am trusted with. I am one of the very lucky ones who was later diagnosed correctly, treated, and all my symptoms reversed and disappeared, never to trouble me again. But I am getting ahead of myself.
That year I was 19. As an Advanced Training Institute (ATI) student, I was not headed off to college. I was not working outside the home. I was not doing anything. The previous summer (at age 18) I went backpacking for ten days. I got my braces off. I went on two mission trips to Baja, Mexico, and I went on a mission trip to Alaska with a church youth group. It was an exciting and fulfilling year. But at 19 — with no college, no job, and no courtship on the horizon — I sank into a depression. I don’t remember anything about that summer except that I signed up for the backpacking trip and found out that I was the only girl. That being the case I declined going.
That December I became sick. I developed a hacking cough that kept me up at night for weeks. I lost sleep. I lost weight. During Christmas I was still sick but began feeling really strange. I felt like I was not inside my body anymore. I felt like something bad was going to happen. I felt tipsy even though I had never been drunk. I had taken a cough syrup with codeine in it so I thought that might be what was affecting me.
My cough subsided and I felt well enough to go to our church’s New Year’s Eve party. The whole family went. When we got home after midnight, I never did get to sleep. I had had insomnia before, chronically as a child, but it had been getting worse lately along with the feeling that “something is wrong.” That day, I became incoherent. I don’t know how to describe this very well. It was like I had just discovered the alternate universe, and this was a very cool thing. It would have been more fun if my mother had not been yelling at me to knock it off. I’m still not sure what she was talking about. I do remember that I did not sleep for the next five days and nights. I remember the special messages I was getting from the TV. Everywhere I went I recognized the people who were out and about as all my friends in disguise, but no one else seemed to. Of course now, after the fact, I recognize all of that as delusions. I was indeed hallucinating, but at the time it all seemed real.
After not sleeping for five days, my parents took me to the hospital’s emergency room. I was admitted into the locked unit of the Psych Ward. I could not figure out what I had done wrong to deserve being put in there but I knew I must have done something and was filled with shame. I do not know how much time I am missing from those first days of my stay — I remember only fragments. They shot me up with too much Haldol in the ER, and then supposedly let me dry out in the ward. I didn’t ever quite dry out, but finally got my doctors to change my medication to something less paralyzing and painful. Now I could at least move my body. I still could not make sense of anything. I could barely function. But they let me go home after two and a half months. I had worked my way into the open ward and was proving stable in behavior. Thank goodness I was good at following rules and regulations. I went home with a new label and a prescription.
My parents took me to see a renowned spiritual warfare counselor who often works in conjunction with IBLP. He had an unexpected opening and I spent the week in his office with my parents. It was the most humiliating experience after the hospital. Day after day I was searching for sin in my life. Anything to confess that would release me from the private hell of shame. Everything just seemed to make things worse. I had no privacy and no filter, as I was still not quite coherent. I confessed everything from crushes to masturbation to bitterness to who knows what — I don’t remember anymore. I went through Gothard’s steps to forgive, but it brought no healing or peace. Before leaving, he had a private meeting with my parents and told them I was possibly demonized and also extremely manipulative. I had no idea that had happened until my dad told me two years later, but it explains a lot of their subsequent attitude towards me.
I left the counselor still broken. I went back to the private school where I had been giving piano lessons and resumed teaching. I went back to my life and attempted to continue living, but the depression and overwhelming shame, as well as continued inability to sleep and the feeling that everyone was looking askance at me everywhere I went, plagued me each day. To make matters worse, Mom was angry that I had disgraced the family. Those who were opposed to our being in ATI and homeschooling were blaming her for what happened, and she took it out on me.
My parents decided to get counseling. But the only kind of counseling that was acceptable was a specific type of Christian counseling, of course. I remember the long car trips to the church that provided counseling for both my parents and for me. At least it was separate counseling sessions. I hardly remember now, but it was done by a husband and wife team. I don’t know what went on in the session with my parents, but I sat week after week shame-faced, ears burning, staring at the floor with nothing to say for myself. After all this time, I had no answer for what on earth had happened, no explanation for why I could not sleep, no answer for my incoherency. My parents rejected the label of schizophrenic, so it must be a spiritual problem on my part. Rebellion — yes that was it, I was rebellious.
Except I wasn’t, I never had been. Shame covered me.
My dad has no filter. He tells everyone everything: the long version. “The long and the short of it,” he always says. It’s a joke in the family. We always protest, “No, just the short of it, please.” But he seems incapable.
He told everyone. Everyone knew. Every ATI family in the area, everyone in the church we attended, everyone in the church we used to attend, everyone in the local presbytery (both of them) all knew and wanted an explanation from me. I had nothing.
Once when I was home from the hospital, another ATI father called and I just happened to pick up the phone. He wanted to know which principle had been violated. I, having been to so many Basic and Advanced seminars knew exactly what he was talking about. I remembered Gothard’s teachings on mental illness as having one of three root causes: either greed, lust, or bitterness. I blushed and using the process of elimination stammered on the phone that I guessed it was bitterness. Of course I blamed myself. Of course it was all my fault. And I still could not figure it out. He agreed. Apparently he had used the process of elimination too. Then he wanted to know how God had miraculously healed me. I was confused. I was not healed and I knew it. I was not okay, but I didn’t know what exactly was wrong. The man was adamant and reprimanded me saying, “Do you mean to tell me that after all that prayer on your behalf you don’t have an answer to prayer?” I honestly cannot remember what I replied to that. I’m not sure I said anything at all. I do remember feeling my ears burn.
We moved that summer for Dad’s job. It was a merciful event. I got to leave the city where everyone knew and start over fresh with people who had no clue how messed up I was. If only I could adjust the outside enough.
Before moving, Dad was going to include the big news about me in his prayer letter, but then I protested and Mom came to my aid on that one. So they took the matter to Jim Logan. It was sad having Jim step in to a personal family dispute, but he set Dad straight on not including personal degrading details about my life in the “prayer” letter (a.k.a. family gossip letter). I am grateful to him for that intervention.
We moved to Rhode Island. I made friends. I joined the youth groups and singles groups of two churches. The youth pastor asked me to chaperone all the ski trips for the junior high and high school youth and I learned how to ski. At that point I began to heal. Life looked livable again. Mom gave over treating me like a criminal and left me alone a little more. And then, with another move imminent, this time to New Orleans, it all began again. Only this time I had a clue what was coming.
I hardly know what was worse: not knowing the first time or knowing the second time.
Enter Bill Gothard’s teachings on the umbrella of authority: If you stay under your authority, you are supposedly protected right? Wrong! I went to my mom first. My dad was usually too busy, and anyway mom was next in the “chain of command.” I told her it was happening again, and I could feel it coming on. I was beginning to have more and more trouble sleeping and I was feeling strange — like one day I was going to wake up and be in that surreal other universe again, not able to tell fiction from reality. I begged them to take me to a doctor to discover what was wrong. My mother became furious. Barely containing her rage she insisted that I alone was responsible for myself and that I needed to go to the drugstore, talk to the pharmacist and find out what over-the-counter medicine was needed to help me sleep through the night. So I did.
Now my body had done something at age 20 (earlier while still in the hospital) that it had never ever done before: I gained weight. I had always been something of a toothpick. I had not developed girlish curves. But after the hospital, over that summer I began putting on pounds. I didn’t feel fat, just more me. I almost liked it. But as spring in Rhode Island approached summer, I lost it all. As I lost the weight, the insomnia and paranoia started back up. It felt like a cycle.
We moved. I said goodbye to my friends and goodbye to my life in Rhode Island. I kept my sense of impending doom to myself. (Who was I going to tell?) The move went okay, but it was summer, and the yearly Knoxville ATI Convention was happening. Of course we attended. That is where I lost it. My parents blamed it on lack of sleep. I did too, but deep down I knew something else was causing the insomnia, the incoherency, and the weight losses and gains. I just didn’t know what.
We tried to get counseling while at Knoxville. Those poor “counseling” students didn’t know what to make of me. Poor me, they sent me home with the “sleep” Psalms (Psalms 3 and 4). “Here, read these. Trust in the Lord and He will help you sleep!” Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of that!?! Trust in God. That would fix everything.
But it didn’t.
My brother left to be a part of the new Indianapolis Training Center (ITC), and I went home with Mom and Dad. At bedtime, Mom came into my room, plunked herself down and read the “sleep” Psalms at me in a voice that barely contained her rage. Once done she started over … and over. I realized she was not going to leave my room until I went to sleep. I felt angry over the way she was treating me. I felt angry that she had refused to take me to a doctor earlier when I had begged for help. But I was in trouble with her now. What an inconvenience I was causing! I finally told her it wasn’t helpful and asked her to leave.
That Christmas my brother came home from the Training Center and I chose to go back with him in January. I was hoping for a menial job where I could be busy and useful, and no one would notice something was horribly wrong with me. I was once again functional and slept through the night most of the time, but the shame was blown out of proportion. My self-esteem was non-existent, but of course that was okay because no one wants sinful pride, right? I went to work at the ITC as an underground encouragement case. My parents were hoping that would fix things, and frankly, so was I. We were all still looking for that spiritual shot in the arm, that one missing key ingredient that would solve everything.
While I was there I made friends. I felt accepted and popular for the first time. My brother was already friends with a girl there, and she had been praying for me long before I arrived. We are like sisters to this day. I stayed busy working long hours but I didn’t mind. The Sunday fasting left me weak and exhausted, but I did it. I was doing something useful to serve God, and no one knew I was broken.
I gained weight over the summer at the ITC and more that fall. It felt good, but then it started coming off of me again. My brother and I went home for Christmas, and then back to the ITC. I was happy in my job. Things seemed fine. I’m not sure when I first knew I was in trouble again, but soon I could feel it coming on. Well, there was that umbrella of authority, so I went to one of the leadership and told her to the best of my ability what was happening. I did this well in advance of my losing it. She didn’t believe me at all. Of course this was beyond her capacity to handle, she wouldn’t have known what to do anyway. After that I just felt defeated. There was nothing more to do. I didn’t bother to call my parents. Why would I bring more judgment on my head?
By now I was unable to sleep through the night, and I was underweight even though I ate everything in sight like a ravenous beast. I was doing a halfway decent job of fighting the irrational thoughts, of recognizing them and “taking them captive.” After all, I had been through this before — you would think I would know better by now.
But I wasn’t able to hold out forever. Leadership finally had to call my parents. My mom booked a flight to come get me. In the meantime I met with the local counselor who “checked” me for demons and declared me clean. He insisted that there were physical causes for these things. When mom came out he told her to take me to a particular doctor who specialized in heavy metal poisoning.
The doctor did tests and sold us a lot of expensive health supplements, but the main diagnosis was mercury poisoning from the fillings in my teeth. The cycle of weight loss and gain, hair loss, insomnia and mental confusion were all common symptoms. I had no idea that the regular silver fillings contained mercury. Turns out they contain up to 50% mercury and they leak. I am still baffled as to why they are allowed to be used. The summer I was 18, I got the braces off of my teeth. At that time I had some cavities filled. Things went downhill from there. The weight loss and gain, hair loss, insomnia and mental confusion were all common symptoms.
Ironically, now that I was diagnosed, I didn’t believe it. I thought the problem was innately with me. I could not believe that good things were going to happen to me ever again. I was afraid to hope that it could really be just my teeth. It felt too simple, like those movies where the good guys are just about to escape and you know something must go wrong because the movie will end much too soon. I am so grateful for my brother standing with me during that time, for the counselor who cleared my name and directed my parents to the right doctor, for the chance to start my life over after getting those amalgam fillings removed. I was able to completely recover and have not had a problem in the last 16 years.
You can bet I will never let an amalgam filling be placed in any of my children’s mouths.
They will also never attend a Basic Seminar.
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Helen is a former ITC resident and ATI student survivor, and a mostly sane mother of three teens.
More posts by HelenE