Last March, Spring Break. I can feel it coming as I leave the city limits on my way to a long- planned vacation with the kids. It’s a growing sense of trepidation, hovering over me, threatening like a black wave, trembling in place, poised to wreck its ruin. It overshadows everything, swirling up like plumes of cumulonimbus on the horizon. Two hours creep by like the sucking drag of tree sap over a trapped insect. It feels like six. Every minute I pray desperately for it to just hold off until I can reach the hotel. I listen to worship music in my earbuds. I sing to Jesus under my breath as the kids talk and laugh and I clamp numb fingers over the steering wheel, trying to hold back tears. Not knowing how bad the episode will be, I am torn between turning around or keeping on. Perhaps I can make it and the vacation won’t be ruined.
I’m halfway there now. If I can just get to the hotel and check in, I can fall into bed and shiver and shake and weep and hopefully fall asleep and wake in the morning with my brain recovered enough for me to make the four hour return trip tomorrow. I already know the vacation is ruined, but that’s simply another guilt amongst all the others to add to the burden I’ve become to my family.
They’d be better off without you.
Whispered words from Hell.
The hovering breaks its holding pattern and begins to sweep toward me, an unstoppable tidal wave. I can’t hold back the tears now. My oldest daughter, Rhu, sitting in the front seat, notices something is wrong and asks if I’m having a brain attack—what we call my breakdowns so they know it’s not caused by them but rather the chemical imbalance in my brain. She prays for me.
My twelve-year-old daughter prays for me. It is at once humbling, joyous, and terribly sad.
Mommy doesn’t get sick. Mommy can’t get sick.
I check google maps for the nearest gas station as I begin to realize I won’t make it. It’s so close now, a malevolent presence approaching from behind, and my hackles rise, terror gripping me like a vice. I try to fight it, praying for mercy, but I have nowhere to go because you can’t escape your mind, and I can see its shadow growing larger and larger, looming in the peripheral of my mind’s eye, swallowing up the logical side of myself until I feel its breath on my neck and —
The psychotic break crashes over me.
I can tell immediately it’s not like the others. My brain literally snaps and shreds.
That’s what I believe.
Like a serpentine belt in an engine, or a computer crashing after a virus, my gears have bent and twisted, my hard drive erased. The psychosis has finally sucked my mind into a black hole of insanity, crushing that ever-present logical side into oblivion, the one that tells me it’s impossible for a brain to shred. That it’s just my neurons misfiring, my overwhelmed, broken brain boiling over. That I just have to wait for it to pass, as I’ve done what feels like countless times before, to the point where I’ve almost forgotten what it was like before the breakdowns.
I used to play in symphonies. I made Texas All-State as a violist at fifteen. I once performed for the Dean of Juilliard. Berklee offered me a full ride, where I would pursue a career as a soundtrack composer. I was a finalist three times for the BMI John Lennon Songwriting Scholarship. I formed a band, played lead electric guitar and sang original songs, won first place and was awarded thousands of dollars in a San Antonio battle of the bands competition, and released an album. I auditioned for American Idol, making it all the way to the golden ticket round. I taught viola, violin, piano, electric and acoustic guitar, vocals, music theory, classical composition, and songwriting to dozens of students in my own private studio for years. I wrote a soundtrack for a short film. I arranged a classical piece for a professional male soprano.
Now it’s a miracle for me to even leave the house.
My children don’t know me any other way, especially my youngest, Ivy. It was postpartum psychosis, following her birth six years ago, that triggered my bipolar disorder. I don’t remember most of the first year of her life. And then, the other diagnosis. That moment on June 3rd, 2015, when Campbell and I heard those three words that would change both of our lives forever as the doctor handed me a Kleenex in the cramped office with white walls covered in serene photographs and statistical posters on leukemia survival. “You have cancer.”
Campbell was only 35 at the time.
I pull over into a gas station, begging God to allow me to make it outside the car before I completely fall apart. I mumble to Rhu to watch Ian, Rowan, and Ivy, that I’ll be okay, I just need to call Dad. Stumbling out of the car in a daze, I dial Campbell’s number with shaking fingers as I pace in front of a small shack at the back of the gas station parking lot about ten yards from the car, gasping and sobbing. I am shivering. I feel as if I am literally falling apart, like I am made of tenuously stacked bricks, a Leaning Tower of Pisa, and an earthquake has begun to crumble me apart. I am toppling.
I don’t want the kids to see me like this. But I also won’t leave them.
Sadly, they are used to this by now.
But this…this episode is different. And it only makes the terror rise up and clamp over me harder.
“I can’t do this,” I tell Campbell over and over as soon as he picks up. “I can’t do this anymore.” I am repeating myself. I know I am, but I can’t seem to stop. It’s all I can get out. I don’t know what my words mean exactly. Am I talking about driving? Living? My stressful, part-time job that has only aggravated my symptoms?
But we have four kids. I can’t quit. How are we supposed to live on the single income of a pastor?
Mommy doesn’t get sick. Mommy can’t get sick.
“Mandy, where are you?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know!”
Campbell waits patiently as I check google maps again and tell him what I can. Mile Markers. Exit numbers. Street names. Details that seem meaningless. Detached. Pointless. It doesn’t matter where I am physically. That’s not where I’m lost.
He calms me enough to get through the maelstrom my thoughts have become to register that he will drive down there right now and get me. This alleviates the episode a tiny amount, tossing sparks as it scrapes against the surface of the metal vice that has squeezed me into formlessness; taking off a thin layer of the knuckles mercilessly pounding my mind; lowering the temperature one degree of the furnace that has boiled me down to the foamed snaps of a cornered, wounded animal.
I will still have to wait two hours.
…How? I feel as if I can hardly wait two minutes because I have shattered. I am in pieces.
For the first time, I consider going to the nearest emergency room. But what will happen to the kids? What will that kind of experience do to them?
And I know if I do, I will be committed. Mandatory 72 hours. My greatest fear. I can’t go to a psychiatric hospital, I can’t.
I wait for God to respond, as He often does, with what I call heart-speak. Communication too deep for words—feelings, concepts, visuals that precede thought, flowing straight into me from Him, and I translate them into words. I misunderstand Him sometimes, but I can usually feel His presence even if I can’t sense a heart-speak response.
I feel nothing. Only a buzzing sensation at the top of my head that fogs reality, like rupturing bubbles and steam escaping boiling water. I claw for scripture as if I’m drowning, but no verses come to mind. My faith hangs by a thread. At this point, I just know that He’s real, and that’s enough.
But is He? I have no idea what’s real or not anymore.
Campbell tells me to call my psychiatrist and then call him right back. I squint at the screen with tear-blurred eyes, scroll to the number, dial, and wait. The phone seems to crowd my ear, the rings painfully loud, the glass slick and cold, almost slimy.
Everything feels too close, too tight, too everything. A claustrophobia of the mind as I feel the walls closing in around me.
I am trapped, in more ways than one.
The nurse on call picks up after seconds that feel like hours. I somehow relate what I am feeling. “My brain has shredded. I’ve lost my mind. I snapped. I don’t know what to do. I’m in the middle of nowhere with my kids. No, I don’t want to kill myself. No, I don’t want to harm myself or anyone else. Yes, I need to speak with my psychiatrist immediately.”
She tells me that my doctor will call me back within a few minutes.
It takes him moments. I am never more grateful for my psychiatrist.
I tell him what I am feeling and what I told the nurse and Campbell, and he assures me that a human brain cannot shred.
I realize he is right. Of course a human brain cannot shred. That is ridiculous.
God uses this to break the power of the deception sucking me down into insanity (because that’s what insanity literally is: lies) and restores my logical side. The insane side is still there, just as before, writhing and wailing, but now I have the logical side too. It anchors me. Tethers me back to reality. I calm down enough to check on the kids, assuring Rhu I will be fine.
But I know I will not be fine. Not for a long time.
Mommy doesn’t get sick. Mommy can’t get sick.
What I really mean is, I will survive.
But I don’t tell her that.
It’s been over half a year since that day on the side of the road. Since then, I’ve had one more episode, but after three months of medical leave without getting better, and almost being hospitalized twice, I quit my job. We moved in with my parents, and I have slowly begun to heal.
Did I ever imagine I’d be 35 and living with my parents? No. But Rhu can now be a big sister again instead of a second mother. The boys are dreaming of joining Little League in January. Ivy wears bows in her hair and revels in her pirate-y princess ways. Campbell can focus on fatherhood and being my best friend again instead of constantly fearing I will leap over that ledge, and I have healed enough to comfort him again on the bad chemo days. We were also able to save up enough money through my parents’ generosity to enable us to finally get me a psychiatric service dog, Pax (Latin for peace)—something we’ve wanted for me for two years now. Hopefully, Pax will enable me to go back to work soon.
But we’ve learned to make plans only rather than demands of the future. It remains a question mark, which surprisingly, only makes every day that much sweeter. We love like we only have today, but live like we have forever. We are promised eternal life, but not promised tomorrow.
Whispered words from the Bible.
I live by grace now, and the generosity of others.
Mommy got sick, and that is okay.
I’ve been on the brink, looked out into the dark depths, slipped at the edge, and been pulled back. I’ve been a bruised reed, a wavering flame, a smoldering wick.1 I’ve been “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” 2
Like Campbell, I am a death survivor, and I’ve learned that every day is a gift from God.
Isa. 42:3 NIV 1 Cor. 4:8-9 ESV 2
Mandy Campbell lives in San Antonio, Texas with her husband, Campbell, four beautiful children, and her dog, Pax. She has pursued careers as a classical composer, arranger, performer, songwriter, and private music instructor, and for many years she also played in an alternative rock band. Currently, she is performing as a professional classical violist and working on completing two novels. You can read more of her story at her blog, thatwemight.com, which is a confessional chronicling of her struggles with mental illness, Campbell’s cancer diagnosis, and her pursuit of God.