Finding Courage: Mothering a Teenager with Mental Illness

Dear Readers,

Do I have special Mother’s Day Weekend gift for all of you! Mothering children, whether in our own family or beloved children in our circle, is not for the faint of heart. And for some of us, mothering takes us into the dark valleys with our children.

My friend Kirsten has been through the valley with her youngest son and emerged out the other side. Today she shares some of her wisdom for us, for all of us, when mothering gets hard.

If you want to read more of her wisdom and encouragement, you can check out her new book Among the Lions and the rest of this post …


Among the Lions by Kirsten Panachyda

No one told me that what I would need most as a mom was courage.

I would have said patience.

Or wisdom.

Or love, which I thought of as warm, fuzzy snuggles and storytimes.

When my son descended into the deep depression that marked the beginning of his journey with bipolar disorder, I found out that courage became intertwined with all the other qualities I needed to be his mom. The first time I brought him to a psychiatric emergency department, I thought that was it — I had used up all my courage. But over the next three years, as we moved from crisis to crisis, God supplied me with more courage than I ever imagined I could have. And when my son finally began to emerge from the dark toward stability, I knew in the core of me that God could see me through anything.

During dark days do you, like me, sometimes feel a deep chill of anxiety? Or maybe you have experienced a cold numbness that paralyzes you, keeping you from action. Have you tried to create a comfort zone for yourself to ward off a freezing fear? It’s like piling blankets on yourself when you are shivering and your feet are blocks of ice. They just insulate in the cold. Blankets only really help when there is heat to hold in.

So where do we get the heat?

How do we make the firepit of our souls do what it is supposed to do, so that we feel the warmth of God’s peace?

Just before Jesus prays for the disciples on His last night with them, He concludes His final teaching with these words,

“These things I have spoken to you that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

“Take Courage!” Jesus tells us. In other translations, the verse says, “Take Heart!”, “Be Brave!” or, “Be of Good Cheer!” Our oldest English translation, the Wyclif Bible from the 14th century, says “Trust ye!”

So what is this Greek word John uses to convey the ideas of courage, cheer, bravery, heart, trust? Tharseo.

This word is related to Thero or therme, which means heat, and Theros, which is harvest-time, summer. Tharseo means to be bolstered from being warmed up, a radiant warm confidence, or as the Greeks might have visualized it, a heart heated to readiness.

Have you ever had to gather wood for a fire? I grew up with a wood stove to supplement the heat in our house, and my parents’ cabin in Vermont is solely heated with a wood stove. We never bought wood. The acreage in Vermont supplies it. It is abundant and available. But that doesn’t mean it is effortless to get. As a kid, my job was to gather kindling and bring split logs to the woodshed for my dad to stack. Eventually, I was allowed the task of stacking, which needs to be done properly if the logs are to dry out without rotting, and not tumble down if we gathered a load for the stove. I am still pretty hopeless at splitting the logs.

My dad, who turns 80 this year, can still swing an ax over his shoulder and with one blow split a log cleanly. The last time I was in Vermont I gave log-splitting a try and was so proud to finally get a log to split after 11 blows that I took a picture of it. And my shoulders and arms felt it the next day.

My dad explains that a few things are necessary.

The ax needs to be sharp.

Aim matters, because logs split most easily along their natural grain lines.

And, as a corollary, practice is the key.

I don’t have decades of practice, so I can’t aim. My swing isn’t true. When I try to control where the axhead lands, I have to choke up and use all my muscles, instead of gravity doing the work.

Putting the promises of God into practice also takes practice.

Seeing the fuel in the woods is not enough. It’s not even enough to cut the logs, split them, stack them. That fuel needs to make it to the firepit. Tharseo is a way to be, a manner of living, a faith story. 

  • Did I need to face the endless medication tinkering with courage, believing that God can give wisdom to the doctors? Then I needed the promise God knit my child together in the womb and that every one of his days is written in God’s book. (Psalm 139:13-16)
  • Did I need to face each day’s fresh struggle and heartache with courage, so I could rest in the fact that the Giver of all good things is in it with us? Then I needed the promise that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28)
  • Was it possible there would be a tragic aftermath of this brutal experience? Then I needed the promise that God can make beauty out of ashes. (Isaiah 61:3)
  • Most of all, did I need to know God would protect my soul through it all? Then I needed the promise that, in the end, good will triumph, there will be no more tears or disease or death, and that the God of love will redeem and restore and reign. (Revelation 21:3-5) I needed the promise that I could receive anything, any eventuality, any outcome, no matter how painful, with courage, because nothing can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

These beautiful words became practical in my parenting when they unthawed my frozen hands and feet to do the work of love I had before me. I knew all these promises, but I needed to carry them into my heart where they could warm it into the readiness of courage.

Kirsten Panachyda writes and speaks to infuse courage into the soul-weary. Her book Among Lions: Fighting for Faith and Finding Your Rest while Parenting a Child with Mental Illness is available now. Kirsten blogs at She and her husband Dan have two sons, and they are a roller-coaster-riding, travel-loving, blue-hair-dying family.

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