On Barb’s Bookshelf: Broken Brain, Fortified Faith

Virginia Pillars’ memoir of a mother navigating the world of parenting a young adult with a brand-new diagnosis schizophrenia is at once heart-wrenching, informative and inspiring. In Broken Brain, Fortified Faith, Pillars honestly describes her day-by-day experience with her daughter’s illness and recovery, with a view toward helping other families whose lives are touched by a frustrating disease.

While this book chronicles several very difficult years for Virginia Pillars’ entire family, the author never loses hope. The book’s subtitle, “Lessons of Hope through a Child’s Mental Illness,” proclaims loud and clear that while this story contains plenty of tears, the trials this family endured did not break them. God did not abandon them. Yes, there were times when the author questioned her ability to trust God, but again and again she was reminded to rely on her faith. Some of my favorite parts of this book were Pillars’ reflections on the devotionals she was reading during the time the events of this book took place.

The author of the day’s devotional . . . reminded me of life’s ups and downs, joys and sorrows. But most importantly, I held on to the idea: God will not abandon me in any circumstance.
The idea brought comfort to me as I thought about how recently it felt like I had trudged through one crisis after another; I felt like the proverbial boat, drifting away from my shore of faith.
I closed my book and pondered what I had just read. Is this what you want me to know, God? Keep my eyes on You? The thought “When things get hard, depend on Me; draw close to Me” remained in my soul as I went about my day. (206-7)

The author’s conversational style make a book with challenging subject matter easy to read. Pillars takes a day-by-day approach through the difficult months of diagnosis and a search for appropriate treatment, bringing the reader along for the ride to hospitals, waiting rooms, and therapists’ offices. Her first impulse, when hearing of any kind of setback, is to place her daughter in God’s hands, asking Him to be with her in that time of crisis.

And yes, setbacks happened. Schizophrenia is not an easy illness to treat, so there were definitely “one step forward, two steps back” moments–and difficult times for other family members as well. Pillars’ other children and grandchildren went through some of their own health crises during this time (I’ll tell you right now, you’re going to want tissues handy once you reach chapter 24).

It’s not a spoiler to mention that Virginia Pillars is very dedicated to mental-health advocacy now. She reaches out to others through her website, support groups, and her book. At the end of the book you’ll find a list of books, websites and other resources to help families affected by mental illness.

broken brain fortified faith

About the author: Virginia Pillars lives on a farm, along with her husband of forty-two years, where she also operates an embroidery business. Virginia is the mother of four, one of whom suffered from a mental illness, and a grandmother of four with a passion for reaching out to families who are also affected. She volunteers both as an educator and support group leader for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and speaks to organizations on the effects of mental illness on families. Virginia became certified in First Aid for Mental Health in 2014. She has also been a frequent speaker on her faith journey to both youth and adults for over twenty-five years. Virginia is a member of the Catholic Writers Guild. She details her journey through mental illness with her child in her memoir, Broken Brain, Fortified Faith: Lessons of Hope Through a Child’s Mental Illness. Published in September, 2016, it is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and all independent book stores. Find Virginia’s blog at VirginiaPillars.com; follower her on Twitter @VirginiaPillars.

Barb's Book shelf blog title
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Copyright 2017 Barb Szyszkiewicz, OFS

Mending the Mug

Middle Sister is burning the candle at so many ends right now; I’m just hoping she makes it through the week.  This semester she has a demanding course load:  Honors English, US History, Geometry and Studio Art.  Winter track just started for the season (she’s hurdling this year).  And tonight is the opening of her school’s fall play:  “The Odd Couple.”  She’s the Prop Mistress.

That’s a big job in a play with a small ensemble but a huge props list.  Last week she exported two cases of soda and an entire Rubbermaid bin out of my basement.  I have no idea what she took from the house, other than a few crystal wineglasses that originally belonged to my mother-in-law.  The other day she texted me at lunchtime and asked me to drop off more soda and a tablecloth, and yesterday she took one of my crockpots to school.  (It should be interesting to see how much of my stuff comes back.)

She’s been putting in 13-hour days all week, and for the past two days I’ve been dropping off “meals on wheels” at dinnertime.  She could walk to Wendy’s, but I really don’t mind bringing a healthier dinner over to her, and frankly, I’m a little flattered that she asked me to do this.  Yup, it was her idea.  How do you say no to a kid who is clearly missing homemade dinner?

Last night when she came home after her long day, she had a cup of something in her hand.  I was in the middle of folk-group practice (we rehearse in my living room so the kids can play), so I didn’t pay much attention until she rummaged around in a drawer and retrieved a hot-glue gun, then dumped out a pile of ceramic shards from a coffee mug on my dining room table.  The mug was a prop.  It had been broken, and she was going to fix it.  It’s not like they needed this mug, but she needed to fix it.

She spent an hour she could ill afford, trying to glue that mug back together.  People were asking her why she bothered, because it wasn’t a necessary item–there are always so many coffee mugs around.  And she really couldn’t answer.

I completely got it, though.  She was mending the mug because she needed a mental break from all the other stuff she’s juggling right now.  Yes, it required concentration, but it was a completely different kind of task from vocab homework, history assignments, hurdling and prophunting.

When I was in grad school, I started doing the same thing.  Full-time graduate students tend to be very single-minded.  They focus on their studies 24/7.  I can’t do that without losing my mind completely, which is why I took my master’s degree and left, abandoning all hope of becoming a college professor.  I don’t love anything enough to study it 24/7.  I took forced breaks from literature by joining the RCIA program as a sponsor for a fellow student, and by joining the folk group that played at 3 Masses a week.  People wanted to know why I’d spend time doing that instead of in the library; it was precisely because it wasn’t the library.

Now I deal with stress by baking.  Whatever works, right?

She wasn’t able to repair the mug; there were too many missing pieces.  But I think that hour she spent puzzling it back together, glue gun in hand, was not a wasted hour.  And I’m glad to know that she–however unconsciously–recognizes and gives in to the need for balance in her life.