Volume 12 Number 1
In Sickness and in Health
01 February 1999

When her husband and her daughter became seriously ill, Harriet Cameron's world was turned upside down.

My life has been fulfilling, rewarding and happy. I assumed this was normal and would always be the case. Then nearly five years ago my husband was suddenly struck by a strange virus that affected his mind and ability to concentrate. Some two years later we discovered that our daughter was suffering from severe depression. My world was shattered.

My husband had to drop the activities he had so much enjoyed. He could no longer visit friends, entertain, attend or arrange conferences or meetings, or carry out his normal professional work. He began to wonder what point there was in going on living. One weekend we went away to the country. As we sat on the beach, he said, 'I would like to swim out to sea and never come back.' It was then that I realized how serious his illness was.

Health had been something we had taken for granted. Now we had to learn to live with limitations, as many people do--rejoicing in what we could do and not regretting what we could not; holding on to the belief that he would get better, even when no medical advice seemed to help. I greatly admire the way he coped.

I have had to learn how and when to keep silent, rather than spilling out everything that I am thinking and feeling--and that has not been easy. I needed to be supportive, but not demanding or dominating.

One friend who had faced a similar illness wrote to my husband: 'My only advice to you is patience, patience, patience.' This proved valid: it took four years for my husband to begin to feel well and enjoy life again, in spite of continuing limitations.

Two years after my husband became ill, we heard that our daughter had tried to take her own life while on holiday abroad. We only discovered later that she had been suffering from depression, and had hidden it from us because of her father's illness.

My husband drove me through the night to Birmingham to catch the first possible plane. It had proved difficult to communicate with the hospital, because of language, and they refused to put us through to our daughter on the telephone. I will never forget that flight, not knowing whether she was going to be alive when I arrived and in turmoil as to why she wanted to end a life which was filled with so much promise--a young woman who was tall, slim, good-looking and extremely capable, with a wonderful gift of care for others.

When I arrived she greeted me with, 'I didn't succeed, Mummy.' I could only say, 'Thank God you didn't.'

We set off for London, to be met by a group of her friends who gave her a wonderful welcome and drove her straight to a hospital for tests. Within a few hours we received a confident phone call saying, 'I must be as strong as a horse. I have had every test in the book and they can find nothing wrong with me.'

Now began the long haul to recovery, which took immense courage on our daughter's part. My mother, in her nineties, needed looking after--and our daughter, who is a nurse, offered to take care of her. She felt she needed a reason to get up in the morning and some purpose for her life. At one point she had to spend the nights in hospital under medical supervision, while continuing to look after her grandmother during the day. Recently she thanked her grandmother for helping her to get over her depression. The reply was, 'What depression, darling?'

Life was a struggle, and it took two and a half years before she won through. Then, at the point when she was beginning to feel well enough to consider taking up her career again, an amazing thing happened. My sister, who had lived in the States for 35 years, announced that she was getting married for the first time--and that she and her fiancé had decided that they would make their home in Britain and look after our mother.

So our daughter was free to start work with a nursing agency. She was encouraged by the ward sister to apply for a permanent job, but was turned down on the basis of her medical record. This was a terrible blow, but she had the courage to apply to another hospital, although she was afraid the same thing would happen. She was interviewed by a sympathetic doctor who said, 'Of course we will give you a job here,' and congratulated her on how well she had handled her illness.

This was a turning point. Now she has a flat of her own near the hospital and her life is opening up again. She often has to nurse people who have tried to take their lives or are suffering from psychiatric illness and she feels that her illness has given her greater understanding of them. 'We are fully trained to look after the medical side,' she says. 'But people need help to believe in themselves again and find a purpose for living.'

Throughout our daughter's illness I was haunted by deep fears. I also had a sense of guilt, that somewhere along the line we must have failed her and could and should have been able to prevent such a tragedy from occurring. On rare occasions we have been able to talk together about these things. I am sure we made many mistakes, but our daughter has made it plain to us that depression is an illness and we need to accept it as such.

The whole experience of the last years has been one of learning to trust God. Things certainly did not always happen in the way we hoped for or expected. It is one thing to have faith in general. It is another to really trust God in particulars, as a practical daily decision.

There have been so many nights when I have cried myself to sleep, or lain awake in dark despair. I came to dread what the next phone call would reveal. I clamoured at the gates of heaven, but did not always find an answer. God does not seem to wave a magic wand so that all our problems go away when we pray in desperation. But he does give the strength to face the problems.

I learnt that I could find peace of heart, whatever the circumstances. A friend said to me once, 'It is natural to fear--but you can always choose between fear and faith. They cannot live together in the same heart.' Gradually faith did take over from fear--and that is an experience I rediscover time and time again.

There have been so many miracles during these years. Our daughter's decision to look after her grandmother freed us to move to a beautiful, peaceful place in the country. This in itself has brought healing. We have been surrounded by friends. And now we have the joy of seeing our daughter's growing recovery. We believe God saved her life, when logically she should have died. Step by step we have felt God's loving and supporting hand.

And perhaps, at the age of 70, we were meant to find a new pattern for our lives and not go on doing what we had always done. This is a fresh phase--a slowing down, but not a giving up. We have found that God does not only want the work of our hands and our activity, but wants our hearts, our love and obedience, in sickness and in health.

It seems as if some of us have to learn the hard way.

Harriet Cameron is a pseudonym
Harriet Cameron

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