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A Family Exiled

A Place We Called Home, A People We Called Family

By Hallie CarlPublished 8 months ago Updated 8 months ago 15 min read
Runner-Up in Chapters Challenge
6

I gazed out over the Baltic Sea, its waters calm and peaceful. It was good to be back in Latvia. I became enchanted with its stoic beauty, strong people, and curious youth in 2019 when I was able be on a short term mission trip with a team from our church.

My family all had been on the 2019 team (and my oldest son had been on the 2018 team as well). Unfortunately, due to COVID, our church had to skip two years of assisting with Latvian summer camps for youth. We were able to return to Latvia in 2022.

So, nearly a year ago in July, the four members of the Carl family got on a plane with the rest of our church team, whom we had known many years, and headed to Latvia once again.

A Place We Called Home, A People We Called Family

What the Carl Four did not know was that we would experience a deeply traumatic moment on this trip that would change our lives forever. Toward the end of our time in Latvia, everything became unhinged.

If you know someone who has the diagnosis of epilepsy, you know that despite treatment and meds, episodes are difficult to predict or control. They happen suddenly and when they do, it is a hard situation. For the people who are around to see the seizure, but mostly for the person who had the seizure themselves. It is no ones fault. If the person could choose to stop having epilepsy, they most certainly would.

Bipolar Disorder is very similar to epilepsy (in fact, many of the same medications treat both). With bipolar, a manic episode can happen despite medication and close contact with psychologists and psychiatrists. When the manic episode comes, it is difficult for the people who are around to see it, but worse for the person who has experienced it. It is no ones fault. If the person could choose to stop having bipolar disorder, they most certainly would.

My oldest son has bipolar disorder. So when he had a manic bipolar episode in this foreign country on a church mission trip, as you can imagine, this was a very scary time. Mostly for him, but also for his family (and also for our church team and the students at the camp). What the Carl’s needed were the people we called family, who fully knew about my son's mental health struggles, to come alongside us. To be an empathetic embrace. To sit with us in our pain. To step up into places that might have made them uncomfortable, transparent in their own struggles, joining together to bring strength in a time we desperately needed it across the board.

But, most importantly, in my opinion, I needed those people who had known my son since he was born to remind him that his life had indescribable worth. To them and to the world. Instead, he was met with strangeness, distance, silence, and rejection. The absolute last thing a suicidial person needs is rejection. And rejection, perceived or real, might be enough to push someone over the edge to believe the lie that they should die.

Had he not felt this rejection and silence, he would not have remained suicidal. Part of what helps him regulate is to be assured of the love from those closest to him.

I know and understand that being a bystander to this moment in our lives was a difficult one. I also know that for some people, seeing a mental health crisis may have been triggering for them.

I later learned that our church team and church leadership believed that as a pastor on staff at our church, I should have been caring for the others on the team, rather than my kid. Apparently, the fact that this was one of the darkest moment of my own life and that I had a son who remained suicidial, should not have precluded me from serving others and leading well.

I believe we are called to care for those in deepest need. In this particular instance, the greatest need was my son. My goal each moment was to ensure his safety and bring stability.

Candidly, I assumed this would be the goal for the team too. That they would do what it took to ensure that my son not only knew they loved him, but that they would display the stubborn, relentless, powerful love of Jesus.

One son, still struggling with suicidial thoughts, was dealing with the emotions of why his church family wasn't reaching out to him after a mental health crisis. Also, he was processing the news that he wouldn't be allowed to return to camp. Not to say goodbye to students he had known for four years, not to comfort them if they were scared, not to explain that what happened was part of the disorder he had and had shared about in his testimony.

Having a moment like that, I believe, would have been immensely healing for the students, leaders and for my son. Instead, he was treated like something they needed to hide away, get rid of, and cut off.

Also, he got the news that he would not be allowed to go to the camp's concert, the very thing they had been working on all week. This concert was public. But he would not be allowed to attend, even in the balcony.

Again, having a moment like that, I believe would have been healing for the students, leaders and for my son.

Once the entire team was reunited in Riga, we were scheduled to have a short debrief time where my son had been given permission to share his heart with the team by our Lead Pastor back home at church. For him, this moment was really necessary.

I believe that when someone has a mental health crisis, they feel such a loss of their voice. On top of that, they feel judgement and shame for something they have no control over. Their disorder takes over. And then when events spin out afterwards, it makes them feel even more broken. He needed his voice heard. He needed the team to know how much they had hurt him by not reaching out.

This meeting was a disaster. Going into it, in an epic display of naiveté, I believed it would end in a group hug, with tears and love.

Rather, people were silent as he spoke, averting gazes, with the exception of one teammate who rolled their eyes and scoffed at my suicidal son. At least one person (but I believe three) recorded this meeting without our knowledge or permission.

When he was unable to speak anymore and asked his father to continue for him, Lee was cut off repeatedly by the facilitator of the meeting. In desperation for my husband to be listened to and respected, I spoke words that would later be held against me: "Please listen to him. Lee is a mission's elder." (An elder was a church leader).

I knew the second the phrase was out of my mouth that it wasn't the right thing to say. But I was desperate to be heard and understood. I was soon to find out that being heard and understood was not going to happen. At all. Ever.

I was later told by leadership that when I said these words "Lee is a mission's elder," it was, "The worst mistake that you ever could have made."

Lee has wisdom and I desperately hoped his voice would bring reason and empathy and understanding for the group. That it could lead us to health. Rather, he was cut off, and the time ended in disaster.

My son said, "I just needed to know you all loved me."

Silence hung in the room. The air felt heavy, weighted down with judgement and anger, rather than empathy and grace.

I sat there, incredulous. How do you not tell someone who is suicidal, "I love you," and run over with a hug? My body shook. My heart racing. My eyes twitched. My friend, Shelby, next to me put her hand on my leg to steady me.

Finally, one teammate told my son, "You know I love you," which was a start but not nearly what he needed. It seemed obligatory rather than heart felt. And the truth was, he actually didn't know that any of them loved him. Love was not shown. Love was not felt. Love was not spoken.

Echoing silence met us again, except for the scoffer, and averted gazes, except for the eye roller.

In that moment, that day, time slowed for me. I knew that something in side of me had been shattered and no one was ever going to be able to put me back together again.

My younger son, who wanted to be a pastor and was working at the church in the Minister in Training Program, was let go. He was told that the program was being suspended for the time being and they would revisit it in the future. His computer was cleared off his desk before he had a chance to save all the photos and notes from his mission trip to North Africa earlier that year. No public goodbyes from the staff for him. No public thanking him for his work.

This isn't loving your neighbor as yourself. This isn't Jesus.

My older son was also not allowed to go on the Young Adults Retreat shortly after Latvia. Why? He has bipolar disorder. This was deeply painful and unfair. Not to mention illegal to not let someone do something because of a medical issue. No one would tell someone with epilepsy or cancer or any other disease they couldn't go on a public church trip.

He left the meeting and came to my office door. He was brokenhearted and hurt. I hugged him and we left.

This isn't loving your neighbor as yourself. This isn't Jesus.

I was forced to take a mandatory sabbatical.* They said it was mandatory but not punitive.

When I clarified if it was punitive, (because it certainly felt like it was) I was met with two responses. The first leader said, "No, Hallie, it's not. We want to care for you." The second leader said, "Well, actually Hallie, you have done so much wrong." My mind spinning.

This isn't loving your neighbor as yourself. This isn't Jesus.

Imagine experiencing the hardest thing you have ever experienced and then you have to talk about it, be questioned about it, over and over and over again.

I wasn't familiar with the term gaslighting until this happened to me.

I had never felt so misunderstood in my life. I have never had my words used against me or twisted like this before. I had never had someone always assuming the worst about me. I had never had to work at trying to have people understand my perspective like I did in the inertia of this season. So many meetings (upwards of ten a month over six months) where I sat: trauma building, my body shaking, my eyes constantly crying, desperate to be heard and understood, but experiencing the opposite.

And this doesn't account the endless hours that the four Carl's sat together, processing, seeking to understand. How did it come to this? What do we do?

Some of the highlights of things that were said to us:

Church Leadership: "Hallie, do you think you can be a pastor and your son's mom?"

Church Leadership: "Hallie, we can't trust you not to do this again."

Church Leadership: "Hallie, you've made the worst mistake you could ever make."

Church Leadership: "Have you even prayed about this?"

Church Leadership: "Hallie, you have destroyed the church's relationship with Latvia."

Church Leadership: "Hallie, it's time for us to look for a new Women's Pastor. We can't hold your position open forever while you're on sabbatical."

One person from the team:

"I don't understand why you couldn't care for me."

Me, "My son was suicidial."

Them, "I know, but I still needed you to care for me."

Me, "I was busy trying to keep my suicidial son alive."

Them, "I know, but you're my pastor. You should have been able to care for me."

Me, "I really don't know how much more clear I can be. My son was suicidial. My priority was there."

But the most hurtful for me was one person from the team who said to my husband and me, "If I could go back, I wouldn't change anything." In this statement, I was assured that there was a wall up from anyone seeing how we felt. How anyone on this trip could feel like there was nothing they would change was impossible to me. How could you not wish you just told my hurting son that you loved him? Asked him if he was ok? They were losing us, and it didn't even seem to matter.

While we were committed to work this out, after a grueling six months of having to defend ourselves we were at a precipice. Do you continue to have the same accusations hurled against you? Do you continue to submit yourself to trauma? Do you continue to wait for each email or meeting or phone call or text to drop another bombshell on us, shattering us more and more each time.

It became clear this was no longer a safe place for us. We were not only misunderstood, but were actively being harmed. We had tried to do the work of reconciliation, but at a point it seemed impossible due to people's inability to actually want to hear us.

There seemed, at the end of the day, to be a vastly different understanding of the greatest commandment. In Matthew 22: 37-39 says, "Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself."

When you seek to live your life loving God and loving others, it doesn't matter what a person's story is. They are worthy of love. You also have an understanding that God is the only loving judge.

The mentally ill man, the convicted felon, the woman whose child is in child protective services, the person who has different political beliefs, someone who looks different, sounds different or sees things differently. All are worthy of not just love, but lavish love. Stedfast love. And kindness. So much kindness.

Strangely, the church seems to be more comfortable blaming mental illness on behavioral issues and demonization and ignoring medical experts. My son has had several different types of scans and tests done on his brain and they show the areas that the bipolar disorder effects. This is a clinical, medical diagnosis. It is not a behavioral issue. And to suggest it is is deeply insulting and wrong.

You wouldn't tell someone with cancer, "Your behavior caused this to happen. This is your fault."

You wouldn't tell someone with hemophilia, "Your behavior caused this to happen. This is your fault."

So why do we say to someone in the church who has mental illness, "You behavior caused this to happen. Ignoring medical evidence completely. How impossibly horrible.

This isn't loving your neighbor as yourself. This isn't Jesus.

I went on the mandatory sabbatical days after our women's retreat in August. The retreat will always be held in my heart as a very special time. I saw God do some amazing things. They remind me that He used me and that I had a calling there.

I was one of the speakers for the retreat. As I stood and looked out of these precious women who I loved deeply, I knew that I would soon be stepping down from my job for awhile. I didn't know I was stepping down permanently.

Here's the thing: I loved my job. So much. I loved teaching women, counseling women, getting to know women. I loved walking with them, sharing the love of Christ with them. I loved it so much.

The last day I worked before I started my sabbatical, my assistant and I did copious amounts of planning for the season ahead. We cried. We talked. I packed up a few things from my office that I thought I might need while I was at home. Then, I walked out to my car. I had one last thing to do.

There was a graceful, spunky woman who was in her 90's. I had originally met her when she took a class I was teaching on the book of James. She know's God's word forward and backward.

However, she had fallen and broken her hip. I stopped at a Walgreens and picked up a Squishmallow (in my opinion, there is no better thing to bring to someone hurting than a Squishmallow), and drove to the hospital. When I walked in, she lit up. We visited. We laughed. I prayed for her. And when she was getting tired, I hugged her and said goodbye.

I am really grateful that last thing I did as a Pastor was to visit this beautiful lady. I drove home that day in tears.

I went for a walk the day that Lee and I were going to meet with the leadership for the last time. We were ready to let them know that I was resigning. The Carl Family, who had been actively serving for 27 years: worship team, youth ministry, children's ministry, worship team at camps, Mexico Missions, Kenyan Missions, Latvian Missions, North African Missions, teaching, VBS, a Pastor on staff and an Elder, were leaving the church.

A place we once called home, a people we once called family, no longer.

I was listening to music that morning as I walked my dog. One song's lyrics stopped me in the middle of a grassy field. As the clouds drifted by, I wept as I listened to the words, spoken by Jesus over me:

"I'm standing at your door, my heart is calling yours. Come fall into My arms, you're weary from it all. Been running for too long, I'm here to bring you home. Look up and lift your eyes, the future's open wide. I have great plans for you, your past is dead and gone. Your healing has begun, I'm making all things new"

It was time.

He was making something new.

Essay
6

About the Creator

Hallie Carl

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  • Darkos6 months ago

    and Congratulations !! for runner up in Chapter challenge thanks to which I discovered You :)!

  • Darkos6 months ago

    Beautiful how You wrote it all this isn't loving your neighbour as yourself this isn't Jesus people can be more than cruel in this world and it is so touching and so full of real painful experiences as of people who cant open their heart and mind for another I wish You lots of Love and light and strength I also just left a group of people that I used to call my family the real pain they were entirely bringing was unbearable and none of them wanted to listen or understand also recently wanted to give up on my service for another as I realize they dont care for me and nothing that is happening in my life with another only bringing more pain and want me to serve without rest You did a great decision I know it wasnt easy and it took time to accept but with God We always have new ways new choices new paths to do I hope You are already there and can focus on taking care of Your son without all these bad people around ! I had a collegue when I was young in the class and a girl they both had epilepsy and yes it wasnt easy but We always tried to support them and help especially while going for trips I experienced lots of rejection from people when I was in need of love and support unfortunatelly we are alone with it all and with God prayers and practices and healing sessions I was still able to go on even though so many cruelty from most of the people around I think the most important is to belive that You are loved and Your son is feeling already better and healthier and pray for the way I heal naturally right now from all this violence and with qigong it helps a lot i need to admit ! And You are never alone and the Life of Your son is so important as We are all stars and have connection to them and the Moon we are all One synchronized so we are never alone even though bad people outside !

  • Judy Hosch7 months ago

    This is wonderfully written. After having such a traumatizing experience, your strong spirit & love for Jesus is apparent. Yes, your healing has begun - It is time - He is making something new.

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