Joy Stories: Broken Brain, Fortified Faith

Broken Brain Fortified Faith cover Hi Rez 1 9781942934745 copyBy Virginia Pillars

I consider myself a “Cradle Catholic.” My family and both sets of grandparents attended the same Catholic parish. My first outing after birth was to church where I received the sacrament of Baptism. I grew up in a large farm family with eight brothers and two surviving sisters. For many years, one of us occupied a desk at our parish grade school. Before I hit puberty, I’d received the sacraments of Confession, First Holy Communion and Confirmation. Saturday afternoon trips to the Confessional along with weekly Sunday Mass were part of our routine.

In 1975, I stood next to Roy, a Catholic “boy” from a neighboring farm community and we received the sacrament of Marriage. Together we raised four children as we built our farming operation to a comfortable level. I’m guessing to many around us, we may have seemed like the “ideal Catholic farm family.” And if I’m honest with myself, I felt that life had treated us well.

I felt blessed. Until in late 2004 when my life changed almost overnight.

Faith challenge

Our life deteriorated daily at an alarming rate. Chaos seemed to close in from all sides. We went from what I perceived as a “normal” life for our family into one that made little sense. And I had to find a new path for my faith journey that challenged, educated and humbled me more than I ever dreamt was possible.

On December 9, 2004, at my suggestion, our daughter Amber came home for the weekend. At age twenty-four, she had a college degree and a full-time job as a youth minister in a town about 60 miles away. But, during the prior months, I had witnessed a change in her. She seemed to have lost her zest for life. She assured me that she had it under control. That day, her employer who was disturbed by Amber’s behavior, called me. I called Amber, and after hearing her sobs over the phone, I shared her employer’s concerns. I raced to her apartment at ninety miles an hour and brought her home for what I thought was a long weekend.

Broken brain

Those three days morphed into weeks. During that time, her brain broke, and we no longer shared the same reality. Memories, fears and imagined sights and sounds melded into a frightening world for her. Nothing we said could convince her that these things were not happening. She seemed trapped in her mind– a place that included a conspiracy to kill her.

Even with my large family and circle of close friends, I had never felt more alone in my life. I didn’t know where to turn for help. The Christmas holiday season that year was anything but joyful. During a family party, Amber lashed out at her sister-in-law, completely unprovoked. We knew she needed help, but didn’t know what to do. We’d tried hospitalization, but she checked herself out again. We tried medication, but she eventually refused to take most of it. Roy and I realized that this situation was beyond our understanding, but we were at a loss on what to try next.


Desperation, fear, anxiety and confusion all morphed into the feeling that God had abandoned me. My faith hit the wall of uncertainty. The faith that I had carried all my life seemed far away. Sure, I still punched the proverbial time clock as I physically made my appearance at Sunday Mass. I recited the prayers and received the Eucharist, but in reality, I clocked in and clocked out. Nothing more. Nothing to take home with me. Nothing that felt sustained me for what I faced within the walls of my home. I fulfilled my Sunday obligation, period. I felt alone, scared and angry with God. Prayers and readings had no meaning for me.

I stopped — until I learned of a group of wonderful people who pulled me into their circle of friendship of caring and guidance. I found NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an organization of individuals banded together to improve lives of those living with mental illness. They supported me, a stranger, and helped me begin my journey to a new “normal.”

At their encouragement, I shared our situation with our families and my closest friends. Additional support arrived in the form of notes, letters and faxes with the promise of prayers for us, and stories of their experiences. It strengthened me.

Goliath of  fear

I realized I needed to address both mind and spirit to face this Goliath of fear. I inhaled several books that taught me about the brain and what happens to it during mental illness. I tucked the lessons of how to manage and cope into my arsenal of defense.

I returned to daily devotional reading, prayer and listened to songs of faith. Sometimes I kept the house silent as I worked while I talked out my frustrations and worries to God. Through this, I realized that God hadn’t chosen Amber and said, “I give you schizophrenia.” I went from “Why are you doing this?” to “What should I do?” During prayer, ideas came to me on how to cope, how to improve our situation, and what to do next.

Still, we watched in agony as schizophrenia unleashed the majority of nasty symptoms it had to offer. Medicine didn’t work, and her symptoms worsened at an alarming rate. I asked my family and friends to join me in three specific prayer requests: That the doctors would find the right cocktail of medication to help Amber; that she would understand her illness; and for wisdom and understanding for me.

Amber’s breakthrough

The doctors tried different medications and increased dosages. This led to a horrific dystonic reaction for Amber. She lost control of her muscles as they stiffened and convulsed. Through those terrifying moments, Amber had a breakthrough. The medication that lessened the reaction became the catalyst for her to understand her illness. She realized her need for medicine and her healing began. The process was slow, filled with disappointment and frustration, but also a feeling of assurance that God had not abandoned me.

Upon her release from hospital care to our home, ideas to retrain her brain came to me during morning devotion time. Brain games became part of our daily routine, along with creating an environment for her to heal. I managed her medications and treated her as though she’d come home after cancer treatments. I let her decide when to sleep, how much to eat and how to spend her time. We watched her health improve with tiny steps forward, back, and then forward again.

In 2004, I brought my daughter home for a weekend that lasted four years. During those years, healing occurred. Both for Amber and for me. I look at my daughter Amber and see a miracle. I look back over the past twelve years and see the hand of God at work – the gift of healing. During those years, Amber worked to regain her health. Today, she understands her illness – that there is no cure, but with medication and the proper lifestyle, she can manage it. She works full time, lives in her own apartment, manages all her finances and affairs, and leads an active social life. Best of all, she remains devoted to God.

Through God’s hands

I came to understand that the many avenues of support I received from those around me were an extension of God’s love and care. Family and friends acted as God’s hands. Each letter, card, and love in action bolstered my spirit. Through them, God answered my pleas for help.

Today, I no longer just punch a clock each time I attend Mass. It’s a time of worship. The prayers, the words in songs help to renew, fortify and strengthen me as I go. I relish my morning devotional reading and prayer time.

God answered our prayers

Now, I share our story and hope – that recovery is possible. I also volunteer for the NAMI organization to support other families that deal with mental illness where I teach a class for families and lead support groups. I want to allow God’s love and mercy to flow to them as it flowed to me. If I can be that vessel for others, it gives my experiences meaning and glorifies God.

(© 2017 Virginia Pillars)

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. 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 bookstores.

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About Nancy Ward

Nancy HC Ward is a journalist, author, and speaker who blogs about Catholicism, her conversion, and Christian community at,
 7 websites and 7 magazines. She loves to share her faith story and help others share theirs through her Sharing Your Faith Stories seminars, also available on DVD. She contributed four chapters to The Catholic Mom’s Prayer Companion. She facilitates the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers and a critique group for the Catholic Writers Guild, where she serves as a board member.
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2 Responses to Joy Stories: Broken Brain, Fortified Faith

  1. Sheila says:

    Virginia Pillars’ Broken Brain Fortified Faith addresses important issues regarding mental illness.
    It’s a devastating illness that most of us know little about until it attacks us or our families. Virginia demonstrates too, how a strong faith can help weather the storm.

    • Nancy Ward says:

      Thank you, Sheila, for your support of Virginia’s book. Indeed her story is a revelation of how devastating mental illness can be. I hope you enjoy reading Broken Brain. She is a good friend and a courageous mother.

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