Thirteen years ago, my oldest son, Matthew, fell in love with a wonderful girl and asked her to be his wife.

She was a classic beauty, tall and slender with long dark hair and amber eyes. We immediately bonded with this vibrant, lovely girl and welcomed her into our family.

She said voices were telling her to kill me...

It was a beautiful, traditional wedding and we had the joy of seeing our son, a handsome groom, stand with his bride under the chupah, the marriage canopy

It was a fairy tale wedding.

It has been a nightmare marriage.

Four months after the wedding my telephone rang at 3:00 a.m. Any mother will tell you that when your phone rings at that time in the morning, your heart skips a beat and you scramble to answer, praying all the while that the call is not bad news.

It was Matt; he was at the emergency room with his bride. "What's wrong?" I asked. "I don't know Mom, she has been acting very strangely lately and then tonight she just flipped out. She said voices were telling her to kill me, she hit me in the face with an aluminum bat."

There was dead silence on my end of the phone. I had not seen them since the week of their wedding. "Matt are you alright?" Matt had a nasty knot on his cheek but no serious damage was done to his head. It was his heart that was broken.

During those first few months of marriage, my son had been hiding a tragic secret. He watched helplessly as his beautiful wife gradually drifted into madness.

Mental illness is highly misunderstood and difficult to admit. While it is as debilitating as any serious physical illness, embarrassment and denial make it a closet epidemic. While no one has a problem admitting that he has a broken leg, admitting that part of one’s brain or emotional abilities is broken is much harder. The uncomfortable silence that surrounds diseases of the mind leave those who suffer (and those who suffer with them) with few resources. Matt could not have known what was wrong with Denise nor where to go for help.

Without professional involvement, how does the average person determine if someone they know is clinically depressed or is merely depressed because of a bad day? Persons who suffer from mental illness are sometimes the last to notice that something is seriously wrong. The deeper the sufferer sinks into depression, the less able he or she is to rationally judge his or her own behavior. The warning signs are ignored.

When Denise finally did receive professional treatment, she was diagnosed as a manic depressive, schizophrenic personality. She spent several months confined to a ward for patients who were a danger to themselves or to others. She was given anti-psychotics, antidepressants and psychiatric intervention. Sadly, none of the traditional approaches seemed to help. All that was left of Matt's beautiful bride was a medicated shell of a human being whose brain had short circuited and whose soul had somehow disconnected. Her face was gaunt, her eyes were hallow. Her hands trembled uncontrollably. She could not seem to make eye contact and what few words she spoke were slurred and unintelligible.

Embarrassment and denial make it a closet epidemic Schizophrenia is one of the most severe and dangerous brain disorders. It seems to strike in early adulthood and it is likely that Denise was stricken with this disease even before she and my son met. Untreated, the disease grows worse with time and can trigger hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, lack of normal emotions. It can be profoundly disabling and treatment is not always effective.

Over the years, we have watched Denise go through periods of "normalcy" when whatever cocktail of medication she was on at the time seemed to bring her back to us. But even during those times, she suffered brief bouts of anger that resulted in acts of violence.

Then, one night about three years after her diagnosis, Denise walked out of her home and disappeared. Because she was an adult and had left willingly, the police would not aggressively search for her. The fact that she was seriously mentally ill did not seem to matter. Unfortunately, the lack of proper education regarding mental illness affects all of society. We found that even the police felt that this was her problem or our problem. The sad reality is that a person suffering from mental illness is everyone’s problem. Not only is this person a danger to him or herself, but is often a danger to society at large.

Finding Denise was basically left up to the family. Matt tried to keep an attitude of hope, but I watched him disintegrate. Who can know the depth of his anguish. Was she safe? Was she even alive? The search continued for two long years. Matt traveled all over the country checking out promising sightings. Every time the body of an unidentified woman was discovered, he hurried to fax Denise's poster and description to the detectives who were working the case. Each time he had to do this, Matt's hope of finding Denise alive dimmed.

Then one morning the phone rang. A stranger was on the other end of the line. "Do you know a lady named Denise?" he asked. My heart was racing. "Yes! Is she there, is she with you!". The man had found her over a thousand miles away sleeping on a bench at a bus station.

"I have her driver's license and a piece of paper with your phone number on it."

"Look at the picture on the license, is it her?"

"Yes Ma'am, it is definitely her."

"Can I talk to her?"

For the first time in 2 years, I heard her voice. It was weak and her words were garbled. "Mom, I went to the store and couldn't find my way back." She had no idea that she had been gone over two years. The man who found her helped me buy a non-stop plane ticket for her and we met her at the airport. When she walked off the plane, she carried a filthy pillow case that contained everything she owned. Matt grabbed her and sobbed, she stood almost motionless. She had been living in the streets. She never told us how she survived. Those two years were nothing but a blur.

Denise walked out of her home and disappeared

Denise was hospitalized again. She has spent more than six of the past 13 years either missing or hospitalized. Her good years were scattered with bouts of violence. Still, Matt never once thought of divorce. When she was home, Matt was a dutiful husband. When she was missing, he searched for her. When she was hospitalized, he visited regularly and participated in every type of therapy offered. He never gave up on her.

During their marriage, one child was born. The baby was conceived during one of her mother's more lucid periods and for the first 18 months of my granddaughter's life, she had a wonderful, attentive mother. But sadly, this was not to last. Three weeks ago, at 3:00 a.m., Denise walked out into the night and into her world of delusion leaving her husband and baby behind. This time, Matt's reaction was completely different. While it was the most difficult decision he has ever made, he is determined not to put his baby at risk, even if that means that he can’t remain with her mother. He immediately went to court and obtained a custody order for the baby. Now, for the first time, he is contemplating divorce.

Though this is not the outcome we had all prayed for, all I can do is support him no matter what he ultimately decides. While we will continue to try and help Denise however we can, at the same time, we have a baby who must be protected. The Torah teaches that a parent has a profound responsibility to his child. Matt takes this very seriously.

Even if the marriage cannot be salvaged, we still hope and pray that we can help Denise and that she will be able to heal. According to Judaism, if there is something that affects us physically (either our bodies or our minds) there is a spiritual counterpart as well. The goal is tapping into not only the physical or mental source of her illness, but finding a spiritual way to work on it simultaneously.

One thing that has been most lacking is that Denise has not wanted, and certainly the hospitals have not pushed, for her to have any counseling or discussion with a rabbi or someone to offer her a Jewish perspective and support. Psychiatry seems to ignore the spiritual aspects of mental illness. And yet it was faith that has enabled our family to endure the past thirteen years. As strange as it may sound, her illness has strengthened my faith in G‑d. I went from a nice lady who only showed up at synagogue on High Holy days to a woman who connects with G‑d through prayer and worship daily. Denise's illness has changed our lives.

We have a baby who must be protected

While it has been far from easy, I have witnessed that faith and belief, knowing that we don’t run this world and knowing that there are reasons and a purpose behind what we see, has helped us through. And while we don’t understand why we have all had to suffer, we do know that at the same time G‑d has protected Denise in endless situations.

Though Denise has wandered the streets aimlessly for months at a time, she does not recall nor does she have any symptoms of having been physically harmed and she has always managed to survive.

In the meantime we pray that G‑d will continue to protect her and help her realize that she needs help and needs to help herself. We have entrusted her into His mighty hands, and we pray for the day when all suffering will cease. In the meantime, bewildered we approach Him and ask "why?" Why does such a beautiful girl suffer from a life with a fractured mind and a tormented soul?

We do not necessarily know enough to comprehend the answer; we must, however, believe and care enough to ask the question."


Author's Postcript, 5/26/06

For anyone who thinks G‑d only listens to set formulas of prayer and not the individual cries of our hearts, this is proof that they are wrong. He hears and He answers!

A local mental hospital called my son and said that Denise has been a patient there all this time she has been missing. This time, she was lucid enough to take herself to a facility. She did not call my son (or let the hospital notify him) because she was conflicted over her condition with a baby in the picture. Again a sign that she has learned to recognize the onset of a serious situation.

The psychiatrist feels she may be on the road to a better solution with new medications that have been very effective during her confinement. Matt is not going to divorce her - he cannot do it - but he is taking all precautions for the safety of the baby and he is retaining sole custody. Baby and Mom have been reunited for visits and it was, in my son's words "gut wrenching." The baby just jumped into her arms and laid her little head on her chest and wouldn't let go. I got to see Denise after Shabbos, we had a good cry – afterall, she has been my daughter since she was just 19 and she has no mother or father of her own.

G‑d willing, there may be a better outcome than what we were fearing.