Mid-September 2014. My 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth had completed her third hospital stay in just three short years.
September was halfway over, and autumn was in full color. The northeastern North Carolina air was crisp, and the gentle breeze carried with it, the earthy smell of oak and maple leaves which were lying on the ground. The days were becoming shorter and shorter; the sunsets seemed to set the sky ablaze in a bold palette of bright red, orange and deep indigo. The sound of geese flying over Tulls Bay signaled the slow but inevitable approach of winter.
Meanwhile, countless counseling sessions and a whole pharmacy of behavior-altering medications seemed to barely stem the tidal force of whatever destructive and self-loathing malevolence was holding my daughter’s mind a captive slave.
Within a few days of checking out of the hospital mental ward, my wife and I took Elizabeth for a follow-up appointment with her therapist.
We gave the therapist the folder which contained the notes from the hospital stay. Inside was a detailed account of what was observed; all the nuances and anomalies, which along with all the previous behavior history, gave the doctors what they thought were the makings of a firm diagnosis for our daughter.
We cautiously hoped we’d finally found a cure for our little girl, but something in my heart told me that we only had a two-thirds solution. It was almost as if there was something, just out of view, which none of us – the doctors, therapists and certainly us as parents, were seeing.
“Mr. and Mrs. Mattera, I’ve taken a look at the notes that the hospital gave during Elizabeth’s last stay, back in September. Based on these, the other notes from previous inpatient treatment, and our weekly therapy sessions, it seems we have a definitive diagnosis.”,Elizabeth’s therapist explained.
“Ok, well…let’s have it”, I frankly asked, as I intently leaned forward on the couch.
“Well, it seems that in addition to the ADHD and depression, the mood-disorder Elizabeth has been struggling with, is actually Bi-Polar Disorder,” the therapist explained.
So, we finally had a name, or at least we thought we did. A diagnosis of Bi-Polar disorder meant a change in treatment tactics; new talk therapy approaches and yet another change to the anti-depressant/mood altering medication cocktail my daughter was already taking.
It was heartbreaking to watch the side effects the various medications had on Elizabeth. There were mornings when she was too sick to get out of bed because the nausea was so severe, or she would be lying on her bed in the fetal position, whimpering from the pain caused by the migraine headaches. There were days, my wife and I felt like our daughter was being used as a pharmaceutical guinea pig.
Every time a new prescription was issued, we would look at the side effects and long-term effects. Some of the stuff we read was just downright alarming. Some of the medications even had the potential to cause the same suicidal thoughts that we were trying to prevent in the first place. We were desperate to do anything the doctors said, just to keep our daughter safe, and see her get better.
In spite of the ‘official’ diagnosis of Bi-Polar, the new routine of counseling and the changes in her medication, nothing really seemed to change for Elizabeth. It was as if we were playing a game of ‘whack-a-mole’ with whatever it was that was tormenting her soul.
Sometimes there would be days and even weeks when everything seemed like it was tapering off and going away. But those very brief seasons wouldn’t last very long.
Just as things seemed to normalize, the torment would return. It was as if some dark and brooding essence was playing a game of hide and seek; adapting to each new method and tactic of treatment.
As 2014 drew to a close, things seemed to be at a stalemate.
Elizabeth didn’t have any violent outbursts per se, but there was still an underlying current of turmoil simmering just below the surface.
Erica and I started to get emails from Elizabeth’s high school superintendent, notifying us that she was having several emotional outbursts in school and that her behavior and academic performance was of particular concern to her teachers. Eventually, my wife and I had a conference with the faculty and discussed, in great detail, Elizabeth’s mental health needs and the exhaustive steps we had taken to manage them.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s emotional and behavioral health continued to change for the worse steadily. The dark moodiness was becoming less introspective and inward; instead, the self-hate and anger were beginning to point outward, to my wife, me and our family order.
Elizabeth started to show a fascination with the paranormal and occult. In fact, she told Erica and me one evening, that she and her friends had practiced with a ouija board a few months prior. Elizabeth also started hanging out with kids at school who seemed to share the same occult interests, and she was beginning to pick up some of their habits and beliefs.
The things she was talking about and becoming obsessed with were disturbing and unsettling; topics like witchcraft and demonic entities. Elizabeth was becoming more and more hostile to anything related to the faith my wife and I believed in and had woven into our family fabric.
Not wanting to ignite another emotional outbreak or cause another hospitalization, my wife and I mostly left the entire topic alone. We had been told by the therapist to ‘pick our battles,’ and this was one battle that we were not ready to engage in…in more ways than one.
One afternoon, I came home from work a little early. Elizabeth had already been home from school for at least an hour. I walked into the house and immediately smelled like burned paper.
“Elizabeth, did you burn something…like in the in the microwave?”,I asked.
“No dad, I burned some food on the stove”, Elizabeth replied casually, but with a hint of nervousness that only a parent can detect.
Pausing to sniff the air one more time, I said out loud, “Hmmm…that’s strange…because it actually smells like burnt paper…not like burnt food.”
Looking my daughter square in the eye, I said, “I think something else happened and you’re afraid to tell me…since I already know that something else really happened, why don’t you just tell me the truth. You’ll feel better, and I promise I won’t be upset.”
I had to ask a few more times, but finally, Elizabeth fessed up and told me the truth.
“Ok, dad…I…was burning…I was burning my…I was burning my Bible”, Elizabeth hesitatingly admitted; her head held low, barely able to make eye contact.
It took me a moment to process what she had just said. I half thought it was a joke and that she had really burned some homework in a desperate, yet not unusual teenager response to an overdue school assignment.
“Say that again…you did what?”,I puzzledly asked.
“I burned my Bible dad…”, Elizabeth responded, with a little more confidence.
I took a moment to absorb what I had just heard my daughter say. I struggled to wrap my mind around it. I stood there and just shook my head. Not because I was mad at her, but because I couldn’t believe how far this had gone. I couldn’t help but wonder where it was going to end up.
My wife and I always tried to maintain a keen awareness of God in our home. Although we didn’t go to church EVERY Sunday, we still kept a strict dignity and reverence for Him; this even included prayers over meals and at bedtime.
With all that being said, I didn’t want to aggravate the situation any further. Getting mad at Elizabeth would have only resulted in an emotional meltdown; possibly worse. Instead, I explained to her that burning things in the house is dangerous. I told her that I didn’t want her playing with fire.
Elizabeth was a little taken back by my response. I’m sure she half expected me to get angry or give a long lecture on how burning a Bible is wrong: I was too emotionally tired for either.
But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t concerned about what happened. Later that night, I spoke to my wife and explained the events which had transpired earlier that day. Erica was shocked and understandably concerned. Unlike me, my wife didn’t grow up around church, and God was just an occasional whisper in her childhood home. It wasn’t until we got married that we had started to engage on a road of relationship with our Creator.
So, Erica, shocked and upset by the news of our daughter’s disturbing behavior, asked me what we should do. I told her that we should just stay steady and even-keeled on the whole issue…the last thing Elizabeth needed was a fourth hospital stay.
In the days and weeks following Elizabeth’s Bible burning incident, she became more and more bold with her rebellion. Her depression, despair and dark mood were starting to take on a tone of anger and hostility.
One evening, it came to a boiling point. Erica and I were going to tuck-in both Elizabeth and Isabella for the night.
During that week, Elizabeth was grounded from her electronic devices for some infraction; exactly why she was grounded, I don’t remember. The point is, that when Erica went into Elizabeth’s room to tuck her in, Erica saw that Elizabeth had, in her possession, one of the devices that she was supposed to be grounded from.
Erica told Elizabeth to hand over the device; Elizabeth defiantly said no.
“Matthew, come here please, Elizabeth has a device that she’s grounded from, and she’s not handing it over.”
I walk into the room: “What’s going on?”,I asked. I could see Elizabeth’s emotional climate was beginning to change and that the situation was inches from becoming volatile.
Erica replied, “Elizabeth has been grounded from her electronic devices for the next week, but I found her with one of her gaming devices…when I told her to hand it over, she refused and became very disrespectful.”
So here I am being called in to mediate and diffuse the situation.
Taking a moment to assess the situation, I explained to Elizabeth that it would be much easier on everyone if she just handed over the device. I told her that further misbehavior would only make matters worse and reminded her of what the therapist had advised us to do if she ever became non-compliant or hostile. (Following the last hospital stay, Elizabeth’s therapist and psychologist had recommended long term residential treatment if there continued to be violent outbursts or destructive behavior.)
Elizabeth pondered what I was telling her; the thought of going back into a hospital for long term (6 months or more) treatment did not appeal to her at all.
Reluctantly and resentfully, Elizabeth relinquished control of the device. Erica and I walked out of the room to further deescalate the situation and allow Elizabeth time to calm down and reflect.
Meanwhile, our youngest daughter, Isabella was still in her own room settling in for bed. Considering the potential volatility of the situation, Erica told Isabella to go and settle into the master bedroom and watch TV quietly.
I waited in the kitchen, anxiously trying to sort the whole situation out. I could sense something was wrong. The atmosphere in our home was thick with tension and hostility, that it was almost paralyzing. I felt powerless and afraid. For nearly four years my daughter had been held hostage by something unseen which was bent on causing mayhem, pain, and destruction.
Our family and home had become a battlefield which was constantly smoldering with no sign of reprieve or surrender. Cease-fires would be short-lived; the enemy never really conceding…only tactically withdrawing just to regroup and reorganize for its next attack.
I knew that what we were fighting against was much bigger and more profound than what any of the doctors, therapists or we as parents were able to deal with; at least not from a physical or secular standpoint.
Standing there against the kitchen counter, the entire weight of all we had been navigating as a family, the fire and hell we had been enduring, and the torment my little girl had been suffering came crashing down on my shoulders like a massive boulder. My heart…no…my very spirit began to cry out from within me.
Tears started to well up in my eyes, and my lip began to tremble. My hands slowly shaking as the battle fatigue was setting in.
Erica walked up beside me and wrapped her arms around me. I began to pray; my voice trembled as tears streamed down my face.
“Father…we need your help…this is too much for us. What is going on? I know you’re bigger than everything that’s been taking place in my family. Jesus, help us…please…nothing is too big for you.”,I tearfully prayed.
I continued to repeat my appeal to Heaven…there was nothing left for me to do. We had tried everything else. Nearly every course of action had been explored, except for one. No solutions were found from the medical or psychological experts; there was one sphere of influence which had gone untouched…the spiritual.
While in the kitchen, I prayed and poured out my heart to God. Erica was with me, Isabella was in our room, and Elizabeth was in her room.
I was praying aloud…loud enough where Elizabeth could hear me from down the hall.
Looking back now, reflecting on all this and then writing down what happened next, I’m able to understand that what we were wrestling against, wasn’t merely just a biochemical abnormality or a mental health anomaly.
From her bedroom, Elizabeth started to yell. Her words were full of taunts and insults against everything my wife and I were praying for and Who we were praying to.
I stood there in disbelief, hands shaking and voice quivering. I hadn’t seen anything like this before. None of the previous outbursts and emotional meltdowns were ever so bold, defiant, or irreverently targeted like this one.
The entire episode seemed to last about 10 minutes. Finally, as I ended my praying, cleared my throat and wiped the tears from my eyes, the noise from Elizabeth’s room also stopped. Erica and I walked in to check on her. Elizabeth was laying on her bed, tired and exhausted…the tantrum and drama had worn her out. She was half asleep and half awake.
Erica sat next to her for a few minutes and gently soothed our little girl. I walked out and went to check on our youngest daughter, Isabella.
That night, everyone eventually settled in and went to bed. It took me a while to fall asleep though. What I had seen and heard earlier that evening was causing a lightbulb to turn slowly come on with a faint glow. My suspicions were confirmed…I now knew that there was something much bigger going on.
In the late winter and early spring of 2015, I started to engage in my prayer life and quiet time with God a lot more.
There was a little country church, a couple of miles down from where we lived, that we had been attending, for a few months on and off. They had a small youth group, about a dozen or so kids around Elizabeth’s age. Some of these kids lived in or near our neighborhood, so she knew most of them. Although Elizabeth was resistant to going to church, there was something about being around her peers that drew her to attend the youth group.
Sometime towards the end of February 2015, the youth group took a three-day trip to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina for a youth rally. Elizabeth wanted to attend, and gladly we said yes.
Three days later, our little girl came back excited and refreshed. She told her mom and me all about the fantastic time she had and how she learned so much.
Elizabeth said that she wanted to live her life for God…to discover what He had created her for. For me, this was another sign confirming that the things she had been wrestling with, was far more than what the professionals and we thought.
For about a month and a half, things started to look up and improve. Elizabeth was becoming more focused in school, and her behavior at home was better. There seemed to be an overall clarity, and the brightness seemed like it was starting to return to our little girl’s eyes. As if almost overnight, Elizabeth was even beginning to change her preference in music and fashion.
In and of themselves these are just superficial things, but they had become the anthem and uniform for the dark depression which had dominated her. All of that was beginning to change for the better.
Elizabeth began wanting to do a nightly devotional, geared toward teens before she went to bed, and she even joined the church choir.
The seed of hope had been planted in her heart, and it was beginning to sprout; little buds could be seen, we knew we just had to keep watering and feeding.
But we forgot about the weeds. There were influences which were still in orbit around our little girl; there were still holes in the wall and shield that we were trying to build up around our family.
The enemy; that dark and foul essence which has sought to kill, steal and destroy, was not going to give up so easily.
Like a super-virus which seems to disappear only to adapt itself to every form of treatment and then return, the enemy conducted its tactical withdrawal and regrouped its formation.
Every other assault was going to pale in comparison to what was going to happen next. A brutal attack on our little girl was going to take place…unlike anything we had seen before.
It was only going to be a matter of weeks before I would see the very definition of horror, pain, and heartbreak.
We were about to live our worst nightmare…
It seemed that every ‘solution’ and treatment offered by the secular experts were lacking in something. It was as if their only answer was to throw more medication and more therapy at the problem. But somewhere in my gut, I knew that these were only partial answers. The prescriptions were an attempt to manipulate and manage the physical aspects, while the talk therapy only scratched the surface of the unseen portion. There was a third area which was being avoided. To address that area would mean the experts acknowledging that human beings have an eternal component imbued by a Creator – an immortal and invisible, yet very real SOUL.
None of the drugs Elizabeth was prescribed were like taking an aspirin. These were some of the most potent behavior altering prescriptions available. They were designed to impact the brain and its intricate network of inter-woven synapses, cells and a carefully balanced array of chemicals which it needs to properly function. It’s the most advanced computer in all Creation, designed to act in collective synergy, enabling it to become the bio-chemical neural host for our consciousness; a place for our mind, will and emotions…a seat for our soul.
The same also goes for the behavior therapy. Please don’t misunderstand me, I believe there is excellent value in talk therapy, and that it is a powerful asset in helping clarify and balance the way we think and view the world around us. Talking to a trained professional gives us the advantage of having an expert, third-person perspective on whatever issue we may be wrestling with.
There are lots of people who are successful in navigating their road to recovery and wellness through these two assets; medication and therapy.
But there are also those whose struggle goes deeper. People who have a wound which is caused by an issue far more complex; an issue were secular treatments alone are like giving an over-the-counter pain killer for a headache, which is actually caused by a tumor. The headache has a root cause which can’t be seen by the unaided human eye, but instead can only be seen through the mechanics and lens of something which harnesses the power of something invisible, hence the MRI machine.
The mind, will, and emotions are what comprises the human soul. These are physically intangible yet very real things which can only be measured through second-hand observation. Sure, the electrical activity (known as neural oscillations or brainwaves) can be measured, but the detail of the actual thoughts cannot be. Nor can the fine details of someone’s feelings be measured. There may be secondary symptoms which can give clues or indications, but the granular nuances of a person’s mind, will, and emotions reside on a plane which is immeasurable and unverifiable with our unaided human eye or secular systems of analysis.
That plane is at the edge of human awareness and natural understanding. It’s a level of reality higher than this, seen only through the eyes of faith.