As part of Saddleback Church's second annual "Gathering on Mental Health and the Church" conference, Rick and Kay Warren's daughter, Amy Hilliker, opened up about her brother's mental illness and shared how her own struggle with anxiety has affected her life.
"Early on I had an idea that Matthew was different in some vulnerable way," Hilliker said of her brother, who shot and killed himself in 2013 after a long battle with depression."My protective nature kicked in early and, in my own way, I joined my parents in rallying around our weakest link."
Following Matthew's death, the Warrens launched the first mental health conference at Saddleback Church in an effort to encourage the Christian community to minister to those suffering from mental illness and to end the stigma often associated with such illnesses.
Hilliker, whose husband, Tommy, serves as Saddleback's pastor of ministry, shared her powerful story during this year's conference, which was held Oct. 8-9.
"In my twenties, Matthew's illness ramped significantly at the same time my body began to crash from the undiagnosed chronic Lyme [Disease]," Hilliker said. "Between my illness, Matthew's illness and some other traumatic family circumstances, it often felt like we were living in this underground bunker. We were here existing on planet Earth but not really engaging with the real world or real people. We would occasionally lift that hatch and look out long enough and survey the land. Then the next wave of chaos would hit and we'd have to hunker down and hold onto each other and pray to make it through."
Hilliker charged that her family's story is far too common, as thousands of families across the United States dealing mental illness feel as if they're living in a bunker mentality.
Even though they didn't know how, the Warren family continued to try to engage Matthew, Hilliker said. However, because they were unsure of how to best engage Matthew, they hurt one another deeply.
"We have had to learn to accept each other's different levels of tolerance, of proximity to the struggle, differing ways of engaging Matthew," Hilliker said. "It divided us many times. But we were determined to keep pursuing love and connection with Matthew despite this tension."
Unable to understand her Matthew's illness and frustrated by the pain it was causing her family, Hilliker distanced herself from her brother for several months.
"I was angry at what his illness had done to my life, to my family, to him," said Hilliker. "I felt helpless as to how to help him. I was frustrated that he couldn't access help or hope. I was frustrated with my parents. I was frustrated with his doctors and counselors. I wanted to escape so badly I couldn't even think straight. I was constantly daydreaming about ways to get my husband and my children away from all of it."
Eventually, Hilliker was able to reconnect with Matthew after she stopped trying to save him and "started trying to love him where he was at." While the last eight months of Matthew's life were some of the "most scary and traumatic times, truly, but they were also some of the most intimate I've had with him," she said.
In concluding her address, Hilliker urged attendees to listen without judgment to family members or loved ones struggling through mental illness.
"I wish we knew then the kind of things we know now," Hilliker said. "But for those of us who know Jesus, pain births beauty. The story is not even close to being over yet. Because God is making every hard and ugly and painful thing that I endured, that our family endured, work for good in our lives and the lives of others. The hope is, the Bible tells us, that this work will not end, until God has extracted every teeny, tiny morsel of good out of that pain. He will not let up until this work is finished."