My People

My People
My matched set of grandchildren - Oliver and Cosette

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

a tribute to a survivor

One of my prayer warriors over the past few months has been my friend Natalie. I used to describe her as "My sister in law's friend" but now I am proud to say that she's my friend too. Natalie is a beautiful example of finding beauty from ashes. She is a dear, special, precious lady and just one of the many dear, special, precious people at First Baptist of Helen that have made my transition easier. Say what you will about organized religion - I would have said it myself six months ago - I know that without a doubt this church... THESE people at this church... have made a huge difference in my life... and continue to on a daily basis.

Yesterday was the third anniversary of Natalie's husband's death. He committed suicide. Her husband was my brother Jim's best friend. The article below is copied from The Christian Index (without permission, please follow the link back if you want to see more of their informative and inspirational articles). I want to share this because I now know how depression can change a completely normal, sane, grounded person into a stranger that they don't even know themselves.

A few weeks ago Natalie and I talked about how tough Christmas was... and although I was not alone, it was a hurt that I couldn't articulate... people want to help and I want to be helped but there are some emotions that you just have to go through on your own. Sometimes those tears are cleansing. She joked about the upcoming holiday, "Singles Awareness Day"... haven't heard of it? Most people refer to it as Valentines Day... but if you're single... it's just a big old exclamation point on "SINGLE!".

If you scroll down my blog a few entries, you'll be able to see pictures of Jorjanne from last Wednesday night.

It was a bitter cold January morning in North Georgia when Natalie Flake woke to hear her 4-year-old daughter, Jorjanne, coughing. A runny nose and the hacking cough signaled a doctor’s visit for the morning.
Her husband, Michael, told her he was getting out of the house for the day. She was more than pleased to hear those words since he had left the house only once in recent weeks.
He said he was going for a hike and planned to spend time alone with the Lord; he wouldn’t be home until God had spoken to him. She asked him what he would do if God chose to be silent. He guessed that meant he would be in the woods for a long time.
They exchanged “I love you’s” and mother and daughter headed for the doctor’s office, leaving Michael gearing up for a hike in the North Georgia mountains that he loved.
When Natalie returned later that morning, she touched the blinking red button on the answering machine and listened to her husband’s voice.
He said he loved her. He was sorry for all he’d put her through. And he asked to make sure that Jorjanne always knew he loved her.
With an overwhelming sense of fear, she hit the replay button and listened to his words a second time.

And she knew he was saying goodbye.


Michael and Natalie Flake first headed to the North Georgia mountains as newlyweds. Married less than two months, the two signed on as semester missionaries with Helen First Baptist and Georgia Mountain Resort Ministries. Michael became the assistant to Kyle Woodfin, who was both pastor of the church and director of the fledgling resort ministry. Natalie became youth minister at the church. It was Michael’s energy and enthusiastic faith that first struck Woodfin.
“He had been a leader at Truett-McConnell College and from the very beginning he felt a calling to the northeast Georgia mountains. He was so excited for the Lord. The energy he brought was an encouragement to me,” Woodfin said.
The semester assignment turned into a US/C-2 position through the North American Mission Board. Eventually, the Georgia Mountain Resort Ministries separated from the church and the couple was appointed as missionaries, funded by NAMB and the Georgia Baptist Convention.

Photos from the Flake family album show happy times. However, between the smiles the family battled the private darkness of bipolar disorder.From the beginning, Michael relished the work in the resort community. He and Natalie worked with volunteers, summer missionaries, semester missionaries, and others who came to lead Bible schools at campgrounds, host worship services at resorts, perform in downtown Helen, and minister to the year-round community.
Under Michael’s leadership the ministry gained a reputation across the Southeast for being organized, effective, and fun.
Then, about three years into his work in Helen, Michael lost his energy and his drive.

Natalie grabbed her phone and called Michael’s cell phone. In a monotone voice, he told her he was at a church in nearby Blairsville, sitting in the parking lot. He asked only one thing, over and over again: He wanted to speak to Jorjanne.
Finally, unable to get him to talk about anything else, Natalie gave the phone to their daughter. She could hear him telling the little girl how much he loved her.
When Natalie took the phone back, she knew she had to ask.
“Michael, are you fixing to do something stupid? Are you trying to tell us goodbye?”
He didn’t answer.
She persisted until finally he told her he was tired of being sick. His wife and daughter deserved a husband and father in his right mind.
Natalie reassured him that they only wanted him.
He said he was going hiking and he turned off the phone.

The couple’s family doctor diagnosed Michael with depression. He prescribed medication for a short period and it worked. But six months later, he again became tired, sad, unmotivated.
His mood swings worried Natalie – this wasn’t like her husband. He went back on the medication, this time for the long term.
Summer came and with it came the added responsibility of mentoring summer missionaries. Fanning out across the resort areas in North Georgia, the college students worked every day with every aspect of the ministry.
During that summer Michael seemed even more energetic than ever. He slept only two or three hours at night. Then he became irritable, demanding, and sometimes irrational. He stepped on toes, caused hurt feelings.
Natalie knew something was wrong; Michael just thought he was getting over his depression.
It would be another year – and four more episodes of mania and depression – before Michael was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder.
Once called manic-depressive disorder, it is now referred to as bipolar disorder – a disease that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to function. The disease cycles between mania, normalcy, and depression, although not always in that particular order, said Scott Andrews, a psychiatrist in LaGrange.
It is a disease that can be treated, although it’s never easy to treat.
“It’s one of the hardest illnesses to treat and it’s one of the most difficult mental illnesses for a family to deal with,” explained Andrews, a member of First Baptist Church.
Michael responded fairly quickly to the medication and within three or four months his moods had leveled off. That’s when he decided he could stop taking his medications.

“He believed that if he prayed enough, God would heal him,” Natalie recalled. “I told him diabetics take insulin and this wasn’t any different. The medicine wasn’t controlling him, it was controlling the illness.”
For Michael, as for many Christians dealing with mental illnesses, the diagnosis brought feelings of embarrassment and shame.
“There is a stigma attached to mental illness,” Andrews admitted. “Some people view it as a moral weakness. All you have to do is straighten up or think better thoughts or pray and you’ll be cured. In other words, you’ve done something to cause the illness, so you should be able to do something to get yourself out of it. Sometimes that’s true. But it’s not true with schizophrenia or bipolar because they’re genetic illnesses.”

When Michael turned off the phone, Natalie called one of his closest friends and told him she was afraid for her husband’s life. He agreed to call the police.
She called her parents, her pastor, and a few others. They came to her home to be with her, pray with her, and wait with her.
It was 6 p.m. before she heard from Michael again. She questioned him on the cell phone. He was confused and couldn’t tell her where he was, although he was on a hiking trail.
Night was nearing and the temperatures were dropping. She realized he didn’t have a coat or even a flashlight with him. She begged him to come home, to at least come down the mountain.
He told her he was scared, tired of the mood swings, so scared, so confused, so scared.
So scared.
He agreed to come down the mountain, but before he ended the call he told her his cell battery was getting weak.
A sheriff’s deputy came to her door seeking information, wanting to know if Michael had ever left before.
This isn’t a prank, this is real, she told him. He’s sick. We need to find him.
She prayed that someone would find his truck and get to her husband soon.
At 9 p.m. sheriff’s deputies found his truck, parked at the base of a mountain, and began searching nearby trails.

Although Michael’s illness escalated, he didn’t want people to know about it. He asked his wife to keep it a secret and she agreed. During times he was severely depressed, she would head for his office at night and do as much of his work for him as she could.
“He was afraid that he’d lose his job and couldn’t provide for us. I was a stay-at-home mom and his was our only income,” Natalie said.
But the pressure of keeping the giant secret became almost painful as his behavior became more and more erratic.
Once, Michael found a house that was four times more expensive than the house the couple already owned and he was convinced that they were to own the house. He bought a car that they didn’t need and couldn’t afford. He saved their plastic milk jugs and empty two-liter plastic bottles because he might need them one day. At times, he went through the trash to make sure Natalie hadn’t thrown anything “good” away.
One cold winter day, Natalie came home to find her husband on the roof. All the windows and doors in the house were open, but he couldn’t explain to her what he was doing.
Unable to handle the stress by herself, she finally shared their secret with a small group of women in a Bible study group. “That was wonderful to know that I had people standing by me. It was such a relief,” she said.
But there were other times when the church was the place she was most frustrated.
“People just don’t understand what it’s like to deal with a mental illness. I would convince Michael to stay on his medication and then we’d go to a church where he was speaking and someone would crack a joke about depression or say that you shouldn’t rely on drugs to make you feel good. People don’t realize comments like that can be so damaging.”
During the final six months of 2005, doctors were able to find the right combination of medicines for Michael. He felt good and people noticed.
“For six months our marriage was stronger than ever. We took a four-day train ride to Lake Tahoe together and it was wonderful.” Natalie recalled.

A few weeks after that trip, Natalie left Michael at home while she attended a conference – which included one session called “When Life Hurts” – and called home one evening.
“I heard it in his voice. Sad, unmotivated,” she said. She shared her concern with a friend who wondered aloud if Michael had, once again, stopped his medication.
“He wouldn’t do that. He’s past that,” Natalie assured her friend.
But when she arrived back home, she confronted Michael and he admitted he had stopped his medication.
“He believed God had healed him, so he stopped his meds without telling anyone,” she said.
He started the medication again, but they both knew it would take at least a month, maybe longer, before he would see any results.
Two weeks later he told his wife he was going hiking and he wouldn’t be home until God had spoken to him.
There was no word throughout the night. Natalie sat with friends and family, mostly in silence. There was some small talk and a lot of prayer as midnight came and went.
At about 1 a.m., Natalie called the sheriff’s office and was told someone was on the way to her house. She hoped for good news.
It was 2 a.m. before a car pulled up in the driveway. She opened the door and, seeing a man in a cleric collar, collapsed to the floor, crying. She was told that searchers had found Michael shortly after he took his life, sitting on the mountain that he loved.
Next to him were a Bible and his journal.

It’s been almost two years since that January night. Since then, Natalie Flake has learned to continue living much as she did with her husband: one day at a time. Today she works at Truett-McConnell College in nearby Cleveland and continues to tackle the job of single parenting. In recent months, she and her daughter have begun to again experience joy.
Her church family has stood by her through the nights of grief and the days of healing. She recently completed her master’s degree. Her final project was titled, “Finding hope in depression from God’s word and His sovereignty.”

Days after burying her husband, Natalie Flake held his journal and read the last words he wrote. Among the pages scrawled with his writing, were these words:
“I know that if I die tonight God will welcome me with open arms.”


Kelly Dawn said...

words fail me -


Anonymous said...

Heather, this is such a heartbreaking story. Wrap your arms around Natalie and Jorjanne . . .

sober white women said...

You may be single, but you are not alone or unloved.

cw2smom said...

I am sooo very sorry for Natalie, Jorjanne, Michael and all those who loved him. What a great loss to everyone involved. I can't imagine Natalie's pain and I am glad to hear that she's doing better and able to be supportive of wonderful people like you! Thank you for sharing this! My own oldest daughter was recently diagnosed with Bipolar 2, and it's a struggle! Blessings, Lisa

J-Online said...

Lisa led me to your site. Thank you so much for sharing this. It's a horrible tragedy and words cannot express how sorry I am.

Regards, Jenn

Anonymous said...

This was certainly hard for me to read. I knew Michael from many years ago while him was working with my youth group at Vineville Baptist in Macon, GA. He served as a great source of encouragement to me during my senior year of high school. Always with high energy, a smile, and a love & excitement for the Lord that shown through. I lost touch with him after he married and I went off to college, but I never forgot him. I just learned what had happened this week through a friend; I could hardly believe what she was telling me. My prayers are with Natalie and Jorjanne.

Thank you posting this-

Brad Smith

Anonymous said...