LAKE FOREST, Calif. — Rick and Kay Warren's daughter, Amy Hilliker, told those at Saddleback's second Gathering on Mental Health and the Church her brother's mental illness and her own battles with anxiety and panic attacks have shaped her life. Hilliker opened up about her own story during the third plenary session of the conference on Thursday afternoon.
Matthew Warren, the youngest child of the Warrens, committed suicide in 2013 after years of struggling with mental illness. The Warrens launched the first mental health conference at Saddleback the following year in an effort to mobilize the Christian community to minister to the needs of the mentally ill and to end the stigma often associated with such illnesses.
This year's conference took place Oct. 8 - 9 at Saddleback's Lake Forest, Calif., campus.
"Early on I had an idea that Matthew was different in some vulnerable way," Hilliker said. "My protective nature kicked in early and, in my own way, I joined my parents in rallying around our weakest link."
Hilliker is the oldest of the three Warren children and the only one born prior to the family's move to Orange County, Calif., in December of 1979 to start Saddleback Church. She not only told about her journey with Matthew, but she shared about her own experience with getting Lyme Disease at age 15 and the undiagnosed beginnings of her battle with anxiety, panic attacks and depersonalization.
"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 notes her family's story wasn't unique. Many other families dealing with mental illness feel as if they're living in a bunker mentality. Yet, she adds, the family continued to try to engage Matthew — even though they often didn't know how. Because of the difficulty of knowing how to engage, she says, they hurt Matthew and one another greatly.
"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."
After years of vacillating between throwing herself into engagement with her brother and periods of resentment, Hilliker admitted to hitting a wall in her relationship with her brother about a year and a half before his death.
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