Losing a loved one from suicide is a profoundly painful and complex experience that leaves those who are left behind grappling for answers. Pastor James Ford Jr. lost his wife to suicide after a long battle with bipolar. In this second part of a three-part conversation, he talks to Tina Fornwald about the experience of loving someone who is fighting unknown battles within themselves. Tune in and listen as Pastor James shares those difficult moments of persevering in love through it all with faith.
Thank you for viewing this post. I am not a licensed therapist or professional life coach.
I am sharing my experience of loving the same man for 32 years, a mother to two adult children, a retired military officer, a breast cancer survivor, and my connections with others.
Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should reach out to a suicide hotline or local emergency number in their country: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/suicide/suicide-prevention-hotlines-resources-worldwide
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Pastor James Ford Jr. YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/@PastorJamesFord
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My Twelfth Rose: A Story Of Love, Bipolar And Suicide With Pastor James Ford Jr. – Part 2
We’re going into part two of our conversation with Pastor James Ford regarding the unfortunate loss of his wife. I know this conversation will be helpful for you. Let’s get into a discussion now.
What are some things that people don’t know about Pudgy that drove you to want to have this conversation?
A lot of people didn’t know that she was bipolar, that she was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, and that prior to her successful attempt at suicide, she had made seven other previous attempts. I’ll tell you about the first one because here I am. I was raised by my mama and my grandma. I was raised by women. There were a lot of things missing because there wasn’t a man but you get things when you’re raised by women that you can never get from a man. That is what I call a sensitivity.
They call it empathy now.
I don’t like empathy. Let me tell you why. Empathy means to fill in. Sympathy means to fill with. I like compassion because it means to be surrounded by. In other words, if you have an issue, I’m surrounded by your issue. Compassion is your pain in my heart. That’s why I like that word. God set the tone. As a pastor, one time, I saw a man jumping on a woman. I didn’t care whether he had a knife or a gun. I ran to protect that woman because that’s what you learn when you’re raised by women. You learn to connect not first to what a woman says, even though you have to listen, but how a woman feels.
I do things for my Sugarbabe. For example, every third year in the first 100 days, I would do 100 ways and 100 days. I would get seven greeting cards and write original poems on them because that’s what she loved. I would make the poem up and stuff like, “I’m arrested by your godly personality and locked up in the prison of your love. The governor tried to give me a pardon but I turned it down. The parole board wanted to give me early release but I am forever a prisoner of your love.” She loved it. I’ve got hundreds of them because I would try to write her once a week or once every two weeks. That’s because she was my caramel mocha latte, hot, yellow, sweet, and smoking.
How long have you been together for the first time?
We were here in Chicago. We had been married for 24 years before she made that first effort. She slashed her wrists. I had come home, and she was sitting in bed. She put her hands down. I said, “What’s wrong?” She did that. I grabbed her, threw her in the car, and took her to Trinity Hospital. They got her sewed up and everything. They said, “We have to report this.”
Once she was released and we got home, I was like, “What’s going on? Why would you want to leave me? Am I not loving you the way you need to be loved? I don’t understand it.” She said something so very profound. I know it had to be God giving her those words because it set me free. One of the things I found now that this has happened is as I’m dealing with individuals, most people look first at themselves, “What did I do that would cause them to want to take their life?”
It’s the guilt and the idea, “I could have changed it.”
Is there something I could have done? No. Let me tell you what she told me. Without missing a beat, she said, “Why are you making this about you?” That arrested my attention, “What do you mean? This is about me. This is something on the inside of me that’s eating me up.”
At this point, did you know she was bipolar or suffered from this?
Not until after this incident that we found out she was bipolar.
She didn’t even know that. She just knew that this aching was happening.
She said that cutting herself and watching the blood flow made her feel better. She said to me, “Why do you want to make this about you? There’s something on the inside. If Jesus can’t fix it, what makes you think you can?” It freed me up. I was more attentive after that. I’m going to be honest. My whole family knows. If you talk to Jerry, she will tell you. Her sister was spoiled rotten.
We already figured that out with the roses, poems, and everything else.
I could probably count on one hand how many times I told this woman no. If she wanted it, she got it. I became even more attentive after that but it didn’t stop those things from happening. Each time, I would have to remind myself of what she told me the first time, “There’s something inside of me.” I said, “I have to learn.” Before she committed suicide, I started seeing a psychiatrist because I said, “I counsel people but I’m not a professional.” I shared with her, “You need to go ahead and go back to Christ Hospital.” She snapped because she had a bad experience at one.
What is Christ Hospital?
They have a psych ward. Christ has a psych ward, one of the best in the city. That’s where we were going. They would help her, and they would help me. I could say to her, “We need to go. You’re getting worse.”
I have a few questions. At this point in time, you are actively being a pastor at a church. Was that something you were able to openly share with people? How did that work?
It’s the pink elephant in the church and a lot of Black families as well. People do not want to acknowledge mental illness at all. You have very few individuals that you can talk to about it. This is my theory. If you were to say to me, “What’s the number one sin in the churches?” I would say gossip. Some people gossip so much that they tell their business.
The Bible says, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” Love covers. Love doesn’t expose. I’m not going to expose my wife to individuals who would try to take advantage of that. Even though I’ve been pastoring here for over 43 years, there are people like that. I’m not going to let her be the fodder for your phone conversations and stuff like that.
What was your safe space? How did you manage and deal with the weight from the first incident?
Primarily through prayer, scripture reading, and a few close friends, two brothers who walked with me throughout.
You did have community.
I had two guys that I could trust. Generally, when I met with them, we played dominoes together every Sunday night.
If someone finds themselves in your situation early on from that first one, based on what you’ve learned and experienced, what would you recommend for them to do?
Early in these situations, I could say to her, “We need to go ahead and go in.” That’s when I should have gotten the guardianship.
What does that do?
Guardianship gives me the authority to be able to have her hospitalized even if she doesn’t want to. I should have got it early but I didn’t know what happens when you are bipolar. There are four different kinds of bipolar. There are two different kinds of paranoid schizophrenia. Learning all that later on, I didn’t know it. The one that she had was a digressive one that would get worse. The efforts increased and got shorter. After she had this bad experience, I said, “You’re getting sick. We need to go in.” She snapped, “I thought you were on my side. Do you want me to go back to that place?” “Not that place. Let’s go to Christ.” I became the enemy. It became even more difficult because she would say things like, “I want a divorce.”
She moved out.
First, she left. I was in my office working on a sermon. One of the members of the church said, “How are you doing? What’s going on? Talk to Leslie.” “They’re carrying totes out. Where are you going?” “You are not going to put me back in the hospital. I’m leaving.” “Where are you going?” “I’m going to Deb’s house.” She went to Deb’s house. I said, “We need to talk about this.” “I am not talking to you. You don’t love me.” I didn’t know that when you’re bipolar, there’s a sense in which there’s no time lapse. She would talk about stuff. At that time, we had been away from Pittsburgh for 41 years. She was talking about things that I did before I got saved.When you're bipolar, there's a sense in which there's no time lapse. Click To Tweet
It was all in the same space.
I didn’t know that. Seeing the psychiatrist, he said, “They have no sense of time-lapse.” In her mind, it’s as if it happened yesterday. I said, “What chance do I have?” She’s bringing all this stuff up.
How did you continue loving, showing up, and keeping perspective as she was saying these words and doing these different things?
I believe in the Bible. That’s it. Here’s what it says. Ephesians 5:25, “Husband, love your wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it. He may sanctify her by the washing of the water with the Word.” Notice what’s missing. There are no adjectives, “Husband, love your beautiful wife. Husband, love your working wife. Husband, love your sane wife.” The word love is agape, unconditional. That’s what caused me to do it. I made a commitment to her in sickness and in health, in poverty and in wealth until death do us part. I’ve broken a lot of vows I made to God. I am not breaking that one. I made a commitment to her. She’s sick. She needs me more now than she needed me before.
That’s what I did. I made sure she was well taken care of. Hyde Park in Chicago is like Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh. I made sure she was in a gated community. I made sure that, for example, you couldn’t go up to her floor unless you lived on the floor, or somebody from the floor let you know. I made sure and spared no expense to make sure that she was safe. That’s what I did.
There was all of the animus that she spewed on me. She began to do things that weren’t her. It wasn’t my Sugarbabe. I realized that with the help of my two friends, the psychiatrist, and even more so, the Lord. I cried out, “I don’t know if I could continue to take this abuse.” He was sustained because that’s what He promised to do. I was able to do that. Finally, she said, “I want you to buy me my house.” I was going to do it. We went and looked at a place, getting ready to put the down payment. She told me, “I want to come home.”
After eighteen months, we were out of the house. I moved her back home. She would say, “I’m home but I want upstairs.” We have a thirteen-room house. It’s humongous. She said, “I want upstairs as my living quarters.” That’s what I did. I set up upstairs like a living quarter. Prior to her coming home, I went to the hospital. I had an infection in my foot, and they thought they were going to have to amputate it. I was in the hospital for three months altogether.
That was a very scary time for the family. You say it quickly but there was a lot of anguish going on.
During that time, that’s when she did 6 and 7. I was in the hospital and couldn’t get to her. She had taken a bottle of Tylenol and the whole bottle of her anxiety medication. They were able to pump her stomach in the apartment. They took her to the hospital, Christ. They let her go after seven days. About three weeks later, she did it again.
You’re saying the seventh time was the final time.
The eighth time was the final time. She tried twice while I was in the hospital, and then she was home. I saw it as progress. She’s home. She would have her ups and downs. Sometimes she was in love with me, and sometimes she couldn’t stand the sight of me.
All of that wasn’t her.
This is the bipolar.
This was the paranoia and the things that you cannot see going on inside of her mind. You were only seeing the outward of it.
You have no control. She had no control. That’s what I try to convey to people. Buckle in your seatbelt. It’s a rough ride but it’s one you have to take if you love that person. I’ve loved that woman all my life.
What about the person who says, “God will heal that, and it will be fine. Jesus will take care of that. Pray it out?”
It doesn’t work that way. We believe in anointing with oil and praying according to James 5 which says, “If any be sick among you, let them call for the elders of the church. Anoint them with oil, and the prayer of faith shall save the sick.” I anointed her with so much oil I could fry up a case of chickens. It didn’t do any good. There are some things that you’re going to go through that you have to persevere.
Say that again because I feel as if in the church and our Black community, we want to throw a label or a quick fix on something instead of digging in and doing the type of work to say, “I don’t know how to manage this. I need therapy. I may need medication because there is something hardwired inside of me that is not changing.” People are suffering. The family is unaware.
They’re suffering in silence. You don’t have to. I’m talking to my psychiatrist. He said, “She used to open up to you and tell you how she was feeling. What’s going on?” I said, “She shut down. She looks at the one event that happened to her.” They told me they were sending her to Christ. This turned out to be the worst mental institution in the country, not in the state. It was at the bottom of the country. She had such a painful experience there.
She did not see time differently.
It was like, “I’m going to put her back in there.” Paul prayed. Most people think of ophthalmia, which is an eye disease. He said, “I sought and prayed about it three times. God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you because my strength is made perfect in your weakness.'” That’s what I learned because believe me, there were some weak points and weak times when I felt like, “She wants a divorce. Let’s go ahead and give it to her.” I can’t do that. Who does she have then?
A statement was made to me, “It’s our relative but it is your wife.” “You’re right about that. I could use some help though.” I buckled up my seatbelt and said, “If I have to do this alone, then I’ll do it alone.” She had run everybody away, in honesty. She had run her sisters away. She had run her brother away. She cut off everyone who could intervene like our boys and their wives. She cut everybody off.
It’s so hard when you say, “Cut off,” to understand what that suffering looks like, the words that were said, the behavior, all those different things, and the constant slashing.
I’m talking about brothers and sisters. She was cussing people out and all things like that, saying horrible things, and making accusations that would make anybody say, “I don’t want to be bothered.” I understood that but that was not an option for me. Even now, there’s a satisfaction in knowing there’s nothing else I could have done. I did everything that I could have done.
That is so important from the first attempt that she told you that even though you constantly knew that it was not about you. Is there anything you want to share about the eighth and final attempt?
I prefer not to go into that one. That one is going to break me down too much.
Can I ask who found her?
I found her.
That was November 10th, 2022.
Two days before her birthday.
Thank you for being part of this conversation. I am sorry for the person that you have lost that is no longer here but I am so glad that you were able to connect with us. I pray and I hope that the conversations have made us part of your hood, and we are able to help you and know that you are not alone. We are your community. We are here on this journey with you.
This conversation with Pastor James Ford was intentional to be able to help you and your family members to be able to understand that this journey is hard but there is something powerful that can come out of sharing and talking to help other people to be able to process, move, live, and know that they are not on this journey alone, and there are people here that understand you. Talk to you soon.
About Pastor James Ford Jr.
Pastor James Ford Jr. has served as Senior Pastor of Christ Bible Church of Chicago (formerly South Shore Baptist Church), located on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, for 42 years. He is preceded in death by the love of his life, Leslie A. Ford, whom he affectionately called his Sugarbabe.
Pastor Ford is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and completed his Master’s degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Pastor Ford currently serves on the Board of Directors for Pacific Garden Mission and has served on several boards, including the Baptist General Conference’s Board of World Missions and the Board of Overseers, Board of Directors of the Ada S. McKinley Special Educational Services, Board of Directors of Fellowship Christian Academy, and the Alumni Board of Moody Bible Institute.
Pastor Ford is the senior pastor of Christ Bible Church of Chicago as well as the president of James Ford Jr Ministries, which is a ministry committed to strengthening marriages and developing leaders in the body of Christ. Pastor Ford provides the messages of “Treasured Truth For Troubling Times, which is aired daily over WMBI 90.1-FM, as well as over 160 WMBI syndicate and affiliate stations nationwide and in some U.S. territories.
Pastor Ford is an international conference speaker, seminar leader, and Bible teacher. He has served as an Adjunct Professor at Moody Bible Institute, an instructor for the Pacific Garden Mission’s Bible program in Chicago, Illinois and is a special instructor at the Ecola Bible School in Cannon Beach, Oregon. He has been a speaker at Moody Bible Institute’s annual Founder’s Week and has taught many courses in the Greater New Era District’s Bible program.
Pastor Ford has been honored as “Pastor of the Year (1993) by Moody Bible Institute and was bestowed an honorary Doctorate of Divinity by St. Thomas Christian University of Jacksonville, Florida. He has been lauded as an influential leader in the Christian community by “The Chicago People’s Voice” newspaper and “Man of the Year” by the Chicago Bible Association.
As an author, Pastor Ford is a contributor in the book “A Heart For the City”, published by Moody Press. He has authored 7 books: “When a Man Loves A Woman”; “Seven Reasons Why God Created Marriage”; “When A Woman Loves A Man”; “Living The Blessed Life”; “A New Look At An Old Prayer”; “Rules of Engagement”; and “What To Do When The Devil Talks To You”.