Jump directly to the Content

Portrait of a Marriage: "Forget Me Not"

A virus threatened to take Chris Maxwell's life. Instead, it took his mind, and left Chris and Debbie scrambling to pick up the pieces.
Portrait of a Marriage: "Forget Me Not"

The week of March 6, 1996, started out normal for Chris Maxwell. The driven pastor of a small, tight-knit church, he lived in Orlando with his wife, Debbie, and their three sons, Taylor, Aaron, and Graham. But within days, Chris began to suffer from excruciating headaches and a fever. Both Chris and Debbie thought it was just the flu, but Chris was rarely sick. "He never missed a day of work or an appointment. He never took medicine," Debbie says.

Then Chris began to experience episodes of fainting. He also became delusional. "He thought he saw rabbits running through the house," Debbie remembers. "He called the associate pastor and became upset about the steeple on our church. We didn't have a steeple."

After dropping off their kids at her parents' house, Debbie rushed Chris to the hospital, where physicians ran a battery of tests. "They had me talk to a psychiatrist about Chris," says Debbie. "They thought maybe he'd had a breakdown."

They also suspected a drug overdose. "I was so messed up mentally," Chris recalls. "My face was twitching. My eyes watering." He felt trapped inside his own body, not realizing how seriously ill he'd become. "I remember my first MRI," he says. "All these women were standing and staring at me. Then they put me in this tunnel. Why are they doing this to me? I thought. They've kidnapped me. There's nothing wrong with me."

Yet within hours Chris couldn't even form coherent sentences. "He would try to talk," says Debbie. "But his sentences weren't words; they were syllables. It was like scrambled eggs. Nothing made sense. That really scared me, and I kept thinking, What's wrong with him?"

"I thought they'd just give me a shot and I'd be on my way home," says Chris. "So I became angry and argued against every test. I couldn't understand why they were treating me as if I were going to die."

Even though Debbie was worried, she had moved into denial. Until they performed a spinal tap. "I couldn't deny it, then. I knew Chris was seriously in trouble. And I became terrified."

"I wanted my Chris back. And I was upset that I couldn't have him. That I was stuck with this new Chris."

Eventually, doctors diagnosed Chris with viral encephalitis, the medical term for inflammation of the brain. But this wasn't the external kind that comes from a mosquito bite. This was the internal virus. No one could explain how Chris had contracted it. They knew only that for some reason his immune system was unable to fight the virus.

The layout of a normal, healthy brain is similar to that of a roadmap, with straight lines, streets, and roads. But imagine someone using a thick marker to cover that neatly drawn map with haphazard scribbles. Instead of seeing lines, the only thing visible are patches of white. That would closely describe the MRI scan and condition of the left temporal lobe of Chris's brain.

As a result of the brain damage caused by encephalitis, Chris began to suffer seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy.

Chris stayed in the hospital ten days. Debbie sat faithfully by his bed. "I began to wonder, How am I going to make it? How can I keep it all together? How is Chris going to be different? I didn't want to question God; I really tried to trust him—but some days it was so difficult." One day Debbie was so overwhelmed, she drove to her mother's house. "He can't die. He's just so sick," she sobbed. "He doesn't know me. He thinks everybody's out to get him."

Then there was the day when Chris reached for some ice cream with a fork. "You ever tasted this before?" he stuttered to Debbie. "This is good!"

"Yes," she replied. "It's ice cream. You like it."

Poking his fingers into the spaghetti, he complained, "This is messy."

Debbie handed Chris the fork and said, "Try using this."

Chris had to relearn so many things. Debbie had to educate him on the purpose of toilets and toilet paper and showers.

"I thought once they diagnosed him and treated the virus, Chris would revert to his old self," Debbie says. "But this new self was the one sticking around."

The new Chris

When Chris was finally released from the hospital, he and Debbie believed the worst was behind them. Yet the months and years to come would prove to be equally, if not more, challenging.

Debbie swallowed most of the emotions she faced regarding how different Chris had become. "I was the one holding the family together," she says. She took over the household and parenting responsibilities, as well as becoming a full-time caregiver.

Chris wasn't allowed to drive and had a difficult time speaking normally for the first six months following his illness. While regular speech therapy helped him eventually regain many basic language skills, he struggled to remember the simplest words—including the names of his kids.

But it was Chris's out-of-control emotions, a result of both the brain injury and the seizure medication, that most wearied and frustrated Debbie.

"He'd get very angry with the boys—almost violent," Debbie says. "It was so difficult to support him as a wife yet help him see that he'd gone overboard with his anger. He'd also cry all the time—at commercials, at television shows. Sometimes he'd cry for no reason. In the first 15 years of our marriage, I think I saw him cry twice. Suddenly I was seeing him cry daily."

What also frustrated her was Chris's refusal to believe anything was wrong with him or that he'd truly changed. "I was in total rebellion," he says. "There were a few times when I took the car keys and drove when I wasn't supposed to. I'd come home, thinking Debbie would be proud of me for proving, I can still do this. Instead, she was ready to call the doctor. She was afraid I might have a seizure in the car."

Then there was his moodiness and paranoia. "I'd be watching television and Chris would barge in and say, 'Who are you talking to?' He was convinced I was having an affair," Debbie says.

"I felt like everybody was against me," Chris explains. "She tried to convince me of how much things had changed. But for almost a year, I didn't see it that way."

One afternoon, about eight months after the illness struck, Chris announced he'd been weaning himself from his medication. Debbie exploded. "Who gave you the right to do that? You're going to die and leave me to raise these three boys by myself!" She called Chris's doctors who finally convinced him the medicine was crucial for his survival.

It wasn't until the first Christmas after his illness that Chris began to accept how deeply the encephalitis had affected his brain. "I was in my office, catching up on some work, and I began listening to some old preaching tapes of mine. I started comparing them to my recent sermons, where I couldn't even read aloud anymore. I had people coming up to the pulpit to read for me. I realized, Maybe I am as bad as they've been saying."

Chris finally faced the reality of how much his daily routine had been altered. His memory had been so impacted that in order for him to remember where forks, knives, or car keys were located, they must always remain in the same place. Debbie also discovered that Chris's illness caused him to develop obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He would wash his hands multiple times before dinner, or brush his teeth three different times before leaving the house. "He's even more determined to be places early," Debbie says. "He lives by a list. And he doesn't want any surprises."

Chris's structured lifestyle discouraged Debbie at times. As a result of his brain injury, he requires more sleep in order for his mind to function. An afternoon nap is essential, and he needs to be in bed by 9 p.m. "If we go to a birthday party," Debbie says, "Chris and I drive separate cars, because he'll be able to stay only for half an hour before he needs to head home and get ready for bed. Otherwise, he'll be so tired the next day that he's barely able to talk."

During the first five years following his illness, Chris slowly grew accustomed to his new life. Debbie, meanwhile, held everything in until it almost killed her. "There were times I wanted to die," Debbie confesses. "I don't believe in divorce, and I wouldn't do that to my children. But there were times when I felt bad enough that I wanted to be out of the situation. I wanted my Chris back. And I was upset that I couldn't have him. That I was stuck with this new Chris.

"I remember one Saturday morning when Chris was in one of his moods. I said something to him, and he completely took it the wrong way. I thought, I know this mood and I can't take it today. I took my car keys and left. I drove to the beach and prayed, Lord help me. This is too hard."

To cope, Debbie turned to food. "I gained a lot of weight. After everybody was in bed and I was by myself, food was a comfort. I wish I could have found someone to talk to. I didn't want to talk to anyone at church, because Chris was the pastor. I tried talking to some family members, but they didn't understand. I needed help learning how to handle everything. Maybe I would have healed faster if I'd had that help. As it was, it took me eight years to come to grips with the changes. That this is our life. Period."

Debbie discovered, though, that even in her darkest moments, God was there to comfort her. "I had to learn to love, accept, and appreciate what I'd been given. I was being selfish and thinking, This isn't the man I married. He's different. Instead, I needed to acknowledge, God, this is the gift you've given me."

Hope renewed

For the first five years following his illness, Chris experimented with different seizure medications. In 2001, he finally found one that helped control his seizures while also stabilizing his mood swings. "My relationship with Debbie improved because I was able to manage my emotions," Chris says. Chris felt more at peace, and began desiring physical intimacy again with his wife—something the earlier medicines had dampened.

Three years later, Chris also began visiting a therapist. He realized how much he and Debbie missed out by not engaging in regular counseling during the early years of his recovery.

"Sometimes we think if we didn't do something wrong, or aren't struggling with a blatant sin such as adultery or an addiction, then we just have to work our way through it," Chris says. "But any life-changing experience, whether it's living through a hurricane, the death of a loved one, or a disability, needs to be addressed in the right way. If we could hit rewind, Debbie and I both should have gone to counseling immediately."

Debbie adds, "We were a pastor's family. I think we wondered, What are people going to think about us if we go to counseling? But it's something the whole family should have had."

As Chris and Debbie began to examine what they'd learned through his years of recovery, they realized God had new opportunities in store for them. They could minister to others who were struggling through long-term disabilities.

Chris has been given the opportunity to speak in hospitals and across the country at such venues as the National Epilepsy Foundation. "None of this would have happened if my old self, the one with a healthy male ego, had refused to talk about my weaknesses," says Chris. "But doors are opening because people can relate to the trouble we've been through. They need hope."

As a result of his illness, Chris and Debbie have become more committed partners in their marriage. They hope that their ordeal will stand as a positive example when their boys get married one day and face trials of their own. "We'll be able to share with them how we've walked through the valley of the shadow of death," Chris says. "We can walk with them through it as well."

Chris, Debbie, and their middle and youngest sons recently relocated from Orlando to Franklin Springs, Georgia, where Chris is campus pastor at Emmanuel College. Both Chris and Debbie are excited about their opportunity to reach new people and share God's faithfulness through times of uncertainty.

He still suffers from epilepsy. He still needs his afternoon naps, and still struggles with remembering names and simple things.

"We still don't have an answer as to why this happened to us," Debbie says. "But I know that it rains on both the righteous and unrighteous. And just as we accept goodness from the hand of God, we have to accept those things from him that we view as difficult, and understand that he's carrying us through them. And he wants us to learn something through it.

"We aren't promised an easy life," Debbie adds. "God has definite plans for us, and they may be different from the plans we have for ourselves. But he won't leave us. He's going to walk with us and help us."

"This 'new me' is a man I wouldn't have chosen to be," adds Chris. "But God and Debbie are faithful. And I love them even more because of that."

Corrie Cutrer, a freelance writer, lives in Illinois. For more information about Chris and Debbie's experience, check out Chris's book Changing My Mind(LifeSprings Resources). www.chrismaxwellweb.com

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Corrie Cutrer

Corrie Cutrer is a writer who lives in Tennessee with her family. She's also a former assistant editor of Today's Christian Woman and recipient of several EPA writing awards. She is currently a regular contributor for Today's Christian Woman.

Free CT Women Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: CT's weekly newsletter to help you make sense of how faith and family intersect with the world.

Read These Next


Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter

Follow Us

More Newsletters