Tom and Dena Yohe discuss the struggles they experienced with their troubled teen daughter Renee, who suffered from depression, substance abuse and self-injury. The couple talks about the difficult path to their family's healing and recovery, and offers hope to other parents of wayward teens. (Part 2 of 2)
Mrs. Dena Yohe: Okay, whatever happens, even if she dies, I know God is with me. He will help me. He’ll give me the strength I need. Somehow I’ll survive, and I’ll be okay. And it was boiled down to the basics, and that was where I had to focus, but there weren’t many people I could talk to.
John Fuller: Tom and Dena Yohe were overwhelmed with the destructive choices that their daughter was making, and only with God’s help could they make it through what was years of overwhelming grief and shame from that tragic situation. This is “Focus on the Family,” and your host is Focus president, Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller, and today, we’ll continue our conversation with the Yohe’s to help your family thrive.
Jim Daly: John, there is one thing I’m certain of, and that is, there are parents listening right now who are struggling, because their teenager, maybe their preteen um … and maybe it’s their 20-something is kind of moving off the path they had hoped for. They’re not close to the Lord. They might be involved in some things that are sinful, and grieve the heart of the parents.
We started discussing that very thing last time with the Yohe’s. We’re gonna continue that discussion today. And uh … one of their three children struggled mightily in so many ways. If you didn’t hear the broadcast last time, I’d encourage you to get the download. Download the Smartphone app. Just contact us, ‘cause it is really a good conversation about where they did things well, and where they made some mistakes. And I so appreciate that vulnerability that they had last time, and I know they’re gonna bring this time.
Their daughter, Renee, was addicted to drugs and alcohol as a teenager. She was, I think, doing that in order to soothe her pain, and there were other issues, too. She was struggling with some mental health issues, suicidal thoughts, cutting herself. You might be living in one or more of those same … you might be living with one or more of those same situations and we don’t want you to be out there alone. We are here to help you.
In fact, Dena’s book is, You’re Not Alone, and certainly our heart is the same. We’re here for you. We have a counseling team. We have resources. We want to help as best as we can to stand in that gap with you. So, contact us today.
John: Yeah, we have a free parents guide at our website with practical advice on talking to your kids and teens about sensitive topics like bullying and self injury, sexting, and more. You can see that at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio. For counseling call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Jim: Tom and Dena, welcome back to the program.
Dena: Thank you, Jim. It’s good to be here.
Mr. Tom Yohe: Thank you for having us.
Jim: It was a really good discussion last time, very honest, very bold, very transparent, so thank you for that. We’re gonna continue that today and we left off last time where your daughter, Renee was um … partying and doing some things that were taking her away from God and a friend called who had been watching her and he and some other friends intervened with her that night and encountered the party and tried to get her out of there and she didn’t want to go into a program or anything. She wanted to party that night, but was willing to go the next day. Pick up the story there. They called you a couple days later to say we have Renee. She’s in a good place, but keep praying. Why were they asking you to keep praying?
Tom: Well, when they took her to the treatment center the next day, they wouldn’t take her, because she had fresh wounds on her arm and she wasn’t detoxed, and they didn’t do detoxing. So, they said bring her back in five days. And so, this group from our church kept her for five days and just kept her safe, until she could enter into the treatment center.
Tom: And that became the impetus of a big story and a … and a movement.
Jim: What came out of that, or what was highlighted. What made it newsworthy?
Tom: One of the persons who was part of that um … intervention wrote a story about those five days and asked Renee permission if he could post it. And she said yes, if it could help somebody, go ahead. He posted it on, then Myspace. It went viral and people began to respond all over the country.
He also worked for a T-shirt company and they printed T-shirts with the story on the inside of the … the shirt and “To Write Love on Her Arms” was the name of it on the shirt, and started selling it to help pay for her treatment. And they had to become a non-profit, it became so big and became public.
Jim: What a powerful thing though, that people responded. Why were they responding?
Tom: They could identify with what Renee was going through. They could identify with the struggles and the whole movement was to become … come out of the isolation. Come - connect - community and get help.
Jim: Why do you think so many young people today are finding their comfort in self-harm? What is happening there in a culture that’s so affluent that can provide certainly most needs, if not all the needs, and many of the wants, why do we suffer from this difficulty now that … that kids don’t feel a part of something big? They don’t feel good about themselves. What’s happening?
Dena: Well, Renee says this is something very, very private that she did to soothe her pain. And the reasons, as I’ve learned more about cutting, are quite complicated and long and varied. Uh … it can be because you feel guilty and you’re punishing yourself. It can be because you’re numb emotionally and you wanted to feel something.
Renee however, said she never felt any pain when she cut herself.
And she was so private about it. She did tell us that when people let you, if ... if your child lets you see their wounds, that’s their way of telling you they want you to ask them about it. But um …
Jim: A cry for help.
Dena: Yes, yes. but if they keep them hidden, again, most of them do that because it is very, very private. It’s something they cannot talk about. So, I don’t know that they really decide ahead of time unless it’s a … they just want to get attention. But the um … this is simply their way of dealing with deep, deep emotional pain that they are not able to verbalize, too afraid to verbalize.
Jim: Tom and Dena, as parents, looking at that, feeling it, getting the phone call, all of those emotions, how do you get up the next morning and just go through your daily routine? How do you have confidence in the Lord, that He’s got this? Because obviously, it feels like He doesn’t, if I could be that bold. Did you have straightforward discussions with God saying, “What are You doin’? And where—
Dena: A lot of ‘em. (Chuckling)
Jim: --what are we not doing? And can the three of us get together here and figure out what to do?” What does that feel like as the parents, when you’re not in any kind of control?
Tom: It’s … it’s a very hopeless and powerless feeling, and you know, I want so desperately to fix it, and I can’t. I don’t have any answers. This is far out of anything I can do. And I was angry with God, but it wasn’t an anger that I was going to say, therefore, I’m leaving, you know. I don’t want to know You, or whatever. I had to find different ways to connect with God uh … while this dichotomy, I guess, still was going on.
So, I would take walks and I would walk at night and stuff, and I’d look at the sky and the stars, and what have you, see God’s majesty.
Tom: So, I would thank Him for His majesty, thank Him for His creative power, thank Him for the beauty that I would see. So, I’d find ways to stay in the relationship, though, at the same time, I was angry. Why’d You let this happen to us? You know, we … we’re in full-time ministry and what’s goin’ on, you know?
Jim: Now let me ask you in that regard, and it’s completely natural, but it sounds understandably a bit transactional. Look at what we’re doing for You, Lord?
Jim: And this is what we get in return. Uh … I want to open that box up, because a lot of us think in those terms. Why is that not healthy?
Tom: Yeah, um… we’re… it’s not what I’m gonna do for Him, you know, that gets me merit, that gets me His favor.
Jim: Special favor.
Jim: Right, so nothing bad will befall you.
Tom: Yes, yeah. I’m not doin’ this to keep things from happening, you know. So, it … it was a... in a sense, a new refreshing openness to God. And as we realized looking at Genesis, how there was a perfect environment. God had set this up really good and Adam and Eve rebelled right out of the box, you know, right out of the gate.
What did He do wrong? You know, what more could He have done He didn’t do? Or what did He leave undone? And I realized then that God was a hurting parent, and He knows exactly what a hurting parent feels like.
Tom: Rejection, uh … I don’t want to have anything to do with you, you know. You’re … you’re terrible, you know.
And looking at, you know, I think as early as Genesis 8, you know, man had rebelled so much that God was ready to wipe ‘em out, but He was saying He was grieved in His heart. It grieved Him in His heart. And I’m going, that’s what I feel. I feel grief over the behaviors of my kid.
Jim: What were those Scriptures that gave you comfort?
Dena: Well, one of my favorites is Isaiah 41:10 and … because I was so full of fear, and this spoke right to it, and it says, “Do not fear, for I am with you. Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will help you. I will uphold you. I will strengthen you with My righteous right hand.” And I hung onto that, so many verses. I looked up every one I could find, and there’s over 300 that address fear, and do not fear, and it all boiled down for me to, that … okay, there wasn’t much I could know for sure.
Was Renee gonna overcome her addictions or not? Would she someday take her life? I didn’t know. I had no promises or guarantees of any of that. I had to let that go and give her back to God, and I … what could I know?
And I made a long list and at the top was, “Okay, whatever happens, even if she dies, I know God is with me. He will help me. He’ll give me the strength I need. Somehow, I’ll survive, and I’ll be okay.”
And it was boiled down to the basics, and that was where I had to focus, but there weren’t many people I could talk to that would understand.
Jim: Why is that? Is … that sounds like a hard statement. We should be able to talk to each other, especially in the church about these things. Why is it so difficult?
Dena: Well, um … what we found was that people are very quick to offer why they think it happened, like, oh, even one of our relatives [said], “Maybe you didn’t discipline her enough.” Another [said], “Maybe you were too harsh.”
Or “Maybe the …” and the … then you just retreat all the more, because okay, they think it’s me. Um …
Jim: So, isolation, they back up.
Jim: Friendships evaporate.
Dena: You know what, I … one of my … the person I thought was my best friend um … walked away. And la … years later she apologized and told me she just couldn’t go to those dark places with me. I was in such deep, deep grief and dealing with such traumatic things, um … and she had some things going on in her own life that she wasn’t telling me at the time and she just couldn’t do it. So, there’s a lot of pain and loss and grief and sadness um … with the fear. So, there aren’t many people that can handle that, that can carry that suitcase, as we say.
John: And if you’re feeling that the suitcase is not budging, that you just can’t get any traction at all, and that you’re alone in this journey—whether it’s a parenting journey or something else—give us a call here. We have caring Christian counselors. We’ve got resources like Dena’s book, You Are Not Alone. And we have that free parents guide to help you talk with your kids and teens about sensitive topics including self-injury, and suicide, and others. See it at focusonthefamily.com/radio. And of course we’ll offer whatever help we can when you call 1-800, the letter A and the word FAMILY
Jim: John, in fact, one of those ways that we can help you today is to put this resource in your hands and … and we’ll do that. Just by calling us, we’ll get that out to you. If you can help with a gift of any amount to help offset that cost, that’ll be great.
If you can’t afford it, we’ll get it in your hands anyway, so just give us a call and let us know that this resource would be helpful to you and we’ll find a way to get it done.
For those who can help support us, maybe you’re in a good spot. You don’t need the resource. Stand in the gap here. Be part of the ministry and minister to those who are struggling and I want to say thank you for helping us in that way.
Um … Tom and Dena, let me turn this question.
Jim: Let me turn to this question. Renee had ups and downs. Some people will experience immediate changes. I’ve heard those testimonies and it does happen.
Jim: I think it’s the smaller end of the percentage, but it does happen. I want to acknowledge that.
Jim: But for many, it’ll be up and down, maybe for months, maybe for a few more years, in and out of rehab, all those things.
Dena: That’s right.
Jim: How do you manage that and what was your story with Renee in this regard?
Tom: Yeah, we’d come to find out that relapse is more common and people aren’t going to go to a treatment center and come out, you know, all fixed and ready to go. There could be several, and that’s really hard for parents.
Tom: Yeah, we build hope. Renee, in fact, had a three-year period of sobriety and then relapsed.
Jim: Ah, so you felt you were on the way, I mean—
Dena: Oh, yeah.
Jim: --as a family.
Tom: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: And something happened.
Tom: Yeah, we thought we’re finally out of the woods.
Jim: How do you get up after that and still have hope?
Dena: Pretty devastating. I think a big piece of us was finding support groups. We had to find a community of other people who understood, who had been there, who could help us think right, in addition to staying as close to the Lord as we could in the Scriptures and in prayer. Um … but support groups are a big, big piece of our sanity and our recovery.
(Laughing) And um … we asked Renee after one of her rehabs where we were consumed with, “Okay, what do we need to be sure that you’re doing, or not doing, and checking up on you?” And … and so, I asked her one day, “So, Renee, what do you need from us now?” And I expected this list, and I was gonna be glad to be doin’ it. And she turned the finger back on me and said, “I just need you to work your own recovery, because when you do, that helps me.”
Jim: Wow, what … what … for us to catch that, what did she mean straightforwardly by that?
Dena: Take care of myself. Focus on me and do what I need to be doing to stay strong and to keep growing, irregardless of what she’s doing.
Jim: That was a good word.
Dena: Very good.
Tom: One of the things she explained about that is, if I know you’re working your program, that you’re … you’re growing and trying to be healthy, this relieves the guilt that I carry over the pain that I caused you. And so, that was one of the reasons. But then also knowing that we can’t work somebody else’s program.
Dena: We can’t make them—
Tom: You know, we really—
Dena: --do anything.
Tom: --our own. You can only control yourself.
Dena: Yes, maybe (Laughter)--
Tom: Yeah, that’s right. (Laughter)
Dena: --only with a lot of help from God.
Tom: Good caveat, yeah, that’s for sure.
Jim: Uh …Renee still had difficulties. You weren’t—
Dena: She did.
Jim: --out of the woods. You had more moments that caused you great concern. Can you describe some of those that you continued to work through?
Tom: Yeah, it … we almost become [sic] traumatized by some of the events and so, when …
Jim: And she’s in her 20’s at this point?
Tom: Yes, she’s in her 20’s at this … she’s an adult and uh … you know, you can get these phone calls in the middle of the night, so much so that, you know, they become triggers,
you know. If you hear a phone ringing in … in the evening, what’s happening? What crisis are we gonna walk into now?
Dena: I developed PTSD myself.
Tom: And we just start reacting, you know, to what we … we’ve been through before. And it … it can build. It can continue, so much so, that even we can react to our other children out of that mode, rather than from who they are.
April, he sister, two years younger, observed all this thing, was going through all this with us and she … she was doing great. She had healthy friends and what have you and one night she wanted to spend the night, and it just … something triggered in me.
Jim: Oh, sure.
Tom: And I started grilling her. You know, who … where are you goin’? What are you …? And stuff and she goes, “Dad, I’m not Renee.”
Tom: I go, “You’re right.” I … I jumped into—
Tom: --that pattern.
Jim: Of protection.
Jim: That’s not a bad thing, but understandably.
Tom: But that’s not who I was dealing with at—
Tom: --at the moment.
Jim: Let … with the next few minutes, let’s do this. Let’s talk about signs in your teen that should catch your attention--it’s included in the book-- just some of those things to be observant about. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have bigger issues, maybe like with what your family has suffered with, but describe those signs that parents should be in tune with and kind of alert them to having more dialogue and discussion with your … your teen.
Dena: Well, I think initially they would be really glaringly obvious, so a dramatic change in their friends. Their grades start to drop if they’re in school. Maybe they’re … the way they dress starts to change. Our daughter started to wear all black. Spending a lot more time alone in their bedroom. Being a lot more argumentative than usual. Um …
Jim: That could be a hard one to define. (Laughter)
Dena: Yeah, it’s been usual.
Jim: Been usual. (Laughter)
Dena: Um … maybe you notice that um … they’re listening to angrier style music. And a loss of interest in activities they had previously taken pleasure and enjoyment in.
Jim: Yeah, those are good things again to be aware of and start that dialogue, if—
Jim: --you have a couple of those things at work. Yeah, you know, it’s so important for us at the end of the two days here, we need to hear how Renee is doing today and … and where she’s at and how Michael and April, your other two children, adult children now, how they’re doing. And you look back at the aftermath and the ashes, um … where are things at?
Tom: She’s probably the healthiest she’s been in decades, you know.
Tom: Physically, emotionally, spiritually, she’s working her program. She’s very active in that. And she’s got a good counselor that she really connects with, and she’s really working hard with her. And so, she’s in a good place, and the family, as well. We enjoy getting together. We have family times together, whenever we can, and whenever schedules allow us. So, it … we’re in a good place right now.
Jim: In fact, Renee is a very successful artist. She’s a musician and songwriter and uh … a lot of those songs, I’m sure, come out of her experiences, her pain.
Dena: Uh-hm, uh-hm.
Jim: And they touch the lives of other … and they touch the lives of others, much like the movement To Write Love on Her Arms.
Jim: And uh … that’s something good that’s come from this dark place, isn’t it?
Dena: Oh, yes, yes. People who meet her say that just the fact that she has survived and she’s doing well today gives them hope for themselves and that’s what we want to do for parents, to let them know that they can not only just survive, but they can come to even thrive again, and that there is hope, that if their child is still breathing, that there’s still hope.
Jim: Yeah, and that’s a good reminder for all of us. Describe that ministry that you have now, Hope for Hurting Parents. What is the ministry? What does it look like? What do you do?
Tom: Well, we realized there wasn’t a good support for parents walking through this and so, we said when we got to some semblance of health ourselves, we wanted to start a support group just for parents. We weren’t there to fix their kids. We’re just there to help support the parents, so we started that support group.
And then out of that, we began realizing that there aren’t other groups other … elsewhere, so we wrote a manual to help get support groups going and we called it Hope for Hurting Parents.
Jim: And it’s really a manual to just … can help a small group leader take the reins and look for those parents that are hurting. They’re plentiful.
Dena: So we …
Jim: --the truth of it.
Dena: Yes, so we … it … we wanted to put that out there, because we can only multiply ourselves so far. (Clearing Throat) This can help individuals or churches start these groups. Um … and then through our website, um … we offer a blog, uh … a lot of resources and then people can sign up to receive a free e-mail subscription that I write, just words of hope and encouragement and comfort.
Jim: That is good. Um … Tom and Dena, I’m mindful that there are parents who are still in the fog. Their kids are kind of where Renee was at the bottom, and they can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. And for other parents, maybe their kids now are in their 30’s.
They’re still not seeing light at the end of the tunnel. They’re living in this constant fear, this kind of PTSD that you described, Dena, that the phone rings. What’s the next major catastrophe that’s gonna hit us now? Speak to that parent. Where can they draw hope? Where do they go today and tomorrow? How do they get up? How do they function when their heart is so heavy for their kids that are not walkin’ with the Lord or struggling with the vices of this world?
Tom: I would … I would say, one of the big things, please don’t isolate. Please try to find a safe person to talk to, to confide in, to come alongside you in this time and support you, pray for you. They don’t have to have answers. They don’t have to do a lot of talking, basically just listen. And realize that God is not your adversary in this. He’s your ally. Draw close to Him, because He knows your pain. He feels that pain. He understands it perfectly and so, you can take great comfort in that relationship. Draw strength from him.
Dena: Draw close to Him.
Tom: Yeah and then work on your … your physical. Eat well. Sleep. Get exercise.
Tom: Those things are so important for your own mental, emotional, spiritual health.
Jim: Tom, that’s from a dad’s perspective. Dena, what about a mom’s perspective?
Dena: Yeah, well, I knew that I had to take one day at a time to get through this. I … and I couldn’t rush it. I couldn’t dwell on the past or … or regret it. And I couldn’t live in fear of the future or dread it, because I … I couldn’t control that either.
Jim: Yeah. Tom and Dena, you have done, once again, a courageous job helping us to think about where we’re at in our parenting, where our preteens, our teens, our 20-something or maybe 30-somethings may be at. How to maintain a healthy relationship with the Lord, how to maintain trust and hope in Him, even when it looks hopeless. It’s kind of a discussion of the parenting version of Job, isn’t it?
Jim: How do you continue to trust in God when nothing circumstantially supports your desire to trust in God. But it’s true and we need to hand onto light at the end of the tunnel. You never know how your wayward child will turn and at what point he or she will turn, but we need to maintain hope for that very outcome. Thank you both for being with us and in a moment, I want you, Tom to come back and pray for those struggling parents.
John: And for now, we’d ask you to write uh… this number down so you can call and talk to one of our counselors, if this program has impacted you, if you’ve been thinking, man, I need some help. I … I’ve been isolated as Tom and Dena talked about. Get out of that isolation um … with the local church, or give us a call. Our number is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. And we’ve got resources like Dena’s book, You Are Not Alone, and a CD or download of this program. You can also connect with a counselor in your area. We have a counseling referral tool, and you’ll find all of this and more at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
And this remiinder that we are listener supported. We need your generosity. And when you support the outreach of Focus on the Family today with a gift of any amount, none is too large or too small, we’ll send a copy of Dena’s helpful book as our way of saying thank you.
Jim: Tom, let’s have you pray for parents, specifically, of the prodigals.
Tom: Okay. Father, we lift up to You the moms and dads who are hurting over their children and perhaps some of the destructive ways that they’re living their lives. Uh … we pray that You would bring comfort to their hearts. I ask that You would bring light and encouragement to them.
Give them the strength that they need each day to get up and to face that day, to go through the many activities that they may have. Uh … Lord bring good people along their path. Bring somebody who’s safe that they can talk to and confide in, who will listen to them, who will pray and intercede for them.
And thank You so much that we have the confidence that Jesus ever lives to make intercession for us, that we’re not in this fight alone. We’re not in this battle by ourselves and we thank You that Jesus has come to give us the victory and we thank You for Him. We thank You for what He means in our lives and we pray that our children will come to know that power and that meaningful relationship with Him, as well. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Jim: Amen, and I’m mindful of the fact that we have spoken to parents, but we know there are teens and 20-somethings listening. If you’re in that spot, call us, ‘cause I know God loves you as much as He loves any one of us at the table here.
Dena: Uh-hm, yes.
Jim: And that’s the key. Tom and Dena, thank you so much for being with us.
Tom: Thank you for having us.
Dena: Thank you.
John: And once again, help is a phone call away. Our number is 800-232-6459.
Well, thanks for listening to Focus on the Family. On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, I'm John Fuller inviting you back as we once again help you and your family thrive in Christ.
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Tom and Dena YoheView Bio
Tom and Dena Yohe (pronounced "Yoy") are the co-founders of Hope for Hurting Parents, a ministry dedicated to helping parents who are grieving over the destructive choices of their teen and adult children. The Yohes' ability to bring advice and encouragement to parents is born out of the dark times they experienced with their formerly troubled daughter, Renee, who suffered from addiction, depression, self-injury and suicidal thoughts. Renee has recovered and is now enjoying a successful career as a singer-songwriter and jewelry designer. Her story is the genesis of a global non-profit movement called To Write Love on Her Arms and a movie by the same name. Tom is a former pastor and Dena a former social worker, and both have served on the staff of Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ). Dena is author of the book You Are Not Alone: Hope for Hurting Parents of Troubled Kids. Tom and Dena reside in Florida and have three grown children.