When Mental Illness Barges In
I remember when mental illness invaded our happy home. It was like an unwanted, obnoxious guest moved in, uninvited and unannounced. That was in 2004, when our last child was entering his senior year in high school. Over the years, it’s been a tumultuous journey with some very low lows, but also significant times of hope and joy as well. A few key practices stand out to me, though, as I look back to see us not only as survivors, but as a family that can thrive even with the presence of this “unwanted guest.” Hopefully others who also have entered into this unplanned-for life can benefit from some practices I’ve found helpful over the years. I’m writing as a parent of someone with mental illness, but I think most of these practices relate whether your loved one is a child, parent, sibling or spouse.
- Recognize this disease is not your fault. Mental illnesses are proven brain disorders. Certainly, environment can influence the disease, but you did not cause this illness in your loved one, any more than you could cause your loved one to have cancer. So don’t get bogged down in guilt and self-questioning. Instead, learn all you can about the disease in order to help your loved one live the best life possible with this disease.
- Understand the fact that your loved one did not choose this illness. He/she is facing many of the same disappointments in life that you’ve experienced as a result of this disease. When your frustration level rises, try to empathize with your family member, remembering that you are both feeling the loss of shattered hopes and dreams.
- Advocate for your loved one. Often those suffering with a brain illness such as depression or anxiety don’t even have the energy to make the first call for help. So offer your assistance in finding counselors, a good psychiatrist, and other resources that may be offered in learning how to live with this disease. And be patient in finding the right fit.
- Take care of yourself. Often when we are thrown into the role of care-giver, we spend so much time and energy picking up the pieces, or guarding the safety of our loved one or other family members, that we take no time for ourselves. Taking care of yourself will mean getting out with a close friend or two who can listen and stand by you, without judgement of your family member. It means making sure you take time for the things you enjoy without guilt, possibly even taking a vacation without the ill family member. Caring for yourself means scheduling time with a counselor so you can talk through your feelings and receive guidance in how to help your loved one with the illness. Caring for yourself means joining groups like your local chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). They offer wonderful classes and support groups. Whatever you choose to do, remember you need to stay healthy and stable so you can better support your family member.
- Most importantly, take some quiet time each day to pray, meditate, and find encouragement through means outside of yourself. For me, my resource of strength and help was (and is) the Bible, and talking to a loving God. Others may have a different source of refreshment and soul care. But do take time each day for this. You will need it to sustain you so you can thrive in this unplanned for life.
I wouldn’t have chosen this life, but I know I’m a different and better person because of it. I know God more deeply, am more compassionate toward others who have difficulties in life, and hopefully have grown to be a more patient person. Our home is once again a peaceful home, as we’ve all learned to “tame” the uninvited guest.
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