What my mentally ill loved one taught me

by Alice Woodrome

Image by Alice Woodrome

Mental illness in the family is a tragedy; there is no denying it. I can scarcely imagine a more difficult problem with which a family must come to terms. In some ways it is like the death of a family member, but there is more to do than learn to accept it, much more. This is a heartache that time does not heal. Outpourings of understanding and support from the community are rare. More often we feel alone and might even be suspected of contributing to the illness, even by some of the doctors from whom we seek help for our family member. The mental illness of a loved one is an "in your face" sort of problem that must be dealt with perpetually. There are times when we feel like we have reached the limit of our endurance, but there is no quitting. Love demands our involvement and so we keep going, doing what we can, even when nothing we do seems to make much difference. We do it because, as hard as it is at times to keep going, there seems to be no other option with which we can live.

Little that is difficult in life, though, fails to teach us. So it is that I find myself reflecting today on some of the things I am learning because I have a mentally ill loved one.

It seems clear that I am not the "master of my fate." I had other plans for my life and believed I had the will and wit to accomplish my goals. Life had other plans, however, and I am learning how arrogant it was to think that we are in control. The test of our worth is how we meet the challenges of our life.

I've learned that I can't make another person happy. I can't even make my loved one want to live. I can't make her get up in the mornings or keep her appointments or take her medications. I can't "make" her do anything. The best I can do is encourage her to make healthy choices.

I've found that it is foolish to trust a "system." Functionaries in the mental health system can be, and often are, helpful, and many care; but no one in the system is losing sleep over my ill loved one. I cannot depend on them to put her welfare above other considerations. That is why it is good to remember that the "squeaky wheel" is the one most likely to get the grease.

I've accepted that "the best I can do is all I can do." There are some problems I can't resolve, not by explaining, writing articles or sending letters to powerful people, not by networking or threatening or crying or pleading.

I am learning that I have to take care of myself first. Not only because that is the only way I can "be there" for my ill loved one, but because I am worthy of care, as well. Her needs are not the only important ones. My needs and those of all family members should be considered. There is nothing laudable about burning out.

I've learned to listen with understanding and empathy to outlandish tales born of paranoia. Advice at such a time is not useful; reasoning does not work, but listening is helpful. Respect is always in order and can often defuse a volatile situation.

I'm learning what "sufficient to the day is the evil thereof" means and I have come to appreciate the wisdom of taking one day at a time. Sometimes one hour at a time is all I can handle.

It has been my experience that true friends are ready to help when I am at the end of my rope, but I usually have to tell them what I need. They will even hold my hope for me until I am ready to take it back.

I've become convinced that the right medication is at least as important as the right doctor or a supportive family. It is worth searching for.

I've learned that I don't need a successful child to be content. I don't care if she ever graduates college or gets a good job. My wish for her is to have friends and something interesting to do with her time. It is enough for her to be happy to be alive.

I'm learning patience. Oh, am I learning patience and to be pleased with little accomplishments, to praise every effort and each step in the right direction. Recovery from a psychotic break is not always possible, but even when it is, it can take an excruciatingly long time. Every small success is a triumph worth celebrating.

I've learned that when I trust that my loved one is doing the best she can, she seems to make better progress.

I've learned that the road to recovery is rocky and often circles back to where we've been; but knowing that can keep me from despairing when my loved one has a crisis. I've also learned that the severity of a crisis is determined too often by how many beds are available.

I am accepting that it is not my job to make things happen the way I think they should. Sometimes love does call for action, but I cannot invest myself too heavily into things turning out the way I want them to be. I have done my job when I have acted in love and have done the best I can.

I've come to believe that I can't expect society to become educated about mental illness if I am not willing to be open about my own family's experiences. I can't expect them to accept those with mental illnesses if I act like mental illness is something of which to be ashamed.

I am learning that many of those with mental illnesses do not have a "squeaky wheel" to watch out for them, and that their needs are often overlooked if those of us who can advocate for them, do not. Compassion requires that I do more than "look out for my own."