If you’ve ever been in church on a Sunday, you’ve heard the Pastor say “the things that happened to you..weren’t meant for you to hide and keep to yourself. Share your testimony and help someone else.”So when a colleague asked me to write an article for families dealing with mental illness, I thought, this is one of those times I have to share. It is with great care and respect that I share my personal experience to show the difficulty in caring for a loved one with a mental illness. I did, however change the name and details of all parties in order to protect their privacy.
*Aunt Sarah acted erratically for months. She got word of possibly losing her job of 15 yrs. Yet, she was happy and calm each evening she returned home. I noticed she was almost too calm for the daily stress she endured. Something changed and in the next weeks, she starting chanting church hymns over and over, locking the windows in her home and cutting the phone cords. Then we found her writing letters to the police because she thought they were following her. I panicked immediately because I knew these were possible signs of psychosis. We put her in the hospital after she threatened to run outside naked.
No one likes to discuss the idea a family member is mentally ill. But we all know someone who takes “nerve pills” and possibly have that one Uncle/Aunt goes away to the hospital for days at a time without anyone blinking an eye. Families normally cope by 1) pretending nothing’s wrong and ignoring their family member. Or, 2) becoming so involved with care that they become stressed out. This is why counselors and mental health professionals encourage family members to balance time between caring for loved ones with setting boundaries for their own personal time.
BE AWARE YOUR EMOTIONS WILL FLUCTUATE. Aunt Sarah’s behavior embarrassed me even though I knew her it was an illness. I had to bite my tongue when I’d get angry after she refused to see a counselor. It’s normal to struggle with feelings of fear, anger, or even confusion trying to help a loved one needing psychiatric care. It’s rare that families are ever prepared to deal with mental illness so you aren’t alone. Whatever emotions you feel, accept it without judgement as chaos is sometimes part of the process. Counselor’s tip: Your local NAMI chapter is an excellent resource for family members dealing with mental illness. NAMI provides free information, support groups for family members, and workshops to educate and empower families who need assistance managing mental illness.
YOU WILL NEVER BE OF HELP IF YOU DON’T LEARN TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. There wasn’t a time when I didn’t feel overwhelmed watching my Aunt. I knew she needed help, but also knew she could refuse until she became a risk to herself or others. (I’m a licensed counselor but it was harder for me to deal with because it was my family). I knew the rules of crisis but felt powerless. Thankfully, I reached out to my therapist friends crying, wondering what to do, and expressing my anger. They reminded me my degree in social work couldn’t fix my Aunt. My friends told me to pray, check on my aunt when I could, but to stop playing Superwoman. In other words, I had to take care of me in order to have room to help her. Counselor’s Tip: one of the best suggestions for supporting families with mental illnesses is to make time for yourself. If you are weak from 3 hours of sleep, you can only give weakness. Mental illness of creates a sense on instability and affects everyone around the person even with treatment. For that reason, family members have to create time for themselves. No man is an island even when family is ill.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE IN HEALING: One of the biggest struggles for me was letting go of the fantasy that Aunt Sarah would suddenly be healed and normal again. It’s possible,but a more realistic picture may more look like medication and therapy. This means I, like you, may have to encourage your loved ones to keep doctors appointments and take medications as prescribed. It also means we look for negative signs and create a plan to avoid crisis. The goal is for normalcy but it’s all subjective. There will be days when they decide “I don’t need meds anymore” after 3 months of success with medication. This is all part of the process and while frustrating, it’s part of the new normal. Counselor’s Tip: Accepting healing takes different forms is important to provide support and empowering your family member to make as many choices in their treatment as possible. Allow loved ones to determine their health care choices as much as possible even when it doesn’t fit with your plan. Aunt Sarah decided she didn’t want to take her meds after a while and my family had to accept her choice. (We weren’t happy about it but she hasn’t gone back to the hospital since.)
My experience with Aunt Sarah shattered my belief that we can change people before they are ready. I had a degree, but she still had the right to choose her own treatment. I worked on supporting her from a distance, taking care of myself before trying to intervene, and trusting God would provide the other resources (doctors, counselors, friends) to look after her. The same applies to your family (unless there is a risk of harm to self or others). In these cases, please do not hesitate to call 911 for immediate assistance and care for your loved one.
Thank you for visiting LorriKey.com. I’d love to answer questions or comments regarding this post. Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me. Also, reach out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI.org) or by calling 1-800- 950-NAMI (6264)