In honor of Mental Illness Awareness Week
As often as I’ve wished that I could take away my daughter’s pain, I can’t. Living with depression and anxiety will be part of her life forever. Over the years our family has learned that living with neurodivergence has ebbs and flows. There are periods of time when she feels fine, and periods when the dark returns. We continue to look out for symptoms of slips or relapse. Studies show that up to 96% of family members can identify the warning signs of an impending relapse. Having the support of family and friends leads to better treatment outcomes.
Our lives changed the day my daughter woke up and said, “I’m not hungry.” She passed on breakfast. Soon she passed on lunches and dinners too. We were plunged into a world we didn’t understand and that terrified us. No matter how many times I begged her to eat, reminded her that cars can’t drive without fuel, every bite was a battle. My happy child became sullen and angry. She hurt herself.
I was ashamed, felt like a failure as a mom. I didn’t understand what was happening and didn’t want anyone to know the details of what felt like a personal and solitary battle. I would learn that my response was a manifestation of stigma. I would also learn the sad truth that we were not unique. One in 5 teenagers struggle with a mental health condition, and that was pre-Covid. Numbers are skyrocketing, and we must pay attention.
I’ve learned a lot over the last eight years, and share what helped me and my family in the hope that it may help you too. With my daughter’s permission, my passion is talking about mental illness to normalize what so many people are experiencing. Here are five tips that family members can use to help themsevles and their loved ones.
Identify Your Superpower
Which is not control. Maybe your superpower is the ability to remain calm. Maybe it’s compassion. Maybe you can pick your battles. Whatever it is cultivate it and remember that trying to control other people or their illness doesn'thelp, and may do more harm than good.
Learn New Vocabulary/Talk About Tough Stuff
What we say matters. Be respectful. Refrain from making thoughtless jokes, bullying, or talking about treatment for “wackos” or “loonies.” Even saying my daughter “struggles” has been a hard habit to break. I have to practice swapping out the negative word for more neutral terms like lives with or, simply, has. “Struggle” is a label I attached to her journey. It might not be her word.
Also, do learn how to use "I" statements. Take pleas for help seriously, and talk about suicide. Ask the question. If you're concerned for someone's safety call 911 or take them to the E.R. Ask questions like, "Do you feel hopeless? Do you have a plan to kill yourself." If they answer yes, seek help immediately. Don’t say things like “Get over it" or "you're fine, aren't you?"
See a therapist yourself, for the work you have to do and to help you better understand your loved one. Do additional research. It may be hard to find time, but mental illness is a complex condition and needs to be treated as such. The more you know and understand the more empathy and compassion you develop about what your loved one and whole family are experiencing. Consider a support group, or contact your local National Alliance on Mental Illness affiliate. Look for additional resources in the community like local colleges that may offer counseling services to the general public for sliding scale fees.
We can’t assume that a loved one who is getting good grades or going to work is “fine.” While severe mental illness or relapses impair functionality, many people live with “functional” illness and need treatment. If we had viewed our daughter’s situation solely through the lens of school work and grades, she wouldn’t have gotten the help she needed.
Exercise Mindful Presence
When your loved one is lost in the abyss of a depressive episode or other mental health issue, they are not thinking clearly. Trying to rationalize, instruct, and reason with someone at this time is ineffective. The most powerful tool you have at your disposal to help is YOU, if you can remain calm and judgment free. Being fully present in the face of what can be extreme behavior takes practice and patience and helps you as much as your loved one.
Click this link to watch a 2 minute clip as Jon Kabat-Zinn explains what mindfulness is.
As hard as it may be: Make Self-Care a Priority and State of Mind
The old adage is true: You can’t pour from an empty cup. Burnout is not just for helping professionals. Living with the affects of a mental illness can be exasperating, draining, and hard. You may be juggling life with other family members and a job, trying to do the best you can while being stretched too thin. Whatever form it takes—reading a good book, soaking in the tub, going for a walk, or creating art (my personal favorite)—find a few minutes of down time to cope in the way that works best for you.
See what it feels like to face the day by saying, "Whatever needs to be done, I'll do with my welfare in mind." I'm so passionate about it I co-founded a Facebook group called Self-Care Sisters. It's a private group for women. Maybe you'll join us. Find us HERE.
I write from the experience of being my daughter’s mother and living through her diagnosis and subsequent treatment. I had to learn what worked for us, to take care of myself, to make myself a priority. I wanted her to love and value herself and I had to show her one path by doing it myself first. I learned to let go of expectations and focus on accepting what was in front of me. Recovery is as individual as a fingerprint and works at its own pace. Life after a diagnosis will undoubtedly look different than it did before, but that doesn’t mean your loved one is incapable of achieving goals and living a happy life. My daughter is a perfect example of that. She is an inspiration, and someone I admire most in this world.
Your support for your loved one can make all the difference in their life.