Assisting a Loved One With Mental Illness… Pt. 1

This post will be the first in a series I wanted to work on about assisting and living with a loved one with mental illness.

As difficult as it can be to live with a mental illness, it can be just as difficult for the people around that person. It does not discriminate based on sex, race, religion, or creed. Could be your father, daughter, nephew, wife, or grandfather. Some of the biggest challenges are being able to understand, accept, and forgive.

Understand. Can you understand your loved one’s mentality? Probably not. You may be able to identify with them and their challenges but that will be the extent of it. Ladies, can you describe what it’s like to be kicked in the testicles? Men, can you describe what it’s like to give birth? No. It’s impossible to understand because there is no real context to reach that understanding.

Now, is this necessarily a bad thing? No. I’m pointing it out because I’ve seen it mentioned in various self-help and help books to “Try and understand what you’re loved one is going through.” It is a waste of time. Time that could be better spent on useful actions.

Accept. Accept is a multi-faceted word. You and your loved one are going to need to accept some harsh realities. Past the normal difficulties of whatever relationship the two of you may have; there will be additional shit that will pile up on your shoulders. Therefore, one really needs to examine their relationship with that person. Are you going to be able to accept that there is going to be additional shit and turmoil? Do you love that person enough to want to deal with that for the rest the time you interact? Or is it someone you only tangentially give a shit about? Are you going to be able to handle it when it does come?

Acceptance will come easier with a firmer understanding of what to expect out of your loved one. Unfortunately, its not always that simple with mental illness. Psychiatrists and hospitals bind us nutcases together with descriptions of meeting certain criteria according to the DSM-IV. Those that are unfamiliar with the DSM in general take these descriptions to be literal definitions. They are not. They are guidelines so a doctor in state A can help that patient with a medical chart from state B. The patient meets a variety of those criteria and they impact their life enough to have a negative effect. That is a key point. Feeling blue for a day and still maintaining functionality is not depression. A person might be off their game for that day, but that is normal. Feeling that way for six months on the other hand, is not and has a clear negative impact on the person’s quality of life.

Therefore, there is two important disciplines of knowledge to nurture. The first is understanding what the medical profession says a mental illness is. The second is how it actually applies to your loved one and their mannerisms. The first is easy enough to do, you can simply Google a mental illness with DSM-IV to find a definition.

That description should serve as a window to start looking through. It will help you narrow your focus to see what exactly is going on. There is a line to walk in that regard. Just because a person has a personality quirk or experiences bits and pieces of these things periodically does not necessarily indicate it as part of their mental illness. These things will be qualities that will have a serious negative impact on their life. What you want to identify are the points that have the deepest impact. By understanding those, you can get a better idea of what to expect out of the person in mannerisms and behavior.

Forgiveness. The final point is forgiveness. One highly important lesson that being Bipolar has taught me is the importance of being able to forgive the shortcomings of myself and others. When it comes to helping a mentally ill loved one, this is even more important. They are going to do things that make no sense to you. Their illness will have a negative impact on your life from time to time. Are you going to be able to look at them, realize they cannot always help it, and let it go? Or are you going to keep letting it build up, wondering why they aren’t the way you want them to be? Can you accept them as they are and forgive them when they do things that you feel are foolish or pointless?

More importantly, are you sure you are meeting your own comfort level as well? I am not suggesting for anyone to be a doormat. There are lines that cannot be crossed. Mental and physical abuse is never acceptable and should not be tolerated. That boils down to how the two of you are communicating though. Can hostility be defused with some preemptive understanding? Can an argument be shutdown by simply saying, “I’m not comfortable with this conversation or how it is going. Can we please discuss it later?” (Pro-Tip: Avoid the word You/Your/You’re or being accusative. It automatically invokes a defensive reaction in the human mind. Stay neutral or even put it on the feelings you are currently having.)

No, the things I’m discussing are much more minor and happen far more often. Cops knock on the door because your husband is wandering outside at 3 A.M. in his underwear looking for something he could swear he saw? Daughter bursts into tears over accidentally knocking a glass of water over at a restaurant because it reinforced the worthlessness and inability to do anything right that the depression has gave her? Grandma cannot be comfortable because the dish towels were not folded and pressed correctly and she simply has to correct it?

These are the every day occurrences that will affect both of your lives. As a neurotypical, you will need to be able to forgive these things and accept them. Chances are good they may do them for a good long time depending on how well/if medicating goes. The other point worth mentioning is the one of honesty and dishonesty. It is very easy to simply snap off and say that any lie passed was a dishonesty. Was it? What if your loved one has a disorder that warps their perception? If they are interpreting reality different than you are, they do not believe they are lying.

Well, how can you tell? Again, another lesson taught to me by being Bipolar and having a disorder that twists my reality; what was the motive behind the decision? Did they purposefully set out to hurt you or cause a major problem? Why did they do what they did? Sometimes the best answer you will get is “I don’t know”. I used that answer for a long time and it pissed off a whole lot of people. It was the truth though. I don’t know why I did some of the things I did, my brain just told me to do them so I did them. When it really comes down to those circumstances, dig to find out the answer to “why”. If it’s not something major and you can’t determine why, just let it go. There will be plenty that you simply cannot figure out. You’ll be able to save yourself a lot of time and heartache once you’re able to separate the two.

For normals: Really sit down and determine what is and is not acceptable for you. Some general hard lines are typically abusiveness (emotional or physical), asset wasting or manipulation, or infidelity. Figure out what you are incapable of forgiving so you have a clear line drawn. It will be something to point to when your loved one is unwell and hopefully give them an anchor back to reality to realize what is going on in their mind. Those that lose touch with reality oftentimes use contracts of sorts. They draw up a paper saying that their loved one will inform them if they are being exceptionally off, dangerous, or losing touch. Both sign it, and the normal keeps it to show as a tangible reminder to that person when they need to invoke it. That gives the mentally ill individual a reason to pause and go; “Okay. I agreed to this. They are invoking it.” Which can give them what is needed to realize they are acting out of sorts.

For the mentally ill: I am often confused when I talk to someone who was diagnosed and treated for a mental illness and they do not know exactly what it is or how it affects them. If you have not, look at the criteria that brought you to your diagnosis. Figure out how it applies to you in a way that negatively impacts your living. These are not conclusions you should have to reach and stretch to make. They will fit, sometimes not neatly but they will fit. If you are not seeing where and how they fit, consult with your doctor so you can see it through their eyes. Remember, just because it’s normal for you does not mean its normal for the rest of the world. If you understand how your mental illness is affecting your mind and your behavior, you are in a better position to listen to the people around you that you trust to keep you from destructive actions. If you lack that understanding, how can you ever expect to manage it? Realize that hey it is hard on you, but it is difficult on your loved ones as well. They do not know what is going on in your mind. And many times they will feel powerless to help someone they love and care for.

To be continued…

What y’all want?
Unconditional Love
Talking bout the stuff that don’t wear off
It don’t fade
It’ll last for all these crazy days
These crazy nights
Whether you wrong or you right
I’m a still love you
Still feel you
Still be there for you
No matter what (hehe)
You will always be in my heart
With unconditional love

– Tupac Shakur “Unconditional Love”


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