One of the hardest steps for a family is accepting that a loved one has a mental illness. The next hardest is accepting that you are also a “victim” of the illness.
I don’t like using the word “victim;” it is such an overused word. Mental illness, like so many other biological illnesses, affects family members. As is often expressed, you are now heading to a new normal.
It’s not necessary, or desirable, to just “accept” the diagnosis. Surely you must come to terms with it by realizing there is a problem. Family members must move beyond acceptance to coping.
It is easy to focus on your ill loved one because it is new and your natural tendency, especially for parents, is fix the problem. Eventually, the fixing will destroy you if you don’t take time for yourself.
Coping begins with self-care. Just because you become a victim of your loved one’s illness, doesn’t mean you have to be a hostage. You may have become a hostage if you feel as though you’ve lost control of your life. Now is the time to take back control.
Make time for yourself.
One of my first questions when our son was returning home after a suicide attempt was, “How do we ‘watch’’ him?” I didn’t get the answer I wanted, “You don’t.”
I was preparing to have a 24-hour watch, and doing it myself if I had to. That was neither possible nor practical. In the emotion of the moment, I wasn’t thinking; I was reacting. I didn’t, couldn’t, think about myself.
I later learned that I needed to get away. For the sake of our marriage, my husband and I needed time alone. For the sake of faith, I had to learn to trust God completely. After all, it is only he who is in complete control of anything.
No matter how diligent you are, you will not be able to control your loved one or the symptoms of the illness. You can only control yourself. If you’re tired and emotionally drained, you’ll lose control.
Don’t focus your energy, or your life, on the mental illness
When my son was diagnosed my first reaction was to learn all I could about mental illness, and his diagnosis. Not just because I didn’t know what the diagnosis meant, but because I somehow believed if I had the facts, I had control of the situation.
My quest for information became an obsession. Each new tidbit led me on another rabbit trail. I let my work fall behind. I talked continually about mental illness to anyone who would listen. I spent hours on the phone trying to find the best treatment for my son. And, I formulated a plan for my son.
I really hadn’t gained any control over the situation. Further, I was drained. I was feeling pressure from an ever-growing to-do list. The focus of my life became mental illness as I kept looking for the one thing that fix the problem.
Maintain your normal routine.
Routine is stability for your ill loved one, especially after a psychotic break. It helps return to normal, albeit that new normal. If your routine is to get up early for a run, go. If your routine is dinner at 6 p.m, do it. If your routine includes coffee with your neighbor, have it.
If you adjust your routine to match the new normal of your loved one, you’ll soon be tired, depressed, and resentful. None of which will help you when you may be needed.
There are many support groups, both in person and online, that are just for you. People who understand both the nature of mental illness and what you are going through.
We Christian have been taught that we aren’t supposed to put ourselves first. It is selfish and, well, un-Christian. After all, aren’t we suppose to put others first? Especially when someone needs. I don’t think Jesus taught us to neglect our basic needs.
Jesus knew the importance of taking care of himself—physical, mentally, and spiritually. How many times did Jesus go off alone, or with the three close friends? At Gethsemane, he lamented that his friends couldn’t stay awake with him. (Matthew 26).
He was God incarnate, but still, his human body needed time away to refresh and recharge to continue helping others. Jesus knew and demonstrated that he couldn’t take care of the many needs around him if he didn’t take some time for himself.
Having a loved one with a serious and persistent mental illness is a roller coaster at best. Even if your loved one is doing well, in recovery and stable, a crisis can happen at any moment. Crisis is only a phone call away.
We never know when our loved one will relapse. Sometimes, we can see some signs. Often we cannot. There is little preparation. If we haven’t taken care of our own needs, we won’t be prepared to take care of the emergency.
Join other family members at Shattered Lives Facebook group. This secret group is for loved ones coping with a family member’s serious mental illness.