A great friend asked me a bit ago about ideas on how she can help and support someone who is mentally ill. Her heart breaks for those she loves, and she wants desperately to help, but she just isn’t sure what to do.
I’m glad she asked.
I wish that more people would.
Certainly it is easier as a society to make sure that all of us crazies don’t have any access to guns, or that we should increase funding for hospital beds, or find ways to ensure medication is taken even when the person is so very tired of the side effects.
We can all possibly agree that these are steps that help those on the outside feel better about the situation. Just like with so many issues we face today, we like generic solutions that let us pat ourselves on the back, and then walk away.
But there is no walking away from mental illness – for either the one who is actually ill, or the ones worn weary from the daily toll of trying to love them.
We have to roll up our sleeves and see what we can do to help the one who is right in front of us. The only real solutions are personal and require a lifetime commitment.
Ann and I have learned a few things on our journey. Maybe they can help.
We’ve had the conversation several times that if it weren’t for Ann, I would have a very high probability of being homeless. Conversely, Ann is very straightforward that our family needs me as I have certain skills and abilities that are critical for us to truly understand and know joy in this life, let alone working to have it in the life to come.
Do you see what I’m getting at?
It takes two.
I am a fierce proponent that the mentally ill take personal responsibility for all of the horrible possibilities that our mental illness presents.
Not because no one else cares enough to do it; actually, it’s precisely because someone else does care enough.
Look at it this way:
It’s not fair that others can do things without thought, things that take planning and focus on my part to attempt, without any guarantee of success.
Does that mean that I don’t have to try? That I get a free pass?
It’s not fair that a family has a husband and a father who is unpredictable and makes it incredibly difficult to make any plans. It’s not fair that there is always this looming thundercloud that can appear from nowhere, causing them to be wary and a bit on edge.
Conversely, does that mean that my family members don’t have to be patient and try to understand what is impossible to comprehend, unless they actually step into my brain for a test drive? That they can throw in the towel and walk away?
Life isn’t fair.
And that’s okay.
I know that every other family has things that are so hard for them, things that we probably don’t really struggle with. Everyone struggles and everyone has the responsibility to overcome the best they can.
Maybe that’s worth repeating: Everyone struggles and everyone has the responsibility to overcome the best they can.
My problems are my problems and my responsibility. But mental illness is its own special brand of hell with the potential to reach out and drag others down into its depths. So in that way my problem becomes the problem of everyone I care about.
That isn’t fair either. Not to you, not to me.
So, let’s go back to my friend’s sincere question. How can we help?
We start by strengthening our relationship to the point where we can talk through together, honestly and vulnerably, about what is causing each of us pain and what we can do about it. A mentally ill person must understand that the suffering is two-sided. One of the worst things we can do is define our relationship as simply patient and caretaker.
This is critical to understand: A mentally ill person must have someone to focus love on besides themselves. Solitary confinement serves no one.
Perhaps the single most important thing Ann does is her refusal to enable victimization in either of us.
- Acknowledge and accept that WE have a problem that can’t be ignored and won’t go away. It’s here for the long haul. It stinks that this is part of the journey, but don’t wallow in the stench.
- Commit that WE will work together to figure it out and find our own particular way. Don’t treat it either as the elephant in the room or the only focus of attention.
- Recognize that WE will never really understand the pain that this problem causes each other personally, but that WE would take their pain on us instantly if WE could.
- Trust that WE know the other is absolutely doing the best they can, because WE each have covenanted to do our very best – always.
Because it takes two, who can eventually become as One.