To those who feel helpless watching a loved one slipping into madness

This is part of a series of letters to those who may feel lost. Sometimes when we are down, discovering something in the mailbox is just the thing.

It reminds us that we aren’t as alone as we think.

Today I defer the writing to my incredibly talented and insightful daughter Alex.

A few months ago she read a humorous post online that had a throwaway sentence along the lines of “I literally went crazy. Lost my mind.”

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She thought the post was funny and didn’t think anything of it. However, someone read and responded and was offended, saying things like “How dare you make light of a serious thing” and “You don’t even know what it’s like.”

It made her pause and think about what she would say if she had been the original poster.

The following is a thoughtful response to someone who deserves to hear from someone who truly does know what it is like.

Let’s call her Susan.

Dear Susan,

To be fair, this can be a really triggering topic for some people, and for that I do apologize. I’m sorry that you’re hurting.

However, I see the humor in it.

And to respond to the second part of your tweet, I do, in fact, have actual life experience with the realities of mental illness. My dad lives with severe mental illness issues and it really became problematic while I was in high school.coat of arms

All while trying to figure out my own “how to be human” stuff.

Yay.

His experience with mental illness is compounded by the fact that he has multiple mental illnesses that all feed off one another (so fun, isn’t it?) and on top of that has physical health problems that are also pretty scary. All this reared its ugly little head while I was 16 and still trying to pretend to be cool and perfect.

For quite a while, we didn’t really know how to talk about it.

Things were starting to manifest themselves physically and people were starting to ask questions. What’s wrong with Greg? Is he okay? I’ve noticed he’s missing today, is everything all right?

How are you supposed to answer that (especially when adults are asking me, a 16 year old and my 14-year-old little brother)?

Our family didn’t even have any answers at the time because the doctors couldn’t figure it out. How was I supposed to compose a reply that fits all of the social strictures? Add on top of that the fact that my parents have always been my heroes and now my father, the rock of most daughters’ worlds, is suddenly very, very human and very, very fallible.

The 16-year-old me (who was and is a huge introvert struggling to interpret social conventions anyway) had no idea what to do. Do we pretend to be perfect? What do I say to these very well-intentioned people (that I love dearly, BTW)?

To make a long story (literally years of my life) kind of shorter, as a family, we eventually learned to live by a practice we call “dancing in the rain.” It comes from this quote:

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass… it’s about learning to dance in the rain.

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This manifested itself for us by helping us see the good and fun and humor in life, even though we had this thing that was never going to leave. We learned to take the bite out of the monster by poking fun at it. Much like with the boggart in Harry Potter (how many good lessons can J. K. Rowling pack in there??? I can’t even…), where they learn that laughing at something scary takes away the power, and therefore the fear, of the thing.

Now, I’m not suggesting things like “oh, you slamming-your-fist-into-the-wall was so funny; let’s laugh it off and move on.”

Not in the slightest.

Mental illness can be very serious and incredibly scary if it can’t be managed.

My dad’s is managed.

Just.

Due to a potent mix of drugs and the fact that he works harder every day at controlling it that I can ever imagine, we’ve come to a state we call “adjusted reality.” There are simply some things he can no longer do. And there are some times when being around people is just too hard. And that’s okay. My little family has realized this and we balance our activities to fit our situation.

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And life is good.

Is it perfect? No. But it works for us. And one of the ways we live in this adjusted reality is to laugh.

Laugh often and laugh hard.

We’ve simply learned to acknowledge the ridiculousness that can sometimes come with mental illness.

For example, one of my father’s symptoms is that he sometimes hears things that aren’t actually there, like voices. One day, we were walking somewhere and he said (in conversational context) “I am the voice of reason” and I replied without thinking “more like the voices of reason.” For about a half a millisecond, I panicked. Was he going to be mad? Offended? Hurt?

I think this is where you, dear Susan, are at right now.

For those of us who experience mental illness (or any issue we have intimate knowledge of) in a very real way, we often feel a need to protect what is said because things can be so marginalized and the issues can be very trivialized.

This is a very good instinct. Follow this instinct. Help people.

However, my dad did something in that moment that changed the paradigm, and I think taught me a good life lesson for dealing with anything that is a struggle.

laughingHe just started to laugh and said, “Yep, voices of reason. Sounds about right.”

Now this shift in paradigm wasn’t all of a sudden; we had been working toward this for a while (like I said, it was a whole process), but I give you this example as one of many because it exemplifies the mindset I’m working from.

I’m not afraid or ashamed of my dad’s mental illness.

It has its horrible patches, just like any trial (can anyone say lockdown in a psych ward?), but as a whole, our life was, and is, still good and fun and has humor. (P.S. ‘voices of reason’ is still one of my family’s best inside jokes and keeps getting brought up. I’m proud of that. I made a funny.)

This principle of adjusted reality has actually made a huge impact on my life.

Would I rather my dad didn’t have to struggle every day with mental illness and trying desperately to not go off the deep end?

Absolutely.

peaceJust like I would prefer to not deal with any of the nasty things that happen in my life. But that’s not the way life works. And I will be forever grateful for what these experiences teach me as I go on to face new challenges, both positive and negative.

So to end this epistle, I return dear Susan, to you.

I’m sorry this triggered something for you.

I truly am.

Things that trigger us just suck.

But for me, if I can’t find the humor in the things that are hard for me, they have the potential to eat me alive, and I refuse to live that way.

joy4I look for joy.

I choose to find it wherever I can.

So I guess this is your trigger warning. I will continue to see past the scary, acknowledge the ridiculous, and find joy with the person that is struggling with mental illness, not just letting this thing take over our lives by tiptoeing around the issue.

I hope that you can too.

In the end, it’s the best thing we can do to help them through.

Alex

One thought on “To those who feel helpless watching a loved one slipping into madness”

  1. Love you Al. And miss you. I am amazed at all the great and wonderful things you’re doing out there in the big world. I love hearing your mom and dad talk about all of it. It really is the neatest thing. They are proud of you, and so am I. I had no idea you were such a talented writer, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Thank you for sharing. Hope to see you soon and until then keep smiling and laughing. You have the BEST smile!

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