When I was diagnosed with schizophrenia eight years ago it was like walking in a fog. I was lost in my delusions, I was confused about what was happening to me and I was trying to grapple with what exactly reality was.
My family was suffering too.
They had no background with mental illness and no frame of reference about what to expect with it.
I had asked for help a few times but they just thought my skewed thinking was a result of smoking marijuana and that once I stopped everything I would be fine. It didn’t click for them until after my first major episode, when they took me to the hospital and I was finally diagnosed.
I don’t recall a whole lot from those first few months but I’m sure my parents were wracking their brains for an answer about what to do with their son. It was even disclosed to me later on that my mom had sought antidepressants because she was so concerned.
The case with a lot of instances of major mental illness is that the person who is sick doesn’t realize or doesn’t accept their illness and so they don’t seek help. They refuse to take their meds and they refuse to go to the doctor.
Many times, too, the family of the person who is sick has no clue about how to help. Maybe the family doesn’t care or just plain isn’t there. That’s why a good deal of mentally ill people end up on the streets. The support structure just isn’t there and to be honest, that breaks my heart.
I have been extremely fortunate to have a family that cared enough to educate themselves about what was going on. I can remember one day my mom came home with an armload of books on mental illness and how to deal with it. She pored through those books voraciously, trying desperately to understand how to help.
Although I was a bit lost during that time, I was also fortunate to understand and realize that what was happening in my brain wasn’t right. I think those two factors can make or break recovery.
Someone has to want to recover and there needs to be a support structure in place to aid the person in his or her recovery.
Not long after my diagnosis, my parents enrolled in NAMI’s Family-to-Family support group and class. It was reiterated to them that the most important thing they could do was have patience.
So many families give up on their mentally ill members when the going gets tough and I can tell you, the going will get tough.
It’s important for a family to stick it out, though, and ride the waves. In time, their family member will improve. It will be a long, slow, often-painful process but the family at the other end of recovery will be much stronger for it.
Even in cases where the mentally ill family member refuses to accept their illness, the thing they want most is an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on.
If a family is patient with their child, and talks to him with a kind heart, an understanding tone, and most of all, love, the child will know that he or she can trust someone. When you don’t know the difference between reality and your own delusions, being able to trust someone is perhaps the most important factor in recovery.
It’s OK to be scared when a family member is ill. With patience and understanding even in the face of fear, there’s a good chance you can bring your family member back from the brink.
I’m under no illusions that I myself might be out there wandering the streets were it not for the support and understanding my family gave me in my most tumultuous times.
Together we navigated not only the illness, but the options that were available to me with meds, benefits and wellness. Eight years on, I’m a regular columnist at PsychCentral.com and The New York Times.
It will be hard to be there for your family member, but it will be worth it.