Recovering from mental illness is terrifying and exhausting, both for the person diagnosed and those who stand beside them throughout the recovery process. Sometimes, particularly when the diagnosis is new, the person suffering feels as if they will not ever become well again.
Family and friends might be unsure if recovery is possible. They question how they can help. Mental illness creates a feeling of helplessness for everyone involved. My and my family’s experience with chronic mental illness has allowed me to understand how important it is to have a support group. It can define the journey taken to recover from mental illness.
My diagnosis is rare. I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder when I was 12. While my siblings were attending school and playing soccer on weekends, I was confined to a children’s psychiatric hospital. I remember wondering what was wrong with me. I remember my parents, wide-eyed, watching as my moods shifted by the hour, even the minute. We were all terrified. Mental illness is frightening at its core.
Unsure what to do, my parents brought me to doctors, psychiatrists, therapists and even nutritionists. The various doctors told them I had Attention Deficit Disorder; the psychiatrists told my parents they were parenting me badly. They were certain that explained my erratic behavior.
The therapist asked me to draw pictures that they thought would explain my moods. I refused to use any crayon that was not black, threw the toys that were carefully placed around the brightly lit room, and tore up the paper. I was unable to control myself. She dismissed me as being ‘overemotional’ and ‘narcissistic’ at the ripe age of 11. The nutritionist told me I was allergic to dairy products. My family, in a show of support, stopped eating anything containing dairy.
Fourteen years ago, professionals simply could not believe a child could have a serious mental illness−despite our family tree being defined by mental illness and suicide.
The years before my diagnosis were painful and affected our family dynamic immensely. My two siblings watched their older sister fall apart; they viewed their parents trying to catch me as I fell into blackness. My illness was quickly making my family ill.
It is impossible to capture my experience with mental illness in a few words, but I can tell you that without the support of my family, friends and a support team, I would not be writing these words. Twenty-six years old now, I feel I have some experience under my belt (so to speak) and would like to share different ways in which people can support a loved one struggling with mental illness.
Often, a newly diagnosed person is confused and angry. They may believe they do not need help. They might push away family and friends. As a person living with a chronic mental illness, I can tell you that isolation often results from fear. Mental illness carries stigma and it is frightening.
For example: I fall into a severe and crippling depression each winter. Each time it occurs I am, somehow, surprised. I quickly forget that my life is usually full of color and that waking up each morning often makes me smile. When I become ill I am certain I will never be well again.
If a family member or friend is unstable, the most important thing you can do is remind them that they will become well again. Without my family and friends to help me through each winter, to assure me that my life will become mine again, once spring arrives, I would certainly struggle more.
It is important to have a plan of action. Effective communication will be crucial if the person with mental illness shows signs of a relapse. A plan of action for such an event creates a feeling of security both for the person struggling and for those who love them.
An example: My family and I sat down with my psychiatrist−once it was clear my episodes were seasonal−and made a plan, in writing, that stated the steps that would be taken if I became ill. It was a difficult thing to do at the time. Seeing my diagnosis on paper made it real. But that paper provides a feeling of security for all of us.
The plan can include medication alterations, community outreach, and simple things like charting your mood and recognizing patterns. I believe this can be one of the most useful tools when working to help someone recover from a mental illness. It certainly is not a document that is placed on my fridge—it’s hidden away somewhere—but it has been instrumental in my recovery.
The health of those who support the mentally ill person often gets ignored. When I first became ill, my entire family suffered. My parents, while working full-time and taking care of my two siblings, spent years focused on my illness and recovery. In the process, they became unwell themselves. My mother slipped into a depression and my father worked to keep our family functioning. It was not easy.
Often, when a person must spend so much time focusing on someone they love, they forget to take care of themselves. It is impossible to help someone else if you become sick yourself. Ask yourself: “Do I need to step back?” Sometimes you do. My family has learned both to support me and support each other. It is in this way that we have been able to embrace recovery together.