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.