Among all the possible miseries one can experience, surely being the parent, sibling, or mate of someone with mental illness or an addiction ranks high on the list. Some of us, including me, have had more than one afflicted family member. When mental illness began to appear in my family twenty-five years ago, I was completely ignorant; I had no idea what severe mental illness looked like, let alone what to do about it. I didn’t know what I was dealing with or how to go about addressing the complex problems it brought about.
Mental illness in my family has been severe, and it is a horrible, often fatal disease. One must approach mental illness with open eyes and ears and all of the tools and helpers available. It rips families apart, savaging all, the “sane” along with the afflicted. We are victims of a senseless war who find ourselves strewn across a distant, foreign battlefield, and we have no choice but to pick ourselves up and go on with our lives. What we endure and the price we pay is immense, almost beyond description to those who have not experienced it themselves, and PTSD is virtually guaranteed for the whole family. Years later, we are still dealing with and processing all the collateral damage, and it never stops.
My purpose in writing this book is to outline the experiences of family members who look after the afflicted, and offer some tangible suggestions on improving their lives. I’d like to make it especially clear from the outset that my intention here is not to write a “misery memoir”, because nobody needs to hear anybody else complain at length. However, because what we go through is not generally known in the outside world, I hope that by recollecting all that happened in my family I can increase awareness of the difficulties and traumas of those for whom mental illness affects an immediate family member. In truth our experiences are rarely acknowledged openly and out loud by anyone, including us. Though I recognize how difficult it is for those in our community to openly express all that has happened within our families, I believe starting a discussion is perhaps in our best interest. In this book I am initiating the vital and difficult conversation about families and mental illness, so that others might understand just how exhausting and vexing our situation really is, and perhaps also comprehend why so few address it openly.
Coping with serious mental illness in a loved one has a wide spectrum of effects on family members, and they begin so subtly and arrive so silently we barely notice them. We do not remain unaffected, even if our own sanity remains intact, but begin to grow around our loved ones like an old tree might grow around a fence, a sign, or a gravestone. We’ve all seen such trees, or photos of them, and marveled that they still live and thrive even though they are misshapen, even though they no longer resemble their natural form because circumstances caused them to grow so irregularly. Making room in one’s heart and life for other people’s madness, in all its forms, causes a wound that constantly reopens, bleeds and closes again while it grows into a thickening scar. Perhaps this extra scarred, bleeding part of us offers our ill family members the room to act out and be safe within it. I don’t know, but I do know that eventually you will wake up and realize you are forever changed.
In significant ways our experience is vastly different from those dealing with other types of illness. Often in such cases one’s friends and family, neighbors, and even strangers rally around the individual and the family with support, love, and compassion, offering practical help like walking the dog and bringing over casseroles. This is not the case with mental illness, which can cause even close friends to turn their backs, even those we assumed were very good friends. Many of these friends and colleagues are ill at ease with the mentally ill, and their discomfort extends to the ill person’s immediate family. Social situations are awkward, and keep us home rather than out in the world, interacting with people who have no idea what to say. Understandably, they don’t have a clue about your endless stream of problems, and clearly nothing for them is more of a downer than an awful situation that doesn’t seem to have a solution and may end tragically. This is understandable. We get it. But you may find your growing social isolation becomes more and more pronounced, and increasingly difficult to cope with. This is the other side of mental illness, the dark side of the moon experienced by afflicted families.
We also have to take care of ourselves, and I have some thoughts about how best to accomplish that. All my life, in addition to my dedication to the piano and effective piano teaching and my love of “art play” inherited from my mother, I have studied Feldenkrais, Qigong, meditation, and breath work, and have given classes and worked privately with clients. My own study of these practices during the entire time I’ve dealt with SMI in my family has given me much strength and has been the main reason, apart from my inborn good nature and optimism, that I have come through everything as well as I have.
It is my hope that I can share what I learned in the last twenty-five years to help others survive, and perhaps even thrive, during this grueling journey.