Monday, February 22, 2016

When those you love have a Mental Illness

My dad battled Mental Illness almost his entire adult life...our mom tried to protect us from it as long as she could, but when I was about 8 years old, I could tell something was off with him.

Initially, he didn't want to get help, he didn't think anything was wrong (perhaps you are at this stage with your loved one?)...he thought we were against him, his co-workers were against him, the whole world...against him. He finally agreed to be admitted to the local mental hospital, and that began for us almost 30 years of hoping that one day, Dad would be normal again.

Some of you who will read this, know how the story ends. About 4.5 years ago, on the night of a July 4th, my dad was murdered. The young man who beat my dad to death is spending 20 years in our state's maximum security penitentiary.  I'm writing this blog because over the years I have had several conversations with people who are trying to navigate living with and walking with their loved ones who are battling a Mental Illness...

While I don't get any more middle of the night phone calls from my dad telling me that the lucky number for the day is 9, or asking for money, or degrading me, or telling me that I'm not really his son, or having him walk in our back yard at the break of dawn yelling and pounding on our door while our kids are some ways, I sure wish I did, because I miss him. I miss him a lot. But one of the things that lives on from his life is that I have had the great privilege in talking with a number a people over the years who also have loved one's who battle mental illness. When people call me, they aren't really sure what to ask, some are looking for hope, and others are simply trying to make sense of the crazy they are experiencing while navigating what it means to walk with those whom they love so deeply but who seemingly don't want their love.

It's hard to describe to others who have never experienced it, what exactly it's like to watch your loved one's battle their mental health condition, and to then love them well through it...there is a huge spectrum of mental illness. My dad was diagnosed with Bipolar Schizoaffective Disorder, which at best meant he had extreme highs and devastatingly low-lows and at worst meant he couldn't sleep, wandered the streets at night, had paranoid delusions, and grandiose thoughts. Often he thought people were following him, thought his phone was tapped, that Comcast was watching him through his television, that he played for the Mariners, or that he was a top secret detective working sensitive cases...then there were the times he walked into the local police department asking for his business cards, or the time he walked into a local high school classroom declaring he was the "Sub" for the day, only to be confronted by the teacher that indeed, no sub was needed.

There's also a ton of pain that comes with Mental Illness as well. How do you describe to people what its like when your an 8 year old boy and your dad asks you to leave the room because he's afraid he'll hurt you, or in the many years to follow when you go on multiple visits to the State Mental Hospital and you have to walk through a series of securely locked doors only to see him restrained in a straight jacket, or tied to a bed so he doesn't hurt himself or others or when you get there he is SO sedated that you can't even make sense of the words he's trying to say, so you wipe the drool from his lips, and when you look in his eyes you don't see anyone looking back..."Hey dad, it's me...can you hear me?" 

Mental Illness is difficult for everyone. Sadly, many people who have a mental illness ultimately alienate their loved ones because of it. Families often give up trying to help, not because they don't love them, it's because they love them so much, and they've tried SO HARD to find solutions, they are just simply exhausted, hurt, angry, and they don't know what else to do. 

I don't know that this blog will be helpful for everyone (or anyone really) dealing with someone in their life who is battling mental illness. But here are a few things I am so glad I was able to do and understand in the 30 years I experienced and lived it with my dad.

1. You'll never regret loving them as best you can, for as long as you can. One of the things that I am grateful for now, is that I didn't stop interacting with my dad over the years. It sure wasn't easy, and sometimes I had to create boundaries (like the time I had to get a restraining order against him), but over the years, my dad knew that I was there for him. He didn't know that I sometimes paid his Section 8 housing rent so he wouldn't be evicted or that his apartment manager would call me to tell me that he was walking around naked in the courtyard asking if I could come help, but he knew that I wasn't going anywhere. Some folks told me to just let him go, that I couldn't do anything to help him...and in some ways they were probably right. I knew I couldn't fix him and while I wish I could just clap my hands and see him "snap out of it', I knew that wasn't going to happen...and looking back now, I am SO GLAD I didn't let him go, or give up on him. I don't know what that will look like for you as every mental illness is different (it might even lead to some significant boundaries for your own safety), everyone's response will be different, but I can't encourage you them as best you can, for as long as you can.

2. Medicine works, but sometimes it doesn't. My dad had a great run in the 90's. He got re-married, they bought a home, he had a stable job with the state and then it all came crashing down again...when I was visiting him in the mental hospital I asked the doctor what happened. I knew that my dad had been regularly visiting doctors that he allegedly had been taking his medications, and the doctor confirmed all of this, assured me that all of his drug levels were perfect and then he dropped the bomb that re-oriented how I understood mental illness. He told me that my dad was doing everything right, but that eventually the body overcomes the medications and is only a matter of time before they have more episodes...this was a game changer for me. It allowed me to turn from anger to grace. I was told for so long that as long as my dad took his medications, that everything would be normal...and that was mostly true, but sometimes it wasn't. For some reason that allowed me the ability to stop being angry at my dad. I don't know where you are at with your loved one right now, but my hope is that your anger can move to grace. Mental Illness is a life-long battle, and there will be seasons when your loved one is doing great, they are medicated well, they are visiting their doctors, they are doing everything "right", but it's possible their medications might stop being as effective as they once were and in those times it will be good to understand that grace will be more helpful than anger.

3. Have a few close friends you can process it with. Get it out. Talk about your anger, your pain, your frustration...if you hold it in, you might go crazy. Find ways to smile and laugh again, be around people who can speak life in to you. If there's one thing you need to hear, hear this...It's not your fault! It's an illness, and it may be something you deal with your entire be sure to have a couple close friends you can process with, it may be the only thing that keeps you mentally healthy.

I am so sorry you are going through this with your loved one. Trying to have a rational conversation with someone about getting help for their mental illness can feel about as successful as a rational conversation with a toddler during a tantrum. I pray that one day, some where, there will be a cure for all mental health issues, but until then; love as best you can, for as long as you can, work towards grace if you are able, and have some close friends you can process it all with. Hang in are not alone.