“We knew something was just not right.”
In talking with my parents about my psychotic break, the one thing that stands out from their experience is the fear and their worry about their son. When I was twenty years old, I went on a trip to the U.N. because I thought I was a prophet of God. I left without telling anybody and I didn’t call my parents until a week later when I had finally had enough and I decided to come home. The phone call was very cryptic. All I said was that I’d be home the next day and that they should pick me up at the train station. During that car ride, I started to ramble about aliens and my mission and the hugeness of it all. I was in awe that my parents couldn’t see it.
“This was so, so new to us, we didn’t have any conception of mental illness having never seen anything like it. It was difficult and frightening.”
The effect mental illness has on families, though not often talked about, is one of the biggest, most life-altering things that can happen to a family unit. It can change everything and can take an otherwise happy existence completely off the rails. Worry is so profound in the days and weeks and months after a psychotic break that otherwise healthy families can dissolve. In the worst cases, it can be a shameful black dot in an otherwise idyllic existence. I’ve talked to many people who have lost the support of their families simply because of lack of education about mental illness. Many parents think it’s just a phase or drugs or that the person who’s suffering is making things up. The stigma against people with mental illness is so persistent that it can be hard to relate to your own son or daughter when they have a major psychotic break.
While mental illness can, admittedly, break families apart– it can also provide a basis for healing and strength. However, outdated norms and misconceptions can contribute to stigma and confusion. Parents can think that they caused the illness somehow, or that their son or daughter is weak. Images of serial killers and psychopaths can haunt the relationship if there’s a lack of education on the various facets of living with a mental illness. For decades, mental illness was thought to be a defect of character caused by cold or overbearing mothers. There are other wildly outdated theories on what causes various mental illnesses but the truth is that they’re diseases like any other. In my case, my parents thought, even when I asked for help, that my problems were just caused by marijuana. I’m not discounting the possibility that smoking pot may have contributed to my symptoms, but my parents had no concept of mental illness before it got serious.
“We went to the bookstore and bought every book on the shelf about mental illness, just trying to get a grip on what it was.”
Caring for the person who is suffering is also a major challenge for families. It can take years for someone to recover, and there’s the very real possibility that they never will. A family has to shoulder the responsibility of caring for this person physically, emotionally and financially, and that alone can be draining enough to cause permanent damage. I’ve always said that recovery is in the hands of the patient. However, with mental illness, it can be hard to even realize that you’re sick. So, while symptoms are manifesting that the affected person may not notice, that person’s family certainly notices. These family members can suffer immeasurably while they sit idly by and helplessly watch their loved one deteriorate. There’s a profound sadness in seeing that in a son or daughter, and some completely exhausted families give up the fight altogether. I thank God for the fact that my family has been, and will always be, there for me.
If I could provide any advice to families of people with mental illness it would be to:
• Educate yourselves about what mental illness means– for the person who’s suffering and what it can mean for the family. Learn everything you can about the symptoms and the various complications that come along with a serious diagnosis.
• Make a plan to care for your loved one in the unique way that serves them best. Be aware that it could take years to recover, and recovery looks different for everyone.
• Give it time. It can take a very long time to unwind the mess of connections in a person’s head after a psychotic break, and it can take an even longer time to find the right combination of meds and therapy that lead to a healthy recovery. Be aware that your loved one is suffering and is most likely just struggling to wake up and fight every morning. The most important thing is patience. You will have to cull this patience from deep inside you but you need to know that, with time, things can change, people can get better. Nudge your loved one in the direction towards recovery and do everything you can to help them. It might be a slog but, if you’re patient, things will get better.
• Lastly, just be there in every capacity you can for your loved one. Be there as a shoulder to cry on, an ear to hear about their day, and a rock for them to find support. Abandonment is the last thing a person with mental illness needs and, chances are, they’ve already faced a touch of that courtesy of their friends.
Family is the most important thing for a person with mental illness. They need that support and they need that validation that they are not alone in the world. A serious and persistent mental illness is one of the hardest things a family can face, and it can make or break a cohesive unit. If the family is patient, and if they do their best to help, a diagnosis like this can make a family strong and able to weather even the worst of storms.
Editor’s Note: If you are a caregiver or concerned family member of someone with mental illness, NAMI’s Family-to-Family program is a great resource. It’s a free, 12-session educational and supportive program for families. Find out more information here.