For all the research that has been done in the last twenty years attempting to understand the brain, the organ at the top of our spine retains its essential mystery. We know more now than ever how the brain works, how it has developed over the centuries to do the miraculous things it does, and what is happening to it when it gets injured. Doctors, parents, coaches and professional athletes are more alert to the dangers of brain concussion. Neurologists study to become adept at repairing the brain with surgery, cellular transplant, or electrical stimulus. Every one of us has a stake in the health of our minds.
But no one has now, or may ever, understand what to do when a brain loses its essential emotion balance. Major mental illnesses (MMI) like bipolar disorder, major depression, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorders, and severe personality disorders are currently treated with hospitalization, a variety of medicines, and several kinds of therapies including group, art, music, physical, occupational and individual, couple and family therapy. All of this effort does help a person suffering acute episodes create some safety from self-harm and violence to others. But we currently have no cure for the worse of brain diseases and dysfunction. Those afflicted with the most severe mental illness bear this burden without much hope of recovering their former, pre-illness selves. It’s a terrible, life-changing diagnosis.
Many of those who suffer also try to help themselves with illegal drugs and alcohol. It’s estimated that nearly half of those with MMI also may be drug addicted. It’s quite easy to see that a chronic emotional disorder, topped with occasional medications from a hospital stay, plus a chemical dependency, legal or otherwise, is a simple recipe for chaos. And that’s exactly what can happen. These are the majority of those we call the Homeless: adults whose illness and addiction make any kind of stable life impossible. Whose schools, work places, doctors, community programs, churches, friends and family in an uncoordinated effort tried to help but ran out of options, money, beds, time or energy.
If you have a family member with chronic mental illness, it certainly has affected your life as well. If you are like most of us human beings, the early months or years were a mix of denial, sorrow, anger, and accommodation as you tried to learn how to manage life with someone who couldn’t stay in the lanes of the average emotional highway. You may have had more than your share of blinding rage at promises broken and soaring optimism as your parent or sibling found a new doctor, a new medicine, a new religion, a new apartment. And then the up and down cycles of recovery and illness, of stabilization and hospitalization, continued. It feels insane. And in fact, it is. It’s easy to see how many people give up on the most mentally sick.
In the grand scheme of life, it’s to your emotional and spiritual benefit not to lose touch with your family member who struggles to stay mentally balanced. You may be their only connection to a person who remembers them when they were well, who has the same family features, who reminds them of their place in the human family. You may be the only person they know with a shared childhood memory. As exhausting as it can be to stay in their lives, I urge you to try.
To keep your own life in balance, to have good relationships, keep your job, and sleep well at night, you will need a simple but unyielding strategy when it comes to dealing with your loved one. Here’re my suggestions:
1. Education: Get informed about your loved one’s diagnosis. Have a basic understanding of the medications they are on. Attend family meetings held by hospital or other care providers. Learn about the long-term physical and mental outlook of the disorder. Speak to an attorney if financial support, inheritance, property, arrest or civil commitment issues arise.
2. Support: Seek out the understanding, company and expertise of others who struggle with mental illness in the family. Support groups such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and those run by your county or local hospitals or churches are excellent places to find on-going information, support and referrals to local mental health resources. It’s here where you can grieve the person your loved one may never become, and figure out to live with the person as they are.
3. Clear personal boundaries: You will need to figure out how to care about your family member while leading your own life. Your job, your marriage and your children will all suffer if you can’t say no to requests you can’t fill, to demands on your time that can’t be met, to assumptions about money you can’t meet. You may need professional help (i.e., a good therapist) to help you manage, grieve, and maintain your limits, especially if you are connected to your family member in any helpful way.
MMI is a devastating brain dysfunction that can destroy every good relationship in its wake. One day, we may have more than a bucket load of powerful drugs to help manage and even heal diseases like schizophrenia. But until then, if you have MMI in your family, do everything you can to manage its effects and continue to lead the life you want. You’ll need help to do it; it’s a long journey.