Heart of the Matter – Part 1
This week I’m beginning a three part series called “The Heart of the Matter”. It is a different type of post for me, but one that hits very close to home. It is about something my family has dealt with for many years, but a subject not many want to talk about. The subject is mental illness.
I understand this may be a sensitive subject for some, but I feel the more we expose the truth, the more people can begin to understand and have empathy and compassion for those who suffer, along with their families and those who provide care, support and encouragement. Mental illness can strike at any time, and is not discriminatory. There are many types of mental illness, but I can say that almost all of them affect daily living for the person with the diagnosis and their family.
My brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was fourteen years old, but I believe he suffered with the disease long before he was diagnosed. He was also introduced to recreational drugs at a young age, which catapulted this disease into a firestorm. For the next twenty-five years we would ride the rollercoaster of highs and lows with him. I believe drugs became attractive to him because drugs helped him escape from his inner thoughts. Let’s face it, does anyone grow up wishing to be a drug addict? It is usually because of inner turmoil and the temporary escape drugs provide from the voices, whether internal or external.
The problem was, no one was talking about the disease. People would talk about how crazy he was, never understanding how heartbreaking their words were. It takes a toll on a family and as I watched my brother and my parents suffer, I also became a part of his suffering because of his illness.
There are things I’ve learned along the way which I know would be helpful to any family with a family member struggling with mental illness.
Demonstrate Love: It is very easy to look into the windows of someone else’s home and place judgement, condemnation, guilt and shame when you have no idea what is truly going on. You have to live in the home from day to day to know the heartache, grief and sorrow that exists as a result of seeing a loved one suffer in mental anguish. The family is usually fighting so hard for the individual they are drained spiritually, physically and emotionally. What a family needs more than anything is unconditional love. Tell them they are loved. Demonstrating love towards a family in crisis has great healing power for their souls. Share the kind of love Jesus demonstrates to us every day despite what the circumstances are. Mental illness isn’t the result of a bad family. It is the result of genetics, trauma, or a chemical imbalance.
Don’t Abandon the Family: From my own personal experience, I want you to know there is nothing more devastating than when those who are your family and friends make a choice to quit coming to visit because of your family member’s mental illness. Mental illness is not a virus you can catch. Just because you may not know what to say, doesn’t mean you can’t have a conversation or ask if there is a way to help. My parents and I would have also been thrilled to talk about something else for a while. My parents had no idea how to deal with mental illness. They certainly did not have the resources we have today. They were treated as inept parents who didn’t know how to control their child. The friends whose homes I used to be invited to, no longer invited me. I was even told by one friend that her mom said I couldn’t come to their house anymore because we were “trouble”. We might have been troubled with our situation, but we were never trouble. I don’t remember anyone ever asking my parents how they could help, but I do remember people asking what they were going to DO with my brother. The one truth I always clung to was the fact that while people abandoned our family….Jesus never did!
Give the Family a Break: It is hard living in a fishbowl. Everyone sees you and they are gossiping, pointing fingers and laughing. Some people are just plain cruel. However, you never know when something could happen to your family which is just as difficult as dealing with a family member’s mental illness. Don’t allow people to talk about those who are suffering and don’t be a part of the rumor mill. If the family has shared private information with you, don’t betray their trust. Instead, I would simply ask that you give the family a break. It is very stressful for a family who is going through a very difficult time to think about the day to day things which need to be done. If you want to help, make them a meal; ask to mow their lawn; if they have other children, invite them for a playdate. Invite them out to coffee. Do anything you would want someone to do for you during a crisis in your life.
I want you to know if you are a family member of someone who struggles with a mental illness, you are not alone. There are many of us in this together. Together we can create awareness and offer hope to those who may be finding themselves directly in the middle of a storm. Maybe, you know someone in the storm and are wondering what you should do. Over the next couple of weeks I will continue to offer my advice as a family member (I’m not a professional) and to remove the stigma which is attached so easily to mental illness.
Everyone needs some Jesus Glitter sprinkled in their lives. We all need to know in our darkest moments in life that we are never abandoned, but we are loved and cared for in the same way Jesus cared for others while He walked on earth.