Being a caregiver to a physically ill person is one of the hardest things you'll do in your life. Not only will you be physically exhausted, your emotional health will take a huge toll, too. Take that difficulty level and double it, maybe triple it even, for caregivers or family of those who suffer from mental health issues. I should know. My family has been living me with for a long time and it was only three years ago that they realized why it was so tough to deal with me. It was three years ago that I was diagnosed with two disorders of the mind; first with borderline personality disorder (BPD), and a little later with bipolar disorder. In short, both these disorders contribute to my having a life that is only half functional, fully disruptive; they contribute to broken and dysfunctional relationships with just about everyone.
My first year of therapy was torrid and I was bereft of any kind of strength. I remember endless hours of crying without reason, I remember the deep sadness and the haunting hopelessness I felt; I remember being unable to do anything, and that included eating a meal or looking after my tiny children (they were ages 4 and 3 then). And through all this, I remember my parents alternating between despair, anger, vast degrees of confusion, helplessness and most of all, guilt.
If sufferers of mental disorders have it tough, families have it just as tough, if not more. In a country that cheerfully and vehemently refuses to acknowledge how prevalent the issue of mental illness is, family members are completely abandoned and isolated. A stark absence of support groups, awareness and the huge, suffocating shroud of stigma means a caregiver plods through incredibly difficult times with no direction, hope or support. I honestly believe this situation is enough to plunge a reasonably "healthy" person into some level of depression.
"I didn't know how to articulate it then and my family didn't know what I needed. A complete breakdown of communication ensued and no one got any support."
Being someone who lives with mental health issues, I come from the other side. After years of anger, aggression and complete conviction that no one understood me, I have seen that almost all loving families dealing with mentally ill loved ones are the best they can be. It's a different matter that that best may not be good enough. I remember longing for tenderness when I was given tough love, I remember longing to be treated, held and comforted like a child when I was given silent support. If you look at the above two statements, you'll see I was given love and support, except it wasn't the kind I needed. I didn't know how to articulate it then and my family didn't know what I needed. A complete breakdown of communication ensued and no one got any support. If you are a caregiver or a family member of someone with mental illness, I have a list that might help you.
1. If your loved one is getting help, be involved in that process without suffocating it. Ask after a therapy session how it went, offer to see the therapist yourself if they need you there, make time and room for your loved to make it to the appointment, even if it means picking up their slack when it's time for them to go.
2. Schedule a session or two alone with their therapist to find out how you can help them. Once a therapist understands your loved one's issue, there will be certain things that you can do to make things easier.
3. Don't single them out. For instance, if their behaviour is aggressive, then make it clear that it won't be tolerated, not just from them but from any member of the family. This helps your patient feel less isolated.
"I would have loved to be told that getting help was a big step that makes my family proud of me."
4. Acknowledge your loved one's courage. One of the things I crave is acknowledgement from the people I love for even the littlest things. From running a house on my own, going to work and having fun, I went to not being able to get off my bed to brush my teeth. Half way after I started therapy, if I had a week where I showered every day, it felt like an achievement. I would have loved for it to be acknowledged. Just as I would have loved to be told that getting help was a big step that makes my family proud of me.
5. Recognise that feeling guilt, shame and anger is entirely par for course. From feeling responsible for your loved one's illness to blaming yourself for not getting them help sooner, families feel all of it. Anger is sometimes directed to whatever belief system families hold--why us? It goes a long way in helping your loved ones to recognize that you aren't entirely responsible for it. There are many reasons for mental illnesses, including genetics.
6. Be calm. Lacking their own calm means your loved ones will draw calmness, or a semblance of it, from you. If you can provide that sense of calmness, as tough as it will be, it will go a long way in aiding recovery. Agitation on your part is enough of a trigger for your loved one to be disturbed.
7. Don't belittle or be reductive of your loved one. Not allowing them autonomy in taking their medication, deciding routines, making small and even big decisions, however good your intentions are, can be unhelpful. Allowing them to decide their medication routine, what they'll wear, who they will meet and where they go lets them continue their recovery without feeling singled out.
8. Be vocal. In a country where mental health comes with all kinds of stigma, talking about mental health and advocating for better health care is one of the biggest long-term activities you can do for your loved one.
9. Be patient. Dig deep within yourself to find that well of patience and extend it to your loved one. Over a period of time, with the right kind of help, your loved one will not take as much out of you as she is taking now.
10. Educate yourself. I can't stress the importance of this enough. Learn everything possible about your loved one's condition: this deepens your understanding, which will automatically communicate to your loved one. Calm, unconditional understanding is almost as good as great therapy.