The saying “no man is an island” might be cheesy but it’s totally true when it comes to mental health and mental illness. A person does not exist in a vacuum. Their actions and emotions have an impact on the people around them. Especially a person’s family.
Not everyone has a positive relationship with their family. Some people spend more time with their chosen family (good friends, etc.) I cannot speak to that situation because I do have a mostly positive and amazing relationship with my parents and two sisters. So this article is really about my type of situation. This might not apply to everyone but you might see bits or pieces of yourself in it.
Sometimes, my mental health problems cause me to be in extreme pain, both physically and emotionally. They interfere with my life. They make me feel sad, scared, hopeless, overwhelmed, anxious and more. My mental health problems make me feel selfish because all I can focus on is how I am feeling and how shitty it feels. But then I have to actually speak to the people who care about me and I see that it impacts them too. Immensely. I can’t just go days without talking to my mom, dad or sisters, even though I live far away, because it is typical that I talk to them almost every day. So my mental health issues are bound to come up, as I find it almost impossible to lie to them. And even though I am so close to them, I am scared about how they will react.
Mental illness isn’t uncommon in my family so there isn’t as much stigma there. My parents do their absolute best to be as understanding and supportive as possible. Sometimes they don’t understand what I am experiencing because no one talked about this kind of stuff when they were younger. They might say something that is well-meaning but unhelpful. I have been angry and hurt by our conversations at times. But me and my sisters will take the time to explain it, send them useful articles on the Internet with expert advice from psychologists/doctors and it helps them grow their knowledge and be better prepared to help me or say the right thing. It’s hard for me to want to open up to them at times because I realize how much pain they are in. My mom will often cry on the phone and it is so awful to hear your own parent cry, especially if it’s because of something you said or did. But it is unavoidable that children will eventually cause their parents pain. I am not a parent myself, but I can theoretically understand that you just want to protect your child to the best of your abilities and you want to prevent them from any harm. But bad things are just unavoidable. They are a part of life.
My parents have been literal superheroes in terms of my mental illness. A few years ago, when I was going through a particular dark time, my Dad drove all the way from Montreal almost minutes after I asked him to, to pick me up and bring me home. A few years after that, when I was an in-patient at CAMH during a manic episode, my mom came to Toronto and visited me in the hospital and helped me transition to life at home after I was discharged. These two events, among many other things, is why I am so grateful for their support. And my parents, in general, help contribute to my mental well-being by being my cheerleaders from afar. Their pride about my accomplishments spurs me on to reach higher. My success is a direct result of their kindness and encouragement.
My older sister also plays an immense role in my support system. While she lives in Boston and is busy growing her adorable family and career, she is always there if I need her. Last weekend when I was in the hospital waiting room, she gave me a call and gave me just what I needed – a little game of hide-and-seek over the phone with her daughter. It was adorable. I remember a particular time when I was extremely depressed and she was living in Toronto. She would drive all the way to the other side of town on a moment’s notice to bring me dinner and help me complete my course work because I was so anxious that I couldn’t do it alone. She would invite me over on the weekend and make me dinner and let me play with her fluffy dogs who were seriously the best medicine. She also is a huge inspiration for me in trying to live my best life. She is so smart, passionate, curious and open-minded. I love her lifestyle and always seek to emulate it. She is so active – she is constantly finding fun activities on the weekends for her daughter that expand her mind or involve exercise or getting fresh air or admiring something beautiful about the world. Hikes, farmer’s market, the science museum, music festivals, the library, the beach and more. It helps kick me in the butt when I am on my own in Toronto and feeling depressed. I get out in the world and do something and I feel so much better than if I hid from the world in my cocoon.
Finally, without my twin sister/best friend, I don’t know where I would be. Of course, I have a supportive and amazing partner, but my relationship with my twin sister is unique in its own way. She is my rock. She is my second brain. We know each other so well that we can usually tell exactly what the other is thinking. We understand each other in ways that I don’t think I can put into words. When I have been experiencing mental health crises, she has done everything in her power to make me feel better. A few years ago, I can remember a span of a few months where it felt like almost every weekend, she was dropping everything and taking the Megabus to Toronto to be with me, hold my hand and encourage me to seek treatment. Just last weekend, when I was experiencing those terrible anxiety symptoms and feelings of depersonalization, she drove all the way from Montreal just to be with me for one day and make sure I was okay. All of this on top of the fact that she has her own mental health issues to take care of. Being with her just makes me feel safer. Just even being able to cuddle or hold her hand makes me feel more connected to the world and less alone. She also treats my successes almost as if they were her successes – that’s how excited she gets when things goes well for me. She is constantly acting as a source to bounce ideas off of and make me feel less crazy for dreaming big.
So how can you support your family throughout your own mental health issues so that they can feel capable of supporting you?
- Be as open and specific as possible. I know you might be worried you will upset them, but it is easier for them to help you if they know exactly what you are feeling. It will help them figure out what they should say that would be helpful and exactly what you need.
- Be direct. If you need their help, they will probably offer it anyway. But don’t be afraid to ask them for their support when you need it. And tell them exactly what you need, whether it is a lift to the doctor’s office or a daily phone call as a check in.
- Respect their own needs. What’s that saying? You can’t pour from an empty cup. If it’s not urgent, sometimes try to give them a little space so that they can engage in self-care and focus on themselves. It might also help you to focus less on your own problems by taking the time to ask them about their day and listen. You can also give them a break by relying on different family members or supporters for different things. Start a rotation!
- Show them that you are trying. They will feel better if they know that you are listening to the advice of experts. Show up for your medical appointments. Go to therapy. Go to a support group. Get some exercise if you are physically or emotionally able. Eat the food they give you. Help them feel less worried by showing them that you are doing your best.
- Show your gratitude. Tell them you love them! Thank them! Give them a hug! Get them a present! Make sure they know that you appreciate them.
- Pick up the slack when you are healthy. Our family members do a lot for us, especially when we are unable to muster the energy to cook or clean or drive or engage in other chores. When you are feeling well, take the time to fulfill someone else’s needs. Offer to help clean or make them some yummy dinners they can freeze. Baby-sit their kids. Do their taxes.I don’t know! Show them that you have their back so that they know it is a give-and-take relationship.
I will be writing another blog post one day about my relationship with my partner and his role in my support system, so don’t think I am forgetting him! I just wanted to focus specifically on my immediate family. I am truly lucky to have them. I know that not everyone is so lucky. That’s why I want to help people with mental health build the support systems that work for them. Support is SO key in improving mental health and recovering from mental illness. As always, I am here for you if you need an ear – just shoot me a message!