September 8, 2013

Mental Illness; The Invisible Enemy.

Is there anyone who hasn’t struggled with mental illness? Either in themselves, or in someone they love?

What is mental illness anyway?

In some lights, my life looks like one unending battle against the disease of imbalance. Clinicians might disagree with me, but at the end of the day, I believe that is the true definition of mental illness; an imbalance of perception, of the mind. From there, the people who suffer from it fall along a complex spectrum, which I can’t even begin to understand.

My first battle was with myself. Like many, since I was young, I suffered from profound depression. Was it fueled by the circumstances of my life, by my brain chemistry or a combination of both? I don’t know. But it made me do some terrible things.

A short list of those things includes: a suicide attempt, compulsive lying, drug abuse, involvement in abusive relationships, disordered eating, binge drinking, stealing.

I’ve managed to heal myself—Yoga, healthy eating, good sleep habits, a loving marriage and a low dose of anti-depressants are my magic potion, but I am still immersed in a sea of imbalance.

I married into a complicated family. When I met my husband in 1999, he was divorced and had full custody of his five children. His ex-wife was a peripheral figure, who suffered from bi-polar disorder. The children ranged in age from 5 to 13, four girls and a boy, and they seemed to be normal, beautiful, extremely rambunctious kids. When I moved in, I felt like I was living under a puppy pile… not necessarily a bad thing.

We worked hard in those early years to heal the family from the wounds of divorce. My husband used to say we were trying to “right the ship.” We spent lots of time together, going on outings, having family meals, taking long vacations in a tiny cabin in Wisconsin and at our little beach house in Florida.

In many ways, it was a magical era of innocence. A brief period between the ravages of my mental illness and the next major strike.

On December 11th 2004, my 16 year old stepson, Bobby, took his life. We are all left with our own memories of that day; the fight my husband had with Bobby about a stupid traffic ticket that sent him to his room in a rage, the last conversation Bobby had with my youngest daughter when he yelled at her through his bedroom door to go away, my unwillingness to go see if he was okay because I had the dogs leashed up and ready for a walk. When my husband finally broke his door down after hours of asking him to come out with no response, he was already dead.

His death, itself a result of mental illness, triggered latent mental illnesses in all the kids. How could it not? If this is a disease of imbalance, then these circumstances were a petri dish for the disease.

Nine years later they are all plagued in varying degrees by anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorders, bi-polar disorders, post traumatic stress syndrome, depression and attention deficit disorders.

Mental health is as great a mystery as the origin of existence. Doctors trying to help people who are afflicted with brain imbalances are basically just throwing darts in the dark, hoping they’ll hit something that works. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

There might not be anything more frustrating than watching the people you love suffer year after year from something you have zero control over.

Despite everything, our family remains close. There are countless happy moments interspersed with the stress and fear of coping with the different faces of our invisible enemy, and for that I am grateful. It is possible that love is a stronger medicine than all the drugs in the world, and if that is true, then we’ll be okay.

In the meantime, we hang on tight, to our sanity and to each other.

Our ship still sails, though the sea is rough.

If you or someone you love has been is struggling with mental illness or the affects of mental illness, here are the resources that we found most helpful.

Catholic Charities: Though we are not a traditionally religious family (I am Buddhist, my husband is agnostic), our neighbor, whose husband also took his life, suggested Catholic Charities for us. We received free counseling from a wonderful man named Father Ruby, who has helped hundreds of families in our situation for over two decades. Even if the Catholic Charities in your area doesn’t have an expert in dealing with mental illness, they are a great place to start looking for help, regardless of your denomination.

Out of The Darkness: This organization hosts an annual 20 mile overnight walk in cities across the United States to raise money for suicide prevention and awareness. Participating in the walk not only gave us a sense of belonging to a larger community, but gave us  purpose. It was productive and cathartic during a time when nothing else seemed to be. It’s a great way to meet fellow suicide survivors and get a sense of the enormity of the issue of mental illness, all while helping to bring it to the forefront of people’s minds and erasing the stigma of secrecy which so often surrounds it.

National Alliance on Mental Illness: No matter what iteration of mental illness you might be dealing with, this is the place to get information and help. They have nationwide chapters and an endless staff of compassionate, educated people who have walked in your shoes. Like Catholic Charities, NAMI services are free, though if you can afford it, donations are encouraged.

Willow House: Another free service, specializes in helping grieving families and children. Though it is local to Illinois, they are wired into similar organizations nationwide.  The all volunteer staff is endlessly empathetic and willing and able to help anyone in need. My children benefitted especially from Willow House meetings, and from the Willow House “tree”– a huge drawing of a willow tree, on which people could write their thoughts and memories of our son Bobby on the leaves–that they made and brought to his (and my daughters) high school. We still have that tree and will always treasure it.

Because mental illness is so pervasive, more and more people are becoming aware of it and are able to ask for and receive help.  If you suspect it is affecting you, don’t be ashamed. Be open, ask questions, be brave.

You can heal.

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Ed: Sara Crolick

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