By Brian McKay
An issue that is rarely discussed is dealing with a mentally ill family member. By that, I mean a family member that claims to be normal and goes undiagnosed out of refusal to admit weakness. Plenty of us suffer from some kind of mental illness, whether it be depression, bi-polar disorder, etc. It is the person that will never own their illness that will become the most destructive and delusional. The concept that someone can question their take on reality and stay saner than those that won’t, is always correct.
The worst of these people to deal with is a family member. We can walk away from others with minimal effort and little stigma, but in US society we create an obligation that is called “family”. The stigma of not dealing with the issue scares many. No one wants to be regarded as an unempathetic ass. Most of us will assume the burden until it destroys us or we just can’t anymore.
I am convinced that the worst someone can deal with is a parent that is mentally ill and toxic. They are the hardest to absolve ourselves of obligation. It was really reaffirmed once when in a group therapy session, a participant started singing her own lyrics to a song. She had named it “Fifty Ways to Kill Your Mother’. When you’re listening to that and couldn’t agree more, that’s when it’s apparent how destructive it is.
Frequent wishes for someone’s death can make you feel like a horrible person, until they don’t. It was several years ago when I knew that if there were one day were a toxic person could be legally killed, I knew exactly who to nominate. That you no longer see redeeming social value in a person, makes that lamentation much easier to digest. Believe it or not it is normal to have such feelings.
My burden is a mother who is the worst person I have ever known. She blew every dime she ever had and left me with the obligation of her care. Having to live with such a person to save her home was probably the greatest mistake I have ever made in life.
Anyone dealing with the same will know the behaviors. She never does anything wrong. Everyone else is abusive or severely disturbed. A horrible statement made to another has an excuse. Those who walk away from her have done so because they are terrible and wrong. Others are hated and blamed constantly. Every day is different and should involve total forgiveness of whatever horrible thing was said the day before.
Denial is the tool of survival. When you tell such a person you heard them talking to herself in weird child’s voice or making crazy movements, you are accused of trying to make her look crazy. It’s your fault. If your child rejects her grandma, it is because of you polluting your kid’s mind. You are the insane one.
You will probably be accused of stealing from your parent or mentally ill family member at some point. He might espouse conspiracy theories just to feel special for knowing something others don’t. There will be insane voicemails and cries of scheming against her. You’re just making up the hoarding accusation to hurt her or him when you open a closet and junk falls out on your head. No advice will ever be taken.
Many of you can relate. You’ve been there. Your relationships are negatively impacted if they can exist at all. You are thrown into periods of stress or depression when yet another crazy thing happens. Deep inside you want to run away but feel that societal obligation or even a need to protect the rest of the world from it.
No one else who interacts with this person on a limited basis will ever try help or save you. No one wants to acknowledge it. Other family members will mostly never speak of it and certainly not implore your mentally ill family member to seek treatment. You’re on your own.
Well here are a few coping mechanisms that might help. It will never go away, but we can try to keep ourselves sane in the process.
Sure no one else knows what to say, but your counselor will listen and advise you. Being able to get it off your chest is a relief with every session. If you have mental health coverage as part of your insurance plan, please schedule this immediately.
Nothing helps us more than being with others going through the same trials. Knowing you don’t struggle in a vacuum, is amazingly reassuring. Maybe your group will have someone singing “50 Ways to Kill Your Mother”.
Better still, a support group exists for those dealing with mental illness in their families. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) sponsors family support groups. The meetings are free and held weekly in most cities. You will truly learn that you are not alone, some humor will result in those shared experiences, coping mechanisms will be shared and you will find strength.
Here is their site to find a program: https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/NAMI-Programs/Nami-Family-Support-Group
If you need an example of strength in sharing, I hope this article is proof that it can help. That is the goal after all.
Stop Talking to the Mentally Ill Family Member About It
Sometimes beauty exists in resigning yourself to avoid the futility. In other words, giving up here is healthy. This individual has ignored every designation other than “normal” (whatever that means) for years. It won’t change. Don’t argue about it. The only one that will be impacted is you. There is nothing more that can be done unless your family member is a danger to himself.
In fact, avoiding conversation outright is going to make a huge difference. Don’t respond even though they want you too. It is a tool to get attention in creating conflict.
Use the Internet
While the Internet is often a pit of junk and conspiracy theories, this is one great use for it. Groups like the American Psychological Association have websites that talk about coping mechanisms and appropriate ways to deal with mental illness.
Know It Isn’t You
It’s reassuring to tell yourself that you didn’t sign a contract to sacrifice your life when you were brought into this world. Know that you are a compassionate individual and have immense strength that others might never have. Be proud of who you are. I am proud of you.
Don’t answer every call or respond to every text. Define when this family member is allowed into your personal life, if ever. Be quick to shut down contentious topics.
Setting up boundaries stops you from being an enabler. You are saying that your life has more worth and that you deal with this out of compassion and not need.
The most critical thing to happiness in life is having reaffirming and caring personal relationships. You matter first and your relationships should never be impacted. If your family member is the type to destroy those relationships, do not let them in to begin with or ever.
Life is full of it. One person is not the definition of our existence. Get out there and experience the happiness of the world around you. Misery can spill over and be as infectious as the flu. That demon flu isn’t out at the local festival. Go there.
Don’t Be Afraid to Walk Away
Certainly, most don’t want to hear this, but it might be necessary. You cannot sacrifice your life for someone that would constantly destroy it and never seek help. There is a point where wiping yourself of all obligation is ok. Regardless of what others might say, if your life is being so impacted that you can’t minimize the damage, go. You have my respect for all you have been through and you deserve your life back. Know that in the US, family is certainly overrated.
If it empowers anyone, I have done all of these things for years. Ok, decades of decline actually. They do help.
If you need to walk away though, I hope you feel better about it when I say it is my time to do so as well.