Understand the Inner Life of a Loved One With Mental Illness

Have you ever gone 24 hours without sleep? 48 hours? How did you feel?  How did you look?

Dozed off for a second, awakened with a start and didn’t know where you were?  Lost your sunglasses or car keys and no matter what you did, you couldn’t find them?   Gone driving down a road when your sense of direction got mixed up? Had a song stuck in your head that would not go away? How would you feel if that song stayed for a month or more?

Now let’s put three or more of these items together.  Say you’d hadn’t slept for three days, you heard the same music going on and on in your head, and you couldn‘t find your keys.  How would you feel?

That thought experiment gives you just a hint of the inner life of a person with mental illness. Even in remission and even when properly medicated, chronic mental illness leaves its sufferers in a devastating limbo.

Many people with mental illness are effectively cut off from the predictable, rewarding, self-fulfilling live involvements that make existence meaningful.  They suffer deeply from their inability to be competent and successful in their daily lives.

This threatens our loved ones’ psychological integrity.  It sets up a process where they feel they must protect their “core self” at all cost.

Many behaviors that result – refusing medication, rejecting family support and community programs and disrupting family life, for example – don’t make sense to us. Yet they are directly related to their struggle to maintain some dignity and self-respect in the face of stigma, failure and shame.

Psychological traumas are associated with any serious chronic illness.

 Whenever a person has a serious chronic illness …. COPD, emphysema, chronic heart disease, or a mental illness … two things happen to the sense of self.

First, they lose their protective belief that they are exempt from harm. Much of our sense of safety and willingness to take risks rests on a belief that serious harm or real trouble will never happen to us.  Young people especially still have this sense. Second, they lose their sense of a predictable, dependable future.

This results in some common defensive coping strategies.

These are self-management techniques that are basically maladaptive.  They don’t help people get what they really want, but they do provide temporary psychological refuge when confidence and self-image are taking a nose-dive.

  • Abusive criticism of others
  • Anger and attack
  • Apathy
  • Bargaining
  • Blaming others
  • Controlling or manipulative behavior
  • Defensiveness
  • Denial
  • Dependency
  • Doing nothing
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Envy
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Haughtiness
  • Irritability
  • Quitting a job
  • Refusing help or services
  • Refusing medication
  • Rejection of family and friends
  • Resistance to change
  • Running away
  • Self-absorption
  • Suspicion
  • Withdrawal

From time to time in daily life, all of us will use one or more of these behaviors.  If we are criticized at work … snubbed by someone we thought was a friend … having a fight at home … we may use one of these behaviors if we feel momentarily crushed.  We complain or attack.  We “need a drink.” We get fed up and call in sick.

For us, these responses happen when we feel temporarily defeated.  We normally pull out of them quickly.  We turn to our social and personal life structure, finding comfort and reassurance.

The situation for people with mental illness is drastically different. Their social and personal life is vastly diminished. They often face poverty, stigma, disability, joblessness and social rejection. They are trapped in a runaway train going the wrong way.

The negative coping strategies become a familiar and reliable way to protect themselves from becoming even more diminished.

 

Mental Illness: Chronic Illness Has Predictable Reactions

Mental illness is a chronic illness with life changing impact. Even when a person is properly medicated, in treatment and in remission, mental illness puts its sufferers in a devastating limbo.  Let’s consider what it could be like:

  • Have you ever gone without sleep for one night? 48 hours? Longer?
  • Have you ever woken up, startled and not sure where you were?
  • Have you lost your keys or your glasses and couldn’t find them?
  • Has a song been running through your head for a couple of hours?  A day? A week?

Remember how you felt in these circumstances.  Irritable, frantic or close to screaming? What if it all happened at once?

Thinking about this can give us some empathy for people with mental illness.  Furthermore, many people who have brain-based mental illness are effectively cut off from predictable and rewarding life experiences.  They suffer from their inability to competently do things that they could do before.

This life-constriction threatens our loved ones’ psychological integrity.  This sets up a process where people with mental illnesses feel they must protect themselves at all costs.  They struggle to maintain some dignity and self-respect in the face of stigma, failure and shame. Still, the behaviors that result — refusing medication, rejecting family and community support, and disrupting family life — do not make sense to us.

Whenever a person has a serious chronic illness, such as COPD, emphysema, chronic heart disease or mental illness, two things happen to their sense of self:

  1. They lose their protective belief that they are exempt from harm.  Much of our sense of safety and our willingness to take risks rests on this belief, especially among younger people.
  2. They lose their sense of a predictable, dependable future.  This results in the use of defensive coping strategies.  These self-management techniques are basically maladaptive.  They don’t help people get what they really want, but they do provide temporary psychological refuge when confidence and self-image take a nose-dive.

In the next post, we will look at typical defensive coping strategies and the empathetic guidelines to help families deal with loved ones who exhibit them.

 

 

 

Know Your Meds: Mood Stabilizers

Mood stabilizers are typically used to treat intense, repeated shifts in a person’s mood, which may be common for those experiencing bipolar, schizophrenia, or borderline personality.

Many mood stabilizer drugs are also commonly categorized as anticonvulsant medications.

The oldest of them, lithium, has been in use for over 50 years and has proven very effective, particularly for bipolar disorder, type I. However, regular blood tests are required when taking lithium because of potential serious side effects to the kidneys and thyroid.

Newer mood stabilizers, many of which were originally used to treat seizure disorders, may work better than lithium for some people. Mood stabilizers can prevent manic or hypomanic episodes and depressive episodes. but also have side effects to know about and monitor.

Common mood stabilizers include:

A Good Case Manager Is Hard to Find

The quest to find good professionals to work with your loved one with mental illness may … frankly … drive you crazy.  We’ve paid good money to:

  • A therapist who thought my son had a bad case of “failure to launch” and completely missed the fact that my son was developing schizophrenia. (My hand to God … it’s true.) Even better, when my son had to be taken to the emergency room and the psych ward, we were unable to reach him because his office phone had been cut off for nonpayment.  Thanks, Cigna.
  • A therapist who talked my son with schizophrenia into not taking his medicine.  (Surprise! His ideas about the illness being the remnants of drug use were wrong.)
  • A psychiatrist whose wife/office assistant got me mixed up with another patient’s caregiver, yelled at me, realized her mistake and said, “Please don’t tell my husband.” 

I now realize that we were incredibly blessed with my daughter’s psychiatrist, who spent several hours with her every month for a 11-year period from 1989 to 2000. Today psychiatrists dispense medicine, period. You see them for 15-minute appointments once a quarter, and you work hard to convince your loved one to at least tell them the truth about their symptoms.  It’s relatively easy to lie to someone who hardly ever sees you.

Nonetheless, it’s important to partner with your loved one’s social worker, case manager, therapist and/or psychiatrist. I’ve found there’s a natural period where they assume that you are part of the problem, but it can change over time. And, even if the therapist is unable to tell you things, you have every right to call the therapist with important information.

We worked for 3-1/2 years to get my son moved to a good counseling center where he soon will have a case manager who I personally knew from many months in a support group where he was the facilitator.  He heard me bitch so much about the other social workers and therapists that he was a little worried about working with me.  I got that from this direct quote: “You’re going to be mad at me now.”

Probably not.  The issue with schizophernia is that the illness begins at about age 20, when the young person is trying to get away from Mom.  That makes trying to get the person to do what you know they need to do all the more trying.  Until he left his job, he was a strong thoughtful social worker who did a great job in the role of my son’s advocate.

The biggest issue is keeping a good relationship with a case manager or therapist in place.  Lots of people change jobs, and, when that person is your loved one’s link to sanity, it can have a serious impact.  Things also get better when you are lucky enough to have your loved one entered a permanant supportive housing situation. The case manager for all residents is in an office on-site, and that has been so wonderful.