I had an eye-opening conversation with my sister-in-law, who I look up to in so many ways, and I wanted to share some of the things we discussed. I learned new things about mental illness, even though I’ve had it for almost 6 years now, and I hope the things I learned will benefit others. That is always my goal!
The overall kind of “topic” that I took away from our conversation was that mental illnesses are tough for everybody; whether you are the person diagnosed with the illness, the person living with someone who has the illness, or even the person who knows someone who struggles with the illness, it is tough for anyone who may be involved.
The person diagnosed with the illness. Personally, I think this is the toughest to deal with. I know I am biased, but it’s one thing to see someone going through something hard vs. experiencing it for yourself. Just like with any illness or disease. There are so many new experiences a person goes through when first experiencing this illness, and continues to go through during the duration of their time suffering. And that time suffering may end after getting medical attention or seeing a counselor, but it also may be something they deal with for their entire life. Either way, it is tough. Each new phase of life can bring with it a new type of disorder (bipolar, depression, anxiety, postpartum, obsession/compulsion, etc.). I feel like I will get a handle on my illness and then life will present itself with something I haven’t experienced before, such as: an intense college program, a pregnancy, a baby, a new job, etc. And those are just things I’ve experienced myself. It could be other things like a mortgage, an unfaithful spouse, infertility or a miscarriage, a mission, being denied a job or grad application. There are any number of things that can trigger a mental illness, and each time can be different. I feel like I have figured out, for the most part, how to help myself and what I can do to feel better or move on when I’m having a hard time, but it’s something I have to keep adapting to. It changes. I have often said that having this illness hasn’t gotten any easier, I’ve just learned how to deal with it. It’s tough, but it evolves into a different kind of tough.
Looking back on my life I can see little bits of anxiety, but I didn’t know that’s what it was until I was diagnosed and decided to learn more about mental illness. I think that’s where mental illness gets the short end of the stick, we aren’t really taught much about it. Growing up I was taught that I shouldn’t smoke so that I won’t develop lung cancer, to put sunscreen on to hopefully prevent skin cancer, to eat well and exercise to prevent cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes, to use a condom or abstain from sex to prevent STDs or an unwanted pregnancy. Of course sometimes the things we do to prevent illness isn’t enough (a flu vaccine and still getting the flu), I realize that. Sometimes we can only do so much, and that can be when getting sick is the most frustrating, when we have done all we were supposed and yet here we are… in a Doctor’s office talking about treatment options. My point is, I feel like I learned a fair amount about disease but it wasn’t until college, and I had to seek it out, that I learned about mental illnesses. And maybe the things they teach in primary education have changed, I honestly hope it has, because I think this could be crucial in helping people who suffer. Oftentimes it’s about education. If you have the chance to learn more about mental illness please don’t hesitate. It seems that there are more and more resources becoming available. (This blog is supposed to be one of those resources, so please let me know if there is anything I can talk about or help with.) And if you are the one who suffers you are kind of forced to learn more (at least that was my experience), but if you aren’t please choose to learn more so you can help those who do. Which leads me into the next person who this is tough on.
But before I talk about that person I do want to ask the person diagnosed with the illness to be willing to accept help from others. I know how tough that can be, trust me, but when we deny others the chance to help and serve we deny them blessings. I had a dear friend in my old ward text me one day and ask what she could do for me or if I needed anything. I usually say no and that I’m doing alright in those situations, but this time I had the feeling I needed to let go of my pride and just let her do something for me. She asked me what my favorite treats/drinks were and she brought me some Gatorade and SoBe. It was something very simple, but she was persistent, and it made me feel better. She blessed my life and I know Heavenly Father blessed her for helping out one of His children.
The person living with someone who has the illness. Anyone who has lived with me since 2012 has had a hard time in one way or another, and that is not my fault (although it has taken me some time to realize that). I want to make that very clear. IT’S NO ONE’S FAULT. It’s life. And life happens. It’s a disability, and anyone who has lived with or served someone with a disability knows that it’s no one’s fault but that it’s just part of their life and your life and it is what it is. Sometimes this person chooses to live with someone who has the illness and other times they don’t have that choice. People in my life have experienced both. I had companions on my mission who didn’t have a choice but to live with me and I have a wonderful husband who knew that I had this illness (but maybe he didn’t really know what he was getting himself into ha, sorry honey). And then there’s also my parents, who kind of had to take care of me but chose to as well, a little bit of both.
When I look back on my mission I often feel bad for most of my companions (I say most because I wasn’t diagnosed until 5 months into my mission when I really started struggling, so the first few companions got the more sane version of me). I was going through my own personal Hell and I feel like I dragged them through the coals with me. I know that I wasn’t easy to live with, serve with, talk with, or be with a majority of the time. Even though I knew that I still couldn’t help what I was experiencing. Sometimes I would try and push it aside and get over it and other times it would consume me and there wasn’t much I could do or even wanted to do, and my poor companions just had to roll with it. Bless their hearts. I enjoy being liked, and I was worried that these people who saw me at my worst would hate me for what I put them through, but Heavenly Father is oh so good and He blessed me with companions who I will cherish and love forever. I have some amazing friendships now because of my mission, and I will be forever grateful. Heavenly Father blessed me with companions who were understanding and did their best to help me. I know our time serving together as companions was as tough for me as it was for them. So quick little shout out to my AMAZING companions, I love you Hermanas, more than you’ll ever know!
I’ve mentioned this a little in previous blog posts but my husband and I don’t go into much detail about my illness. We did more so when we were engaged and at the beginning of our marriage because I think Dan was trying to understand and adjust to something he hadn’t dealt with before. But now I just tell him when I’m having a hard day so he has a heads up. He asks me what he can do and I used to talk to him about what I was experiencing, but sometimes it’s just hard to explain and that can make it hard to understand so now I just ask him to bring me chocolate or hold me. I think it’s easier to keep it simple, for both of us. Example: a few weeks ago I had a total breakdown and he came home to me sitting on the couch, bawling, and all I wanted was to snuggle with him. Neither of us said anything, we just sat there, and at that moment nothing could’ve helped me more. Words aren’t always the answer, which works out well when you don’t know what to say. I’ve learned over the years that it can be hard for people to know how to help me, especially when I don’t always know.
The person who knows someone who struggles with the illness. I think we are to a point in our lives where we all know someone who has a mental illness, even if it’s just an acquaintance. With that being said I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve wanted to help someone but didn’t really know how, and that can be tough for several different reasons. How do you ask someone with an illness about it without crossing the line? Because there is a line. And that line changes depending on how this person is doing. But how are you supposed to know that? As my sister-in-law and I were discussing these things it hit me how truly tough this can be for people who have the desire to help. I have been in several situations where someone has had good intentions but those good intentions didn’t help. And it’s not their fault, again no one is at fault because their heart was in the right place. I hate to say this but sometimes having your heart in the right place isn’t enough, and that’s why this is SO TOUGH! When people tell me not to worry and that everything will be ok and that I should just focus on others instead of myself, I know they mean well, but they aren’t helping. That is not what I need or want to hear, but again, how are they supposed to know that? Especially when everyone who has a mental illness has a unique situation and what works for one may not work for another. Hopefully, I can provide a little bit more help and insight into this problem.
I think persistence is key. If you really want to help someone with a mental illness then don’t give up on them. It can be hard to open up about what they’re experiencing and going through, but if they see you genuinely care and are interested then I know you will be able to provide that help eventually. Sometimes we’re not in the right mood or mindset to talk about our illness, and other times we are. It can be all about timing, so don’t give up! After you ask, “How are you?” and you get the vague answer, if you feel like you can ask again then DO IT, but maybe ask, “How are you really?” so they know you really care and want to know.
Another thing that my sister-in-law told me she had talked with someone was to take the focus off of the person with the illness and make it about you, which I thought was a pretty good idea. Example: “Hey, I need to get out of my house. Want to go to lunch/go for a walk?” or “Want to come watch a movie with me?” Make them feel like they’re helping you, it takes off some of the pressure they may feel.
One thing that has always stuck with me from Preach My Gospel and my missionary days is how important it is to listen. In missionary context, we were told that people would always talk about something that could be related to the Gospel, and it was true. Somehow anything anyone would say could be tied back to the Gospel and we could take it and run with it. The same kind of thing applies here, if you are listening to what this person has to say and genuinely care about helping them then I promise you will be able to do so. And the thing that they say may not even have anything to do with their illness but if you’re listening you will be able to help. Always have a prayer in your heart and I promise Heavenly Father and the Spirit will guide you. I know that He wants to help His children and that He needs us to help others.
I hope this provided some insight and help for everyone. Please comment with any thoughts you may have or things that have helped you, and please share this blog with anyone that could benefit.
With love and hope, Ally