Riding the Family Roller Coaster of Mental Illness

Sliding Otter News

Storm overSan juan

Storm over San Juan

Up vistaed hopes I sped; And shot, precipitated, Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears…

~Francis Thompson~

The above quote is from The Hound of Heaven, a poem about being pursued by God. But I think it also reflects the experience of those beset by mental illness and the families who love them against all odds. Every time I face a family crisis involving mental illness, I think of this line from the poem I learned in high school.

Discovering that a family member has a mental illness at first proves confusing, mystifying and unbalancing. A former vibrant family member careens off into his or her own reality and seems to have little appreciation of the reality shared by the rest of the family. Sometimes the onset is not so surprising. Other family members may have ended up lost on the same path.

Once the family member is stabilized by treatment, medication or even hospitalization, it seems the worst is over and everyone returns to what they hope will be a semblance of normalcy. Sure, everyone adapts to the new reality and makes the best of a situation no one had planned for or even envisioned. Sometimes things do go well and it seems almost like old times have returned.

Sometimes the family’s world is rocked once again. Medication no longer works as it once did. Side effects force a change in medication. Treatment efforts no longer seem sufficient. The family member identified with mental illness begins retreating into his or her own world, leaving the rest of the family behind and again at a loss as to how to hang on to their drifting loved one. Treatment options are reassessed, new medications are tried and sometimes the hospital becomes inevitable. The second time down this path, the family at least has a better idea what to expect. Yet they are sad and frustrated that they, not to mention their loved one, need to start as if from scratch.

Life becomes a roller coaster for all concerned. Questions emerge. What will it take to regain stability this time? Is there a medication that will restore sanity for everyone? How many times will this cycle repeat itself? Will family life ever be predictable again? Of course, there are no good answers to any of these questions, especially the last one.

Life remains an adventure and is never completely predictable, with or without mental illness. We make our plans and have our expectations. Sometimes things work out the way we would like. Life often offers an unexpected turn of events, sometimes for the better and sometimes not so much. It seems the best we can do is to keep talking with each other and reacting as well as we can to whatever life brings us.

Life Lab Lessons

  • Listen to other family members.
  • Share your experiences of what is going on in the family.
  • Try to understand what is going on rather than blaming anyone.
  • Be careful not to insist on your expectations rather than reality.
  • Stay flexible in reacting to new realities together.

Shaking off the Rust

Sunrise in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard

JOE: Good morning Calliope.
CALLIOPE: Well Joe, I haven’t heard from you in ages except in the form of your newsletters. I am surprised that you even remember your muse exists.
JOE: I didn’t mean to offend you. I know you are here and appreciate all your encouragement and inspiration in the past.
CALLIOPE: So now you need me again?
JOE: I have always needed you. Every two weeks an idea appears in my brain for a newsletter. Sometimes I have no idea what I will write about until shortly before I sit down at the computer or take out a pad and pen. I believe I have you to thank.
CALLIOPE: I’m glad you at least acknowledge me. Does this conversation suggest you have another project in the works?
JOE: As a matter of fact I do. I think it is about time for me to compose another book based on my newsletters.
CALLIOPE: Sounds interesting. Where will you start?
JOE: I would like to start with a catchy title. So far one has not occurred to me. I could use your help.
CALLIOPE: I’ll see what I can come up with. Then what?
JOE: Then I will go through my list to see what newsletters to include and how to organize them into themes.
CALLIOPE: Sounds like a good start. Keep me posted.
JOE: I will and I will also try to be a bit more regular in my posts. Regards to your fellow sisterly muses.

Sliding Otter News 6/16/2012

Adapting the Five Agreements

for Relationships

Brian and Megan

Brian and Megan’s Wedding

If the earth grows inhospitable toward human presence, it is primarily because we have lost our sense of courtesy toward the earth and its inhabitants

~Thomas Berry~

 I have wondered lately what it takes to maintain a relationship. I know people who have managed to stay together for many years, most of them happy. They encountered obstacles but worked together to surmount them. The odds of a marriage remaining intact are about fifty-fifty. I haven’t seen any good data on the prospects of relationships outside marriage but they might not be much different.

Why is it so hard to stay together? Some of us look for what they can get rather than give to each other. Others don’t take the time to get to know each other. Some don’t even take the time to learn about themselves. If we don’t know who we are, who our partners are, what we want from them or what we are willing to give them, no wonder staying together is an uphill battle.

I wrote before about Miguel and Jose Ruiz’s book, The Fifth Agreement. They suggest five agreements with yourself to keep your life on course. Maybe we could adapt these same agreements to help maintain stable relationships.

The first agreement is to be impeccable with your word. Speak the truth rather than frivolity or gossip. We can speak seriously together of what we love about each other rather than what we find annoying, thus bringing us closer together rather than farther apart.

The second agreement is not to take anything personally. What if we took our partners’ words and actions as their attempt to be the best partners they can be instead of seeing them as trying to hurt us. Relationships don’t start between people trying to hurt each other. Maybe we can give each other the benefit of the doubt.

The third agreement is not to make assumptions. Instead of imagining our partners’ thoughts, feelings and motivations, we can talk with them about our observations to find out what they really think and care about.

The fourth agreement is to always do your best. We all have good and bad days in our own skin and in our relationships. Sometimes it is harder to be with someone than at other times. We can use whatever abilities at our disposal on any given day to enhance our relationship. What we have available might not be ideal. But it is the best we have at the moment.

The fifth agreement is to be skeptical and learn to listen. We don’t need to take everything at face value, including ourselves and our partners. We also need to remember that in conversations listening is more important than talking. Really hearing helps our understanding of each other and gives us a better chance to build a more solid relationship.

 Life Lab Lessons

  • Tell your partner what you truly love about him or her.
  • Look for your partner’s best intentions regarding how she or he acts.
  • If unsure what your partner means, make sure you ask.
  • Give your partner the best you have each day.
  • Don’t take anything for granted, especially your relationship.



Sliding Otter News 6/2/2012

Sliding Otter News

June 2, 2012

Enjoying Each Other to the Fullest

Tower of London Original Wall

Tower of London Original Wall

People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges.

 ~Joseph F. Newton~

I tried to find a list of our country’s ten favorite foods. None of the lists matched but they did agree on peanut butter, hot dogs, ice cream, pizza and hamburgers. If you threw them all into a blender and pureed them, how tasty do you think the end result would be? All the flavors would get lost in the process.

Now what if you took all your favorite experiences in life and tried to have them all at once? Same result: system overload. You would not be able to relish any of the experiences. Yet many of us try to do as much as we can as fast as we can and try to do it all at once.

One example is our over-reliance on technology and overindulgence in its inventions. Lately I notice people constantly pawing their communication devices, afraid they will miss something. Despite reminders to be considerate of others, I find it difficult to get through a reading, lecture, movie or live performance without the jangle of at least a few cell phone ringtones.

At restaurants and parties, people often feel the need to have their devices in view or at least in hearing distance at all times. No matter how much a conversation might entrance them, their cell phones frequently seem to take precedence and the conversation is put on hold to see who is ringing in.

Back to the blender example. Trying to experience everything at once dilutes and pollutes each element. Once we did not have so many distractions. If we were lucky enough to be in the company of someone we cherished, we devoted all our time and energy to being with that person. Now we seem bombarded from all directions. Television blasts us with high voltage ads for things we probably don’t need or even want. Computers beckon us with ties to the far flung reaches of the world in a fraction of a second. Tweets, text messages, email and voice calls remain ready to usurp all of our time and energy if we let them.

What can we do before we are sucked into hyperspace? We can start by realizing that our devices are tools. They don’t own us. We own them. We don’t need to answer their signals. We don’t even have to turn them on. Instead, we can choose to tune into the reality around us rather than the electronic signal demanding attention.

We have the power to choose where we place our attention. We can choose to stay in  the moment in which we find ourselves or to flee at the least distraction. We have become so accustomed to answering every ring that we might not realize our insult to the person in front of us whom we put on hold. Instead we can respect that person and let our device save the message until later.

Life Lab Lessons

  • Decide whether you or your phone is in charge.
  • If your phone is in charge, give it a vacation.
  • Respect the ones you’re with.
  • Work on resisting distractions.
  • Take control of your experience.