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.
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