Oh, to be the center of (loving) attention

Here’s to the unseen, the unheard…the silent warriors

center of attentionFor the unspoken ones, the quiet ones, the so-called “reliable” and “responsible” ones, this edition of Soul Notes is for you.

This is dedicated to those living with or having lived with a family member with a mental illness.   I would imagine similar experiences ring true in other trying situations in other types of family dynamics as well. With respect and reverence, I honor those, too.

Specifically, here, however, we continue what we started exploring in an earlier post where I shared that I had embarked on an intensive “Family to Family” training program delivered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I’ve completed that training, and have emerged hopefully with a deepened sense of grace and understanding.

From my own experiences, coupled with what I learned in the NAMI “Family to Family” course

My mother had her first “nervous breakdown” when I was seven. She is bipolar (or what they called back then manic depressive). By my teenage years, on more than one occasion I had witnessed her attempt to end her life. In my 20s, I experienced the downward spiral of my brother who had his own psychotic break and who did die by suicide.

When you’re a family member of someone living with a mental illness, the attention, the focus, the energy centers around that person. “Rightly so!,” you may be exclaiming. Indeed. Agreed.

The need to ascertain and ensure proper dosages of medication, the monitoring of moods, and riding the waves of ever-changing behavior — all require steadfast attention, energy and care.

The persons with the mental illness(es) often feel alone, isolated, and misunderstood. They experience severe pain, disorientation, and confusion. They suffer the pangs of unfair stigma, prejudice and ostracization. Absolutely, they need and deserve loving care and attention. (For a prior discussion regarding empathy for the mentally ill, please go here.)

Resources are created, collected, and distributed to the person or persons with the brain disorder. To the one “acting out.” To the erratic one. They have their own treatment plans, hospital wings and specialized medical personnel. They have their own support groups, etc. Again, rightly so.

But, what about the other family members who are not the ones with the brain disorder? The steady ones? The stalwart ones? The ones who bravely persevere amongst the turbulence and the mayhem? The ones who may have violence directed towards them, and who undergo stressful encounters with law enforcement and medical and paramedical personnel? Ah, there’s the rub, Shakespeare.

As an advocate for all  souls to be shining brightly, I pose this question:

How, then, to garner the attention, focus and care that YOU, as a family member, may also need?

Are your needs and desires to remain cast in the shadows, lost in all the chaotic mix that is, in a household or family structure centered around one or more members living with a brain disorder? I speak for the silent ones. The often overlooked ones. The often forgotten ones in this mix.   I take a stand for these souls. As does NAMI. NAMI’s Family to Family program is designed to support and improve the lives of family members affected by mental illness.  I applaud them, and other organizations like them, for their great work.

The Squeaky Wheel

There’s an American idiom that states in effect: “to the squeaky wheel goes the grease.” In other words, to smooth out the ride, to eradicate the noise, to silence the distraction, apply oil.

What if, however, there is no ‘noticeable’ squeak? As this philosophical question poses: “If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?” The answer is yes! The family members of a loved one with a mental illness are often the silent sufferers. The unsqueaky wheels DO need the grease (i.e., their own loving care and attention). As they are often the ones overlooked, that is all the more reason to pay them close heed.

Families with a mentally ill family member often cloak their experiences in secrecy. They bear the social stigma of having a “crazy” family member. They are deemed unstable-by-association. And, within their own families, the non mentally ill ones often feel and are in effect treated as if they are “invisible.”

Self-care and Support

It’s important for the family members to find healthy ways to take care of themselves, and that includes surrounding themselves with their own support system. Wonderfully, NAMI offers support groups not only for the ill persons, but for the family members as well.

As discussed in the Family to Family class, family members suffer their own unique burdens. The course classifies them into objective life burdens and the subjective burden of their own painful and often hidden, unexpressed feelings. The objective life burdens often include:

  • getting through crises with the ill family member while maintaining the needs of the other family members
  • inevitable family conflicts due to different coping styles and perspectives on how best to handle certain situations
  • finding a way to balance work or school responsibilities with treatment and care responsibilities
  • financial concerns and plans for future care
  • being “menaced” by someone you love
  • taking on dual or multiple roles within the family
  • having to grow up too fast
  • worried that you will get the illness, too
  • lack of an understanding peer group

And, again, the subjective burdens are the often unexpressed feelings and hurts associated with being a family member of someone who is mentally not well.

NAMI Graduation

Which brings me to our graduation from the NAMI Family to Family course. On a recent Saturday, I joined my twenty or so classmates in a joyous celebration. Our weeks of emotionally draining at times, uplifting at times, and overall deeply bonding time together, came to a close.

We had our own graduation ceremony. Okay, so there were no actual caps and gowns, but someone did play “Pomp and Circumstance” from her smart phone! And, we each walked up to the front of the room, and received our Certificates and some came complete with a gold seal for Perfect Attendance. Without exception, each person cheered for one another as we accepted our ‘diplomas’. We had our pictures taken with our instructors, and as a group.

We were the center of attention. We weren’t the squeaky wheels. And, we didn’t need to be. We were seen, heard, respected, appreciated and loved — for who we are and what we have each experienced. And, it felt great.

3 Suggestions to Consider:

I leave you with three suggestions to consider and to incorporate into your lives should you know of a colleague, friend, or other loved one who may be experiencing hidden, locked or unexpressed feelings as a result of living with someone with a mental illness:

  1. From a place of compassion and understanding, let them know you are available to listen, without judgment, and are open to hearing about their perspective and their experiences.
  2. Allow them to express their fear, doubt, anxiety, nervousness, frustration, anger, shame, guilt or any other telling aspects of their experiences to whatever extent they feel comfortable. This is true for adults, and especially true for children – who may need loving encouragement and reassurance that it is safe to express their feelings, and that their feelings are indeed valid.
  3. Go ahead and dote on them once in awhile! Allow them to be the center of your loving attention. Allow them to take a break, have a little fun, and let loose for a change. Life need not always be so heavy. They will likely savor every bit of those precious moments.

So, here’s to the silent brave ones! Carry on! We see you. We hear you. We care about you. You matter!

Okay, your turn:

What experiences have you had with someone whose family member has a mental illness? If you are a family member of someone with a mental illness, what one thing would you like others to understand?

I invite you to share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences in the Comments section, below. Soul-to-soul!

© 2015 Lori A. Noonan. All Rights Reserved.

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