As someone who is living with a severe mental illness, I have had to make those closest to me are aware of what that looks like for me in order to receive the support I need during my recovery. I am lucky enough to have a supportive husband who has been my rock during my recovery and a few friends who have offered their support in numerous ways.
T-Kea of Fireflies Unite Podcast, a mental health awareness podcast that is "Normalizing The Mental Health Conversation In Communities of Color", shared a story on her IG story about one of her close friends, Liz, who has been integral during her recovery. I was so moved by their story that I had to reach out and ask them to do a piece for the theme this month. It is the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month but the conversation doesn't stop here. It's important to ask how you can be of support to a friend battling a mental illness. It means a lot. Check out their story.
I can remember the day like it was yesterday. I sent a text message to my friend and said, “It would be better if I wasn’t here.” Translation, I want to die! But at that moment my friend, Liz, did not know that I took a countless number of pills and drank a bottle of wine. I was hoping that I would not wake up. Before I knew it, two policemen were breaking into my window and asking me questions. They asked me a few questions that I cannot recall, but I remember them asking if I wanted to hurt myself. I responded and said I don’t know, even though I knew I wanted to. As a result, they stated that I did not look well and was a threat to myself. They gave me two options, I could wait for the ambulance to arrive to be transported to the hospital or they would handcuff me and taken by force. I agreed to get dressed and go with the paramedics. By the time I arrived at the hospital, I was told to remove my clothing, turn in my phone, and evaluated by the psychiatrist. They told me that I could not go back home and I would be admitted to the hospital for suicide prevention.
I often think about that day and believe that if it was not for Liz making the decision of calling the police, I would not be alive today. Initially, I did not realize that Liz called the police until a week later when I was at her house sharing my experience and she looked me in my eyes and told me it was her.
Over the last three years, Liz and I have become extremely close. She is a big sister, at times a mother figure, and an amazing friend. I know that pivotal day was scary, stressful, confusing, and frustrating for her. She’s expressed how it was a lot for her to process and decide what to do. Liz said it was not an easy choice to make. Through this journey, I know that it takes a special person to do all the things she has done. Liz and her husband opened their home to me so that I could focus on my recovery and I am beyond grateful. Liz has said that she couldn’t support me if her husband didn’t support her. There are truly no words that can express my gratitude and love for them.
Shortly after moving in, Liz took the initiative to come to therapy with me and it has made our relationship stronger. We’ve gained a better understanding of one another. Through therapy, we were provided a safe space to express our concerns, thoughts, and feelings. Liz learned about my triggers and we learned ways to better communicate with each other. For Liz, she was able to share her challenges regarding our living arrangements, as it isn’t easy to adjust to each other’s lifestyles. You see Liz has a family, a husband, and 3 beautiful girls, and I’m single. Therefore, we needed to be able to discuss expectations, set boundaries, and rules. More importantly, with the help of my therapist, Liz continues to help me develop an exit plan for my transition. She desires to see me healthy when I leave her home. She supports my dreams, is patient, and loving.
In writing this piece, Liz and I thought of a few tips to help caregivers who support those living with mental illness. These tips can also encourage a stronger relationship with each other.
Educate yourself on your loved one’s mental illness.
It is imperative that you educate yourself! Do not make assumptions and develop conclusions about a person’s mental illness based on any stigmas. Learn how their mental illness impacts them as it shows up differently for each person. Learn signs of an episode and crisis so that you can best assist them.
Learn their triggers.
Understanding a person’s triggers is one of the most important things you can do. Triggers can reignite memories of trauma and cause flashbacks to that traumatic moment. These memories and flashbacks can negatively impact a person's mood, render a person unable to interact appropriately with the environment around them, or cause them to relapse into harmful habits, according to the America Psychiatric Association.
If you are living with someone with a mental illness, identifying your expectations or “pet peeves” and being able to convey them to your loved one will aid in managing your relationship and living arrangements to avoid bitterness or negative energy.
Communication is imperative.
Being able to communicate openly, honestly, and in a non-judgmental environment is essential. Both parties must be comfortable with sharing their likes, dislikes, concerns, and achievements. Your caregiver may appear to be strong, confident, and have it together, but don’t assume that’s true. Your loved one may have good days and bad days. We’re all human. We all have our strengths, faults, and baggage. Help each other unpack!
Don’t be afraid to ask questions! For caregivers that are choosing to support their loved one, asking questions about their triggers, needs, thoughts, and feelings will help you have a better understanding of what they are going through or how they process things.
Don’t be afraid to say you don’t understand! What they may be going through, their symptoms, or how they are impacted by their illness can be confusing for others. You don’t necessarily have to understand. The important thing is that you listen, accept them, and respect their situation just as you would expect them to do for you.
Don’t be afraid to express your needs! As a caregiver, you are still an individual going through your journey of life. You can have your own ups and downs. Don’t discredit or lose focus of your voyage. Sharing yourself is essential for your own balance and for your loved one to understand your position.
Having a better understanding and mutual respect will allow you to better care for your loved one and have a stronger relationship.
Often for those individuals that are undiagnosed or newly diagnosed, they are going through a learning process themselves. They may not know what they need or what to disclose and reveal or may still be struggling with opening up and asking for help. Don’t wait for he/she to ask for help or say what they need.
When your loved one is in an episode, they are often confused and cannot think clearly. It may require you to make decisions for them using your best judgment. Go the extra mile and attend a therapy session, pick up his/her medication, invite them to eat, a movie, or for a walk, show up at their house unannounced if you’ve noticed that they’ve been distant. It could be the very thing that saves their life!
Remember, taking initiative is not one-sided. It is just as important for the individual living with a mental illness to be proactive with their caregiver. The desire to build a healthy and cohesive relationship should be valuable to each party.
Make sure you take care of yourself.
Being a caregiver for a loved one can be stressful. It is extremely important that you practice self-care and do not overextend yourself. Mental illness is not one size fits all nor does it only affect or impact those that are diagnosed.
Don’t be afraid to attend therapy for yourself, especially if you are supporting a loved one. The additional efforts can be rewarding but can be hard work to manage. Talking with a therapist can provide some extra support and assist you with navigating your role in your loved one’s life.
You’re friends/family first! Being sensitive towards your loved one’s illness is desired, but don’t be scared to be yourself. If you refrain from saying or doing things that come naturally this can cause unnecessary stress and pressure on yourself. While we expect people to exercise their filters with their words or restraint with their actions, we also believe that we are accepted and loved for who we are. There is a reason why your loved one is turning to you for support, so be yourself!
Your mental health is just as vital as your loved one living with a mental illness.