Be Brave. Find Your People.

Brave looks like many things.

It’s starting a new job. It’s putting words on a blank screen or apologizing to someone for something you did. It’s doing something you’ve never done before or telling someone something about yourself no one else knows. It’s blasting through your anxiety to do something you really want to do.

It’s going to a women’s march in NYC, to see a new therapist, or attend a support group for the first time. Brave looks different because it is different.

When my son was young, he was a watcher, not a doer. He hung back and stood as close to me as he could. He seemed fearful at the beach or on a new playground. He stood behind me, peeking around at parades and birthday parties. He was reluctant and watchful. Fearful and apprehensive. As he grew into school and friends and life, what looked like shyness became anxiety. What looked like hesitancy became a coping mechanism for his learning disabilities. And after evaluations and experts, we had a diagnosis.

Whether he was brave or not was no longer an issue. There was a reason why he was unable to reach out and engage. Severe anxiety disorder and depression was swallowing my son, and as he made his way through his teenage years, things worsened. School was a nightmare. Social situations were daunting. Even family events and parties were difficult. I watched helplessly as mental illness took over his life.

I didn’t really know what to do then. I sure don’t know what to do now. And I soon realized that no one does. Not his teachers. Not his doctors. Not even his countless therapists or psychiatrists. Wading through the mental illness pool was more like sinking in quicksand. He was slowly being swallowed when suddenly a pill or therapy lifted him up and he almost got to get out. After awhile, though, that stopped working and he began to sink again. Until the next magic fix that gave hope.

Almost three years ago I was invited to a small group study focused on Kay and Rick Warren’s teaching series entitled, “How to Get Through What You’re Going Through.” They had lost their son, Matthew, to suicide after an almost lifelong battle with mental illness. At that group I met a person who understood exactly what it was like to parent a young adult with a severe mental illness. We started meeting for coffee and started a faith-based support group for others who love and care for family and friends who suffer from mental illness.

Four years ago, I would never have predicted that I would be talking out loud about mental illness to anyone, let alone people who I hardly know. For decades I worked so hard to hide it. The real stigma of mental illness drove me to make everything look normal on the outside. But I can’t even describe how liberating it feels to be with people who get it. I don’t have to feel guilty about expressing frustration. I can say exactly how I feel. And the best part is that as I listen to what others say, I can nod my head in understanding because I truly have walked in those shoes. I am not alone because I have found strong and brave people who know how devastatingly unbearable mental illness is.

And this has changed me. It has made me brave.

Many years ago I was struggling and at one of the lowest moments in my life. As I sat sobbing at my kitchen table, my Bible – which I only occasionally opened – fell onto the floor and opened up. I walked over and picked it up and my eyes were drawn to Joshua 1:9.

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

I didn’t recognize it at the time, but that was God’s grace. He reached out to let me know that I needed to be brave, but I didn’t have to be brave alone.

If your normal means you are loving and caring for someone with a mental illness and no one understands, find your people. Find your people and tell your story. Find people who will pray with you and pray for you. Find people who know that God promises to give rest to those of us who are weary and burdened. Find people who trust that joy is out there and peace is within reach.

Finding my people has changed me. My son is still struggling with severe anxiety and depression, but I am able to wake up every morning, and with gratitude and peace, get through another day. I can see my son through God’s eyes and forgive him, love him, and never give up hope for him. This is what finding my people has helped me do.

Be strong and courageous. And find your people.

[Contact your place of worship to see if there is a support group for family and friends of people who struggle with mental illness. NAMI also has lots of faith-based information here: http://www.nami.org/NAMIFaithnet.] 

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Holding Space

I first came across the phrase “holding space for someone” in a blog post on a website called Uplift, a media channel devoted to wellness, consciousness, Earth, peace, water, and science. Oh, and yoga. The post unfolded in a remarkable manner and brought me back to the week my own mother passed away. Like the author and her siblings, we chose to allow our mom to live her last days at home. We sat with her. Fed her. Cared for her. We were there beside her when she died. And we said our goodbyes the same way Heather Plett and her family did. We even had a hospice care nurse who played the same role in our lives as the one in the blog. I think about how we journeyed beside our mother, unsure of where we’d be at any given moment, but certain of where things were headed.

We were holding space.

We were there loving her, talking to her, showing her old photographs, and sitting beside her quietly. We shared the same space without any idea of what the rules were. We knew three things were true: We loved her. We didn’t want to see her in pain anymore. But we didn’t want to let her go.

Until I came across this article, holding space didn’t have a name. It was just people sharing an experience and knowing that it was okay to just be.

No judgment. No advice. No conditions.

Kay Warren, co-founder of Saddleback Church in California, said it best in 2013, just four months after the suicide of her 26-year-old son, Matthew. Kay said “facing the darkness together is about making a decision. To express compassion is a deliberate choice. We are most like Christ when we choose to offer the gift of our presence and choose to absorb within ourselves the suffering of others.”

Holding space is a privilege and an honor. A gift. It is walking alongside someone who is walking in darkness. It is being a warm and quiet light. Only those with pure empathy and love can hold space for someone. And it is walking a mile in someone’s shoes that creates the credibility to be the holder of space.

Life at 5,280 feet comes with a bittersweet joy. It comes with the strength to hold space. And if we’re lucky, it comes with someone willing to hold space with us.

On Pins and Needles

I apologize.

I came across some great research about caregivers and I didn’t share. I read the document and found myself lost in the numbers. I was a statistic and it made me feel both terrified and relieved. Terrified because there are so many of us. Relieved because there are so many of us.

It has been said that misery loves company. I have to say, though, that I would not wish the heartbreak and pain that goes with caring for someone with a mental illness on any one. In this case, misery wants company but doesn’t want others to suffer as we do.

We really just want people to get it: To not blame us. To see that we love our kids, our parents, our siblings, our spouse as much as you do. And to be there when we need you without judgment, without prejudice, without advice.

The study, entitled “On Pins and Needles: Caregivers of Adults with Mental Illness,” was published by the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) almost a year ago in February of 2016. The research was conducted in partnership with Mental Health America (MHA) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The study’s purpose was to “provide an in-depth look at the unique issues and challenges facing those who provide unpaid care to an adult who has a serious-to-moderate emotional or mental health issue.”

So it’s about me.

What the research had to say was interesting. I could have written the report myself. No surprises there, except for the statistics. Did you know that at least 8.4 million Americans provide care to an adult with a mental health issues? The study found that those 8.4 million people – aka us – are especially vulnerable, and face complex and high burden care situations. As a group, we face emotional and physical stress. We don’t feel like we have a choice. And financially we struggle. Compared to caregivers who take care of adults with any other kind of condition, which is about four years, we have been in our role for more than twice the amount of time – an average of more than eight-and-a-half years.

The study is interesting and the link, if you are interested in reading it, is at the end of this blog post. There is a list of recommendations that came out of the research and of the eight specific points listed in the summary at the beginning of the report, which include suggestions pertaining to screening, access to services, reimbursement for medications, and outreach, I found the last two most interesting: Education and resources for caregivers, including short-term respite, one-to-one support, and peer support for caregivers; and ending stigma.

So the report recognizes the need for people to talk and support each other. Something many of us have already figured out. Misery really does love company, but only if the company is credible and understands what normal looks like when you care for a loved one with a mental illness. So I am sorry for not sharing sooner. I apologize for starting a blog and then only posting a few times. It was a tough year for me. Thankfully I have people who pray for me, meet with me, and know my pain because it is their pain, too.

I’m a mom who cares for young adult children with severe mental illnesses. And I live my life on pins and needles.

You can read “On Pins and Needles: Caregivers of Adults with Mental Illness” here: http://www.caregiving.org/mentalhealth/