I wasn’t always able to find compassion for Mom. Like many caregivers of loved ones with mental illness, for many years I was consumed with the impact her illness had on my life. It’s so easy to get caught up in feeling wronged and the victim when you live through any abusive situation.
It wasn’t until I was much older and after I had embarked on some serious self-discovery that I was able to step into her shoes to understand what life must have been like for her. I remember having a conversation about my mom with my colleague Jo. At the end of our conversation, she told me to watch Steven Frye’s documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, both parts of which are available on YouTube. Watching that movie was powerful for me. I think that was the moment I began feeling raw compassion for my mother.
Fry’s chronicle of his journey battling depression gave me some eye-opening insights into what a day might have been like for Mom. He pulls in other actors, including the late Carrie Fischer who describes what it is like for her to experience mania. It all made complete sense and accurately represented my own experience with my mother during her mania.
As caregivers, the only way we can find compassion is to somehow find the strength to put ourselves aside for a moment, take a step back and imagine what life is like for the person we’re caring for. Not easy to do, but critical. Coming from that kind of compassion just might make acceptance and caring for someone who is mentally ill just a little less difficult. I wish I had arrived at that before I lost my mother, because I know it would have made a real difference in how I cared for her.
So when it comes to overall best practices for families, I must reiterate the importance of compassion. Whether you are a caregiver of a loved one with mental illness or not, cultivating rich empathy in the family is the first step. Our family members are the people who know us best. They are the ones who celebrate our victories and support us when we stumble. When we share a meal or a conversation together, we are connected by love. But do we make the time for that?
It’s easy to get caught up in the rat race of life and become so consumed in our many responsibilities and obligations. And, it’s easy to be so plugged in to our phones and devices that we forget how important it is to just pause, look up and connect with each other—eye balls to eye balls. That connection is what helps us to better care for our loved ones.
If you’re looking to do your best for your loved ones, you’ll want to:
- Connect: An unspoken vibe exists when we are really connected to each other. Make sure you take the time to cultivate and protect that. Having rituals like eating meals together so that you can check-in on each other is important. Being aware and connected will afford you the ability to take notice of shifts in patterns or dispositions of those you love. I love the exercise of asking each other to identify the lowlights and highlights of the day. That’s a good way to put the not-so-good to rest and celebrate the good.
- Talk: Creating an environment of love and acceptance in the home can serve your family more than you know. Fostering a space for authentic conversation is equally important. Shame and fear are diminished when there is open conversation and acceptance of each other.
- Educate: Awareness of the signs and symptoms of depression and suicide are imperative so that you know what the warning signs actually look like. Just like first aid or CPR, you want to be in the best possible position to help your loved one in a moment of need.
- Signs of depression (https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Depression)
- Signs of suicide (https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Related-Conditions/Suicide)
- Lead by example: If you make time to create balance in your own life by nourishing your body and your mind through good eating habits, regular exercise and spiritual practices, and engaging in a hobby you are passionate about that fulfills you, your family will take notice and learn from your example. I can’t stress enough how important self-care is, whether you inspire your family to do the same or not. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of our loved ones. Think about the airplane/oxygen mask example. You have to put the mask on yourself first, before you can help others. So if you aren’t feeling your physical or emotional best, pause, and take the time you need to get centered and find that balance. Stand up for your own wellbeing and take a day to recharge and rejuvenate yourself. You and your family will only benefit.
I hope these tips have provided you with a little something, even if that was just a good reminder. We are in this thing called life together. With a little effort, we can help each other in powerful ways that will make a real difference.