I still recall the feelings as my colleague sadly shook her head while describing how her family had reacted to her brother starting to “decompensate into his schizophrenia” beginning in his late teens – early 20’s. “My Mom became frantic. She started hugging him and smiling at him all the time – as if she could hold what was happening at bay by pouring on the mother-love. Kind of like loading up with vitamin C to ward off a cold.”
We’d just been in a family meeting together about post-hospitalization options for a family struggling with varying levels of acceptance and denial regarding the true impact of mental illness on their family. We’d both been struck by the love – but also the simmering anger and anxiety.
And we both agreed that you never really know how things will ultimately turn out. Some family members – out of love, loyalty, and a deep sense of duty – step up, and are just incredible. Some others want to step up, but aren’t sure how to do it and/or are worried about being trapped, and then have it all turn out to be futile anyway. Some feel guilty about how they really feel, others are defiant about NOT feeling guilty, NOT wanting to be entangled in the family struggle.
The ones that try to be helpful can also start to feel put upon, under-appreciated, even “burned” by their decent impulses. Some play the martyr. Some can become self-righteous and judgmental.
It’s complicated and very, very sad.
Loved ones helping loved ones with their struggle is a good thing, and also essential if family members can have any chance at staying a reasonable facsimile of a family. Sorting out the options and choices intelligently, in an emotionally honest way, is the way to go. One obvious example: some family members come to realize they’re best-suited to support and validate another family member’s efforts, and not feel too badly that they don’t do as well with direct contact themselves.
Obviously it’s not easy, but it’s also not impossibly hard to learn how to be clear-eyed about the situation and make small, but real changes that make an actual difference and move things forward.