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Home > Coping with Loss > Lost & Found

The Hurricane of Mental Illness
by Sherry Russell

Like dying elephants lying on their side, the magnificent oak trees had fallen. We watched in awe as the beautifully formed tear drops of sap seeped from the now broken trunks. In the quiet of a pin-drop atmosphere, the huge oaks lie motionless. Puffy eyes deep set in tear stained faces witness the slow death. The landscaped had forever changed.

This is what I experienced when the hurricane named Hugo blew through my town on September 21, 1989. For three weeks we were without water and electricity yet we were lucky. No loss of life and we met with no physical harm. Two of the huge fallen oaks would be cut up and saved for firewood to warm us on a cold winter's night. Those three weeks gave way to a new meaning in my relationship with my family. Without electricity we had to reacquaint ourselves with the fine art of communication. We played games, read by day and talked about our hopes, dreams, wishes and desires for each other by night. We listened intently to our battery-operated radio while cooking on our grill, hoping the gas wouldn't run out. We shared with neighbors and the National Guardsmen now protecting us with watchful eyes. I must say that seeing all these armed men and women outside our windows was unsettling indeed. We were numb when we first laid eyes on the young man in camouflage with rifle in tow. Hugo re-connected us to our memories of the past and our hope for the future. The financial toll was difficult but fixable, the renewing of our spiritual faith was priceless, the connecting together and the awakening to life and its meaning a blessed gift. We, along with the landscape, were forever changed.

To all the victims of Isabel, my heart feels for you. I know from experience what it can be to lose your memories. I found that to lose a house isn't so bad. To lose a car, and I love my car, isn't so bad. To lose clothes, furniture etc. isn't so bad but to lose your pictures and precious keepsakes - that's bad. Defining what is fixable and what is not is a good start. Losing memories so many times is not a fixable situation.

Every memory has layered us in some fashion, like a ring on a tree trunk. It has layered us with an experience that changed us forever. Like the butterfly effect, each memory changes the future. When we lose our precious pictures, videos, memorabilia, we lose a lot of our past, which is what brought us to where we are today. How do we deal with losing our collected memories of the past? We can deal with the loss of the past as long as our memories remain in our minds and in our hearts. As long as we can still connect with others that share the collective memories keeps us sanely coping. What about people who not only lose memories but are no longer in touch with reality? That is a hurricane of a different kind.

It is a personal/family-shared hurricane of destruction. When a loved one no longer connects with us on the same plane, it is easy to become overwhelmed with grief, helplessness, guilt and depression. It is normal to want to focus in on our loved one like a determined explorer seeking every item of information available to help us. When we do find something that leads us to hope, or better yet a solution, it speaks to us deep in our hope part of our hearts. Unfortunately, many times there isn't that "just right" piece of information that "just right" magic pill that will change the way that it is to the way we want it to be.

First, look at the facts about mental illness. Mental illness impacts one in four families in the United States. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and severe depression affect close to 16 million Americans. The first thing to accept and acknowledge is if you are a person dealing with your own illness or a family member loving another unconditionally - you are not alone. Even though a mental disease touches so many of us, there is still a lot of stigma attached to it. Mostly the stigmas are caused by fear - fear of the unknown. I have talked with many terminally ill cancer patients. One experience was discussed over and over by so many and it broke my heart and still does. The experience so heartbreaking is when a person confesses to others that life is fleeting due to cancer, most people took two steps back from that dying person. They reacted as a child does when one child tells another someone has cooties. Discussing mental disease puts many people in their uncomfortable zone. Because of the fear and the ignorance attached to mental disease many people have a tendency to stand back. So many times people don't know what to do or say; therefore, they do and say zilch.

Another fact is that persons with mental illness will most likely lose jobs and/or a complete career, marriages, and relationships. An additional high price to pay on top of having the disease. The family or friends that decide to take a care-giving role may also lose jobs/careers, marriages and friends. A complex problem for both the victims and the ones who love them. Much of the complexity comes from a person not being diagnosed, diagnosed correctly or the person may not see a need to "get diagnosed". For them, many times nothing is wrong with them.

Grief and loss must be dealt with when a loved one has a mental illness. First there is the loss of mental healthiness, there is the change in the family dynamics, there is the loss of friendship, the loss of patience and understanding, and sometimes it seems compassion has left planet earth. In the grief there is guilt. Guilt of how did this happen? Why this person and not me? Why me and not them? Why are there no answers? When the why's change to how's then you are starting to deal with the grief and guilt. For the person with the illness many times they are guilty over their behavior in which they had no control. They may have hurt a family member mentally or physically. Their behavior may have been so bizarre their embarrassment becomes an additional burden. The worst situation is when they may have been so hopeless - so distraught that they believed the light at the end of tunnel went out for them and they may have tried suicide. This completely throws everyone into shock and guilt. People are used to hearing about grief when a loved one dies but they don't recognize dealing with mental illness requires a walk down the grief path in order to move forward with your life. When we fail to acknowledge that mental illness is loss, we fail to understand the full impact it has on our life.

Here are some ways to deal with your emotions:

  • Accept the reality of the illness. Understand the illness as much as possible and be aware of the consequences
  • Know your limitations. Do not look at your limitations as weaknesses. We all are limited in what we can do - remember Super Man and Super Woman were cartoon characters. None of us can do it all. Don't expect to and don't try to. Be realistic, you may not be the best one to care for your loved one and/or you will need help especially through difficult times.
  • Accept your right to your own emotions. It is normal to get angry, sad, happy and impatient. Focus on being supportive and recognizing small achievements.
  • Don't compare your situation to others. Each person is unique and each situation has variables that make it unique to those involved.
  • Eat right. You need your mind and body working for you not against you. This isn't a time to sugar-out or not eat. Many people over eat to help counter stress when in fact it makes the stress worse. I can speak to this personally!
  • Exercise. I know you will think you don't have the time and you don't feel like it. Exercise can be walking. Park your car a little farther away from the store. Bend and stretch when doing house chores. Use every opportunity to stretch your body. This does help with the stress and if you don't take care of yourself - who will?
  • Keep proper perspective.
  • Remember the other people in your life need you too.
  • If possible, focus in on the solution by helping to find the correct doctors and doing research. This will make you feel like you are doing something and put some control back into the situation for you.
  • Understand the financial situation and possibilities for help.
  • Communicate your feelings. Make sure you have emotional outlets. Hobbies are great. When under extreme stress, I work with a pottery wheel. Simply kneading the clay gets all the sighs and frustration out. Throwing takes focus and becomes a form of meditating. Plus, it is result oriented so you see progress and feel some control.
  • Take pleasure in the little things of each day.

These suggestions won't release the woes of dealing with the issues but they can help you get through one more day. If you do nothing to help yourself, it will be easy for chronic depression to replace your hope and your spirit. This is a very confusing time because the dynamics of the relationship have changed. You step into a new and unusual role as you watch a person slip more into the illness. The anxiety makes way for a high stress life. Without the training and skills, so many times a family member tries to step in and make things happen while taking care of everything. If you have done this, you have stepped into a bottomless ocean of needs that must be met every day and you weren't prepared. You end up putting everyone's needs above your own and soon your engine will be burned out. To help from getting burned out try to break down tasks into smaller tasks so they don't seem so overwhelming. Again, an emphasis should be place on eating right and getting fresh air every day. Watch for and appreciate all the small miracles of the day. A new leaf on a tree, a baby smiling, a couple holding hands, anything that puts a smile on your face is stimulating and positive. Don't over schedule yourself. Learn a relaxing technique that works for you and is time sensitive. Avoid isolating yourself. Remember these things:

  • Know your personal boundaries so you don't become exhausted.
  • When you feel impatient take deep breaths.
  • You are not to blame for the illness. You couldn't prevent it. You didn't cause it. You can't catch it.
  • Help your loved one get a proper diagnosis so they may get the proper help not only medically but also legally and socially.
  • People only fear what they don't confront and they don't understand. Be honest with other family and friends and most of all yourself.
  • Know there isn't a magic potion out there that will make it all go away no matter how hard you try to find it. This situation has to be dealt with.
  • Remind and/or find your spiritual self. Hope is important. Being realistic is important. The two together will provide the best avenue for coping.
  • As you find pleasures in simple things, find humor. Humor is a wonderful outlet and having a sense of humor will help you cope.
  • Accept what is happening without blamestorming.
  • Stay up on the latest information.
  • Surround yourself with positive support.
  • Choose professionals that will be sensitive to your needs and is aware of the grieving process that goes hand in hand with disease.
  • Make sure you are sleeping well.
  • Day to day life must go on for you. You have your own set of responsibilities and family/friends that need your attention. Try to keep your life as normal as possible.

To communicate better with someone who has mental disease state your thoughts simply and truthfully. Be concise and don't always expect a rational discussion. Learn to recognize when they are becoming irritated and take a breather before starting the conversation again. Initiate the conversation and try to be as patient as possible. Ignore delusions and stay positive. When making a positive request look directly at the person and say in simple terms exactly what you want them to do. If you need to express a negative feeling look at them directly while speaking firmly and state exactly what upsets you in simple terms and then offer suggestions on how to avoid the repetition of the negative behavior. Always be clear and specific. Praise them and encourage them on any positive behavior. Most of all love them unconditionally.

When a loved one becomes angry. Remain calm and listen carefully. Agree with something they said. While speaking specifically and calmly enforce limits and isolate the situation if possible. Do not raise your voice, take it personally or turn away from them. Don't threaten or make false promises.

It is difficult to allow your emotions to flow. We are a controlled society. We like to control everything and if we could we would probably like to control a bunch of other people too. When something such as mental disease charges into our family and plops itself down for the long haul, it is devastating. I've had many people tell me they were afraid to "let go" of their emotions for fear they would never find themselves again. It is certainly scary but emotions will destroy you if you don't deal with them. By not being honest with your emotions, you will lose yourself. By being honest with your emotions, you will find who you really are.

Mental disease causes severe disturbances in thinking, feeling and relating to the world. It becomes difficult to cope with ordinary life demands. These illnesses are due to biochemical disturbances in the brain. It isn't a weakness or anything to be ashamed of.

The most serious and disabling of the mental illnesses is schizophrenia. It affects approximately one person in a hundred. People with this illness usually are disconnected from society, have poor reasoning and judgment ability, and a high level of anxiety. They may have hallucinations as well as delusions.

Affective Disorders are the most common psychotic illnesses. They are also referred to as mood disorders. Many cases go unrecognized and untreated. Bipolar (manic-depressive) is a disorder in which a person swings between extreme high and low moods. Bipolar cycles between manic and depressive phases usually have some of these symptoms during a manic phase:

  • Boundless energy, enthusiasm and need for constant activity
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Possible delusional thinking
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Short temper
  • Argumentative
  • Speak loudly and disorganized
  • Erratic behavior

When in the depressive state they may experience some of these symptoms

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of interest in daily activities
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of sadness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Possible psychotic symptoms
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

Unipolar is when a person suffers from persistent severe depression. Approximately six per cent of the population suffers from an affective disorder.

Don't get lost in the hope this disease will pass. This is an emotional hurricane with speeding distracting lightning strikes. The only way to survive a hurricane is to prepare, be realistic, accept the changes it brings, and surround yourself with support. Determine what is fixable and what is not. Determine what is negotiable and what is not. This will help you find your anchor. Unlike the storms of Isabel and Hugo, this assault continues while you watch someone you love lose their dreams and their memories of life shared. It seems as if they no longer exist and yet they are here. To see the truth, sometimes you have to get "outside" of yourself in order to see reality. When you do, no doubt, you will find a courageous heart.


Sherry Russell is a Grief Management Specialist, researcher and author of Conquering the Mysteries and Lies of Grief. Sherry has worked over the last twenty years with thousands of people in the throes of grief and has originated a series of Grief Workshops. She is an active volunteer with a local hospital and bereavement camp for kids. She is currently working on her next book for children titled The Life Adventures of Baby Boo and Zelda Lou. She believes in strong family ties, a good tennis match, volunteering and that all animals should be rescued and showered with love.

Last modified: October 1, 2003

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