I’m learning a rough lesson right now. It’s tough to admit this, but as it turns out, I can’t do everything. Even worse, I can’t make someone else want to take control of their health.
And I know something you may not … so I’ll share my secret. None of us can. But that hasn’t stopped me from spending the last 6 months trying to get someone I love to make changes they were not ready to make, to conquer alcoholism and address mental health issues.
For some reason as a society, we can accept that Alzheimer’s, a disease of the brain, is blameless as it robs us of the person we knew. But for reasons I don’t understand, we tend to fault the patient for being an alcoholic or suffering from mental health issues such as depression, bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder. And worse, as loved ones, we often think we are at fault or that we can “fix” them.
Let me go on record: I call bullshit on that theory. I have suffered from depression and alcoholism (often referred to as dual diagnosis). I am now managing both (meaning I don’t drink, I am active in Women for Sobriety, and I have gone through lots of therapy for depression which is in remission and does not currently require medication). Nobody could fix me. Nobody “made” me an alcoholic and nobody “made” me have depression. Wondering why someone you love is an addict or is mentally ill is as fruitless as wondering why anyone has cancer, is the victim of a crime or is in an accident. As someone who has been on both sides of the equation, I speak from a unique perspective and if you love someone who is suffering you have to let go of the question of why; accept that it simply is, and move on. There is no “why.” Looking for that answer will rob you of any peace you can find in a difficult situation.
Science is still working through this, but as nearly as I can tell (and according to Science Daily, The Very Well Mind, and the National Institute of Alcoholism) depression, bipolar and alcoholism are likely a mix of genetic and environmental issues. We need to treat people who are diagnosed with mental illness and/or addiction the same as we would people with any other physical disease. Because they are.
As a loved one, being supportive is hard because the presentation of these diseases looks remarkably like bad behavior. Acknowledging and identifying the difference is challenging. You want to scream “KNOCK IT OFF” you just want your person back. Trust me, they want to be back.
If my loved one had heart disease I would never read a few articles on the web, chat with some people on Twitter and think that qualified me to help them heal. I’d never try to “reason” cancer out of the body. But somehow, as a well-intentioned support person, I thought I could help someone dear to me get their addiction and mental health disorders under control in exactly this manner. To be fair, I didn’t have illusions that I didn’t need any help. But I did think I could get them through without as much professional assistance as I needed. I tried to reason his illness away.
I felt guilty (sometimes annoyed) when he would not take medication. I didn’t ask for professional help to understand when his disease was speaking and when it was him. I got angry when I should have just let it go. And then I beat myself up for not getting it perfect. Eventually, I was forced to let him sleep outside for three nights because he would not get treatment and I could not have him at home; his disease made it unsafe for me to be around him. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life. I could not force him to make the changes I knew he needed. He’s brilliant, creative, talented, funny, and kind. He’s not human waste to forgotten or lost in the system. He’s #sicknotweak. I need help to help him. He needs a team of professionals right now, and he’s getting it.
Here’s what I did do, I took him to the hospital to get his prescription. He hated this and was adamant that he did not need it (to the point of a Jerry Springer-worthy fight in the parking lot where I eventually took the keys and sat in the waiting room until he came in). I’ll probably never know if I did the right thing by forcing him to go, but I know if he needed stitches for an open wound I wouldn’t have taken no for an answer so I did my best and applied that logic. I navigated his very crummy insurance and the prescriptions to him. I got him in touch with his sponsor but couldn’t get him to go to AA meetings. I cried, a lot. I can’t overemphasize this, I cried a lot. I tried talking to him. Holding him. Loving him. In the end, it was not enough. He was under too much stress and I ended up calling for professional help. Then I cried more. I’m still crying, but I’m also doing something new, I’m hoping.
I’ve been fortunate to find a NAMI Family Support Group in my area that is helping me understand what I can and cannot control. I’ve found an amazing “tribe” on Twitter that includes so many superheroes who struggle every day but keep showing up and supporting each other. They teach me so much! I write and I pray.
If you love someone who struggles or are diagnosed with a mental illness or suffer from addiction please use the comments to talk about what you think are the best ways to provide support. If we talk about it we can eliminate the stigma.