It’s one thing to be diagnosed with mental illness and deal with it internally. The frustration, the unknown, the fright – all of that adds to the stress and fragile nature of already delicate minds.
It is quite another to live beside mental illness, to live with someone with a diagnosed mental disorder. When the person refuses to acknowledge the illness, or follow medical / psychological advice to manage it, the sickness becomes just too much.
My son, and his biological father, both have bipolar disorder. When we were married, I would leave work, pick up the kids, and drive home where my then-husband would be – only to sit in the driveway for a good 15 minutes and wonder which personality was in the house. Mental illness was the mastodon in the room – the great elephant-like beast that took up every inch of our lives.
When he took his meds, he was tolerable. When he was off his meds, it was hell. He was convinced (when he was on his meds) that he was cured, so he’d stop them. This became a cycle that was more cruel than vicious.
A hundred or so years ago, treatments for the mentally ill were horrific at best and torture at its worst. Now, medications, counseling and therapies exist that help people who have mental illness live full and productive lives – if they actually cooperate and follow doctors orders.
For family members of those who have mental illness, it’s not as clear-cut. As someone who has been in this place, here are four strategies for living with someone who has mental illness.
In full disclosure, I have to say this: alcoholism and domestic violence joined the mental illness mastodon in the house. Abuse in every way possible was the norm, every day, for years. Finally, after he threw me to the kitchen floor so hard it herniated my back effectively breaking it, and then gave me a choice: “Choose now, Jesus or me,” I chose Jesus, and he left the next day. It’s hard to imagine that was 11 years ago. I have been out of that relationship longer than I was in it.
Regardless, during the time I was with him, I had some strategies that helped me maintain my sanity during that time.
Keep an eye on the medication. Count them, if necessary. Watch the person take it. Yes, this sounds like you’re trying to supervise a toddler, but lies are abundant when people say they’ve taken their meds when they haven’t.
Go to the doctor appointments with the person. Share your concerns with the doctor, and even ask for the doctor’s email address. Document every appointment and obtain medical records.
Locate a support group, counseling, or other therapy for family of the patient. Even if the patient is not interested in going to counseling or therapy, go yourself – and take the children.
In full disclosure again, I have to say this: I believe marriage was created by God, between one woman and one man. Although I divorced, it was not because I wanted it; it was because vows to protect, trust, and love were broken. Cheating was involved. Black eyes occurred and my back was broken. It was ultimately a union between a believer of God and a non-believer who, we found out later after the charming part wore off, was an abusing alcoholic with bipolar disorder.
With this in mind, be aware that if your spouse or significant other (boyfriend/girlfriend) ever hits you, a child or a pet, it will not get any better. It will only get worse. If you are ever abused verbally, emotionally, psychologically, or sexually, it will not get any better. Abuse is still abuse even if there are no physical bruises.
Listen: my back, after three surgeries, has finally healed. But I am, to this day, terrified of my ex-husband. If I have to be at one of our sons’ birthday or graduation parties, I maintain my distance. I am never in the kitchen or living room alone with him. The physical bruises have long since disappeared, but there is no trust there. Trust ended on Christmas Eve when he told me, in addition to beating me, that he had been cheating on me too.
For those who have boyfriends or girlfriends who exhibit signs of mental illness, think long and hard before continuing the relationship. If that person is ever verbally cruel to or about a disabled person – walk away. If that person ever strikes an animal – walk away. If that person is ever mean-spirited to a child, run away. If they say one thing like “I believe in saving the planet,” then intentionally leaves a plastic soda bottle on the ground for “the grounds crew to pick up as it’s their job” – break it off. They are not who they say they are.
If your boyfriend or girlfriend talks badly about their opposite-sex parent (boys about their mothers, etc), they will not treat you with respect. If they disparage your own parents or the way in which you were brought up, or your belief system – run away. Fast. If they enjoy embarrassing you in front of their friends… you get the idea. Run.
These are all clues and signs I experienced while dating my ex-husband. What I didn’t know, (for he could be charming and say the right things at the right times), that underneath the surface was undiagnosed bipolar disorder along with Asperger’s syndrome. It would be years before it would be diagnosed – and by then it was too late.
You are precious in God’s sight. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. God did not make you so you can be a punching bag. And, possibly the most important thing of all – it is important, so you can move on, to forgive the person. But forgiveness does not mean you are a welcome mat, to welcome abuse back into your life.
If you are trying to escape a mentally-ill and abusive relationship, get out and stay out of it. Go to the police station and ask about a domestic abuse shelter. Ask for help. Don’t be a victim.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I learned the hard way, and now have four bolts and two titanium plates in my lower back to prove it. If you are the one with mental illness – get help. Obey the doctors’ orders. Seek counseling. Do that for the people you say you love.
(c) 2016 Terrie McKee
There are no mincing words: having a child of any age on the autism spectrum is just.plain.hard. There are days that are harder than others.
Then, there are days that are just overwhelming.
On these days, we need to remember a few things. One, these days are just as overwhelming for the child as it they are for us.
Secondly, the more in control we are of ourselves, the more safe our child will feel – and be – in our presence.
Thirdly, the sun will set on those days, and the sun will rise again the next. Each day has its own set of issues and an equal amount of grace attached to it.
With all that being said, there are some tactics one can utilize to manage these overwhelming autistic days when everything piles on, no one is there to help, you can’t get a moment’s peace to pee or even think, and it seems like autism has won not just the battle but the war, the battlefield, and the flag.
Banish the Guilt
Even though we all pretend to be, there’s not a single one of us who is a SuperParent each moment of every single day. Sure, some parents like to share on social media about their hyper-busy life that can somehow fit in a craft project, sports, church, volunteering, family night-time vespers singing kumbaya while keeping a perfectly clean house with annoyingly perfectly-mannered children. These glimpses these super-parents allow into their lives are only a little window, though.
Don’t allow these glimpses – or their companion competitiveness – to guilt-trip you into thinking you’re not a good-enough parent or spouse. On any given night, my teen son is coping an attitude about fill-in-the-blank, my daughter declares she hates the dinner she declared she loved last time, dishes are piled up, laundry is on the sofa waiting to be folded, the inevitable boxes filled with stuff from the dining table are scattered like throw rugs in the living room, there are Legos, Barbie shoes, at least one naked baby doll and an assortment of stuffed horses all over my house, the cat has pooped beside the litter box, on and on…
Being a parent of someone with autism is just.plain.hard. There is absolutely no need to add guilt to it too. Listen, friend: you are good enough.
My ex-mother-in-law bestowed one piece of advice to me that actually stuck, and it was this: when a child is cranky, put them in water. There is something about water that calms and soothes a child – and his parents – unless, of course, water is a trigger for a meltdown.
But if it isn’t a trigger, add some bubblebath, some lavender essential oils…stay in the bathroom, play with the child, bathe him…but more than anything, allow the water to work to calm him down.
Speaking of triggers…
One of my son Sam’s meltdown triggers is trash. Straw wrappers, candy wrappers, paper bits….trash. I cannot begin to share how many times I scanned areas so quickly I felt like a Navy Seal for dreaded trash triggers.
For your own sanity, during seasons where there are more meltdowns than not, do your level best to figure out triggers and eliminate them. Another one of Sam’s triggers was his brother. His younger brother had the uncanny knack of being able to seek out and destroy any semblance of peace there was to be had in the house by triggering something with Sam. Why? Because it was fun.
Punishing the kid with autism doesn’t work when it’s a sibling trigger. They have autism; they can’t help it; the typically-developing sibling can help it. Talk with the sibling, discipline the sibling, take something away. If the brother or sister is intentionally aggravating the sibling who has autism, for your sanity and that of the child on the spectrum, you must act.
There are seasons, and then there are seasons. The time around Thanksgiving and Christmas, with all the changes in schedules, family visiting, traveling, and excitement can absolutely do in a kid with autism.
Think about it: you are a child, which is hard enough at slower-than-molasses Christmas. You’re a child with autism, which means you can’t process changes in schedules very well. Add in Christmas parties, school breaks, additional church visits for choir cantatas or live nativities, and you have a meltdown minefield ready to explode.
So, what to do? Sharing stories with children about what is expected of them is a great way to help kids process this challenging time. “Successful Social Stories for Young Children: Growing Up with Social Stories” by Siobhan Timmins is a great tool for younger children, with text and illustrations that not only share 32 social stories written by Timmins for her son, but a blueprint for you to follow to create your own stories.
Build Your Tribe
Finally, build your tribe of people who understand your child and the need you have to just get a break. Build friendships with people who also have children on the spectrum, preferably people who have older children who have autism. They have already been on the road you’re on, and can provide an understanding ear in times of need.
Don’t be afraid to allow these friends who have experience with autism to watch your child while you shop, take another child to the doctor, or just take a day for yourself. It is said that, on an airplane, you put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help your child. You must take care of yourself in order to help others.
Dear one, my son was diagnosed in 2001…a long time ago when autism diagnoses were just starting to become prevalent. During that time, there were not the resources that exist today. For the people who had children on the spectrum, it was a very long road, and most pediatricians or the general public just did not understand the trials, tribulations and terror of the daily autism battle. I’ve done all these things during seasons of meltdowns, and continue to talk with my son when he has a meltdown at his group home.
Though he is in a group home, he is nearby, and I do not allow the group home staff to go it alone with him. After all, the group home is where he lives, at age 22, but I am still his mother and legal guardian. The battle doesn’t stop. It just changes. This season in which you’re in, it will change too. Just don’t give up – on your child, and especially on yourself.
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(c) 2016 Terrie McKee
The Lord gave us six months from the time my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer in October 2005 to his death in March. Time that was treasured as we knew it was short.
Recently my mom had a heart cath in which the doctor found her “widowmaker” main artery was 90% blocked. A stent was immediately put in. Complications, including a severe allergic reaction to the contrast dye despite pre-procedure counter-meds occurred. She went into Afib and had some pretty severe diabetic swings. In short, I thought my brother and I would be planning her funeral.
Today, about three weeks from her heart cath, she is much stronger. Her skin is peeling from the allergic reaction but she’s not swollen and lobster-red anymore. Her heart still has some severe valve and regurgitation issues but the fear of a sudden, fatal heart attack has been alleviated.
Sitting in the hospital room with her, I snapped a picture of our hands intertwined. It was at this moment that I realized the Lord has once again given us the precious gift of time. We don’t know when that day would come – with Dad we knew it would be somewhat soon – but either by death or by rapture, Jesus has given us time.
We intend on treasuring this time together. I’m not going to be in a hurry to hear her oft-repeated stories. We’re going to sit down with family photo albums and label pictures so the faces and names are not forgotten. I want to take her to visit family near and far.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end,” states Ecclesiastes 3:11. This time with Mom is beautiful because both of us know where she will be going once she draws her last breath. Because she has accepted the gift of God’s grace as shown through His Son Jesus Christ, His atoning death and life-giving resurrection, and once she is done with her earthly body, she will go immediately into His Presence in heaven.
Seeing Jesus in Person, Live!
Receiving a hug from Him!
Seeing my Dad!
God has given us time to treasure each other now. God gave His Son that we may treasure the time we’ll have for all eternity with Him – and each other.
This knowledge of her final destination takes away fear. I’ve known a few family members who did not accept Christ as Savior in their life or on their deathbed. It makes family grieve harder knowing the deceased will spend eternity away from God and away from family. Deathbed confessions are every bit as legitimate as professing Christ when younger, but oh what is passed up!
Accepting Christ gives one peace and purpose. The Holy Spirit indwells you and changes your whole outlook on life – and death. For a Christian, death is not the end. It is one door closing and another opening. It is not goodbye, but “See you soon.”
I love my mom and I hate that she is experiencing pain with her heart and has to take all this medication. I hate that she cannot go like she used to. But I love that she is still here, even if it’s for today, so we can treasure this time together – in life, in worship, and in looking forward to the day when we both (without pain) bow our knees in front of our King Jesus.
(C) 2016 Terrie Bentley McKee
Terrie Bentley McKee has been writing for over 30 years. She's written two books (look on the home page for more info!), and is passionate about discipling others in the Christian faith. Available to speak at churches, faith organizations, Christian camps and missions, she has an incredible testimony of surviving domestic violence, special needs children, having a spouse who's paraplegic, and through all this, witnessing to Christ's Power, Presence and Peace. For more info, email her using the Contact page.
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