As a parent of an adult child living with Bipolar Disorder, I am all too aware of the stress that mental illness places on caregivers. I have struggled with the highs and lows and the overwhelming grief and the sense of loss for the life that my child could have had.
When I was first pulled into this rocky road of mental illness, I was at a total loss about what to do, where to get help and how to cope. It was not until I became involved with NAMI Westchester that I found direction. Through their encouragement, I pursued getting a re-evaluation of her diagnosis. This new evaluation resulted in a correct diagnosis and set us on the road to hope. I took the NAMI Family to Family Education Program. This valuable 12-week program has helped me to cope as a caregiver and parent. I became a Family to Family educator so I could help others benefit from the impact that this program can make in their lives.
During the class I learned about medication, the biological effects of mental illness, problem solving, communication skills and so much more that enables me to have a healthier relationship with my child while coping with my own emotional state. This program empowered me so that I could advocate and assure that the best care was given. As a result, I was able to find a psychiatrist who truly understands the needs of his patients, and supports them in pursuing a quality of life that will allow them to reach their potential. I also used my new-found knowledge to seek a therapist who would also support my daughter as she works to achieve her goals. I learned that we have a right to be informed and educated regarding treatments, and that successful recovery occurs when the treatment teams and families work together in the best interest of the individual.
In addition, through this educational program I was able to finally give myself permission to take care of myself. As a caregiver and one of my daughter’s primary support persons, doing things for myself had to be considered a priority so I could sustain a balance in my life. With that in mind, I make sure that I find time throughout my week to do some of the things I enjoy. I also realize the importance of maintaining relationships with other members of the family, because mental illness affects everyone in a family in many unique ways, and the stress can pull families apart. Planning family gatherings that do not revolve around the individual’s illness is so important in preserving these relationships. Allowing everyone in the family the ability to take a “time out” when needed is not only healthy but a necessity.
One of the greatest gifts that came from my Family to Family class is my monthly dinner support group. During the 12-week course, strong bonds can develop as people meet. It is a relief to be with others who have felt similar isolation, grief and worries. When our 12-week class was coming to a close, the class realized that we wanted to keep our “bond” going. We have been able to help each other through difficult times with words of encouragement and, most importantly, emotional support. We are able to find laughter as well as rejoice in the smallest of successes for our family members with mental illness. It has certainly helped alleviate the isolation that as caregivers we often feel. During times when my child has had to be hospitalized these individuals kept my strength up through their supportive emails, cards and phone calls (not to mention the many meals they provided).
It is difficult for families and friends to understand the impact mental illness has on the daily lives of those living with it. Days are spent maintaining the emotional and financial foundation that your ill loved one needs to forge ahead towards recovery. It is hard for others to accept that your support may be the one “piece of thread” keeping them going in their struggle. Once stability is achieved you still need to be on alert for the potential “shoe drop” when you are once again in the midst of a crisis.
We all have dreams, expectations and goals for our children while they are growing up. Through Family to Family I learned to let go of these dreams, expectations and goals, and that grieving this loss is normal and healthy. I have come to realize that what is truly important is for our loved ones to find their own happiness and for us to accept whatever that path may be.
Family to Family has shown me that we need to hold on to the hope for recovery and that we are not alone in our struggle. As a Family to Family Educator, I am not only able to help other family members but with each class I find renewed strength and hope. My Family to Family support group gives me, as a caregiver and parent, a place to unload my grief, shed my tears, find laughter and share my joy when small milestones are achieved.