Mental illness can be debilitating, leaving those who suffer with lack of energy, paralyzing fears, lack of will to take care of themselves, inability to make rational decisions, and more. Some can push through the symptoms that leave them feeling useless while for others illness is so bad they need constant care. The family members of many who struggle with mental illness believe they cannot do anything for themselves. Family members take over their care and cater to them like they are helpless children when they are not. Mental illness is debilitating, but that doesn’t make all who suffer with it helpless.
When my illness was at its worst, I couldn’t sleep, I had a hard time keeping food down, I was fatigued, I couldn’t make decisions easily, and my thinking was irrational, yet I forced myself to get up each day and go to college. I fought to keep awake during my classes and I got sick in between classes, but I kept good grades. My illness tried to keep me down, but I pushed myself to go on. After classes, I hid in my room. I self-injured, I planned my death, and I cried uncontrollably, and yet I still found a way to study. I even got good grades.
It would have been easy for me to just give up and fail out of college. Unfortunately, many who struggle with mental illness do give in and their families stand by and allow them. Some believe their sick family members need to be waited on and allowed to just give in. They see the ones struggling as helpless when they are not.
I know a woman who has a sister with mental illness. The sister gets depressed and sleeps the day away. The healthy one takes care of her sister and waits on her as if she’s helpless. The sick sister has no responsibilities and no reason to fight her illness. Why fight when she has someone to make excuses while she sleeps all day, someone to cook all her meals, someone to make decisions for her, and someone who comes running when she needs something? The sister of the sick one believes she’s helping her by catering to her when she’s only taking away her sister’s reasons to fight.
The one thing that kept me getting out of bed when I was at my worst was my purpose. When I was in college, my purpose was attending classes and passing one way or another. I lived with my grandparents and kept my illness a secret from them. They helped me without even knowing it. They bragged to family and friends how well I was doing in college. This encouraged me to keep going to classes and to study. When you are struggling with mental illness, you need encouragement and tasks that give you a reason to keep going on.
When I got bad, I did move home and took a year off from college. My parents could have told me, “You’re sick, so just go to therapy and don’t worry about anything else.” Instead they insisted I get a job while I was on leave. My parents never viewed me as helpless. They knew I needed their assistance in making sure I took my medication, they reminded me to take care of myself and made sure I ate healthy meals, but they never did everything for me. They gave me reasons to get up each day and they encouraged me to keep moving forward when I felt like I couldn’t. I made meals for my parents, I took care of my own bills, I helped my mom around the house, and I went to work.
Having things to do, a job to go to, and a reason to get out of bed gave me reasons to not give up on myself and my recovery. No matter how much I wanted to lie in bed and sleep all day, I couldn’t because I had a purpose. If my parents didn’t give me that reason, I would have been like the woman I described above. I would have just sunk deeper into my mental illness and given up. Instead, with my parent’s encouragement, I fought my way to recovery.
Mental illness makes living a normal life hard, but for most, it doesn’t make you helpless. Being catered to, others making excuses for your actions, taking away your responsibilities, and others making decisions for you strips you of your purpose in life. The best thing a loved one can do for someone who is mentally ill is to encourage him and her to get out of bed, to take control of his or her life, to give him or her responsibilities, and to help him or her feel useful.
The stigma that a person with mental illness can’t work, can’t take care of him or herself, and can’t live productive lives is false. There are cases when the person struggling is so bad, they need constant care, but this isn’t true for all who have mental illness. For many, recovery can be reached with medication and therapy. There are successful people in our society who pushed past their sickness and fought for recovery to be an important part of society. We are not helpless and useless people whom society can turn their backs on. We are nurses, CEOs, bus drivers, cashiers, college students, actresses, hair stylists, and much more.
If you have a family member who is struggling with mental illness, encourage him or her to get up, give the person responsibilities, and be there to help, but not to do everything for him or her. Having things for the person who is struggling to do gives them purpose and a reason to keep going. Encourage the one suffering to reach recovery and to live a productive life. You can help your loved one, but don’t do everything for him or her.
My husband helps me manage my mental illness and he takes good care of me, but he encourages me to do things for myself. My parents did the same when I was at my worst. Because my loved ones never treated me like I was useless, but instead encouraged me, I stand in the light of recovery smiling.