BLOG: MENTAL HEALTH CAREGIVING 101: High Functioning Mental Illness - Supporting A Loved One With Se
"Mental Illness doesn't stop me from being great. It's madness with sparks of brilliance." - Robin Williams
I didn't remember where I heard that so I had to Google it, it was Robin Williams, as a caregiver and survivor I understand what he was trying to say. Caregiving gives a Birdseye view into the struggles of a loved one living with a mental illness, struggling to maintain a stable life and mastering it some days. The challenges of supporting a loved one who can still live alone and work but has addictions or negative symptoms of their illness that can occasionally interrupt them, is a complex and quiet struggle for a caregiver. To everyone around the loved one who is "high functioning" may see a well composed individual who may have certain "extreme quirks" or preferences...someone who needs their space but overall has it together. However in the intimate spaces of the time with the caregiver there are marked moments of "chaos" or deep depression and despair. Because the caregiver knows the details of the loved ones illness, there is less of a reservation about "relaxing" and talking openly about their struggles...sometimes. Sometimes a loved one can go so far into the abyss of the illness and by morning manage to muster up enough energy and "image" to show up at work looking ready for the day, and slay it with, what looks to an outsider, ease. Only the loved one and the caregiver with the illness knows the amount of restraint, discipline, and mental battling that goes into maintaining a "normal" life while living with a mental illness. As someone who has survived and struggled with depression and anxiety myself I understand the difficulty of maintaining an "I'm okay" mood, and how hard it can be at times to take a break from life's commitments, to stabilize your mind.
The day must go on and for many it's a matter of livelihood for them and their families so having off days are not always an option. This is not a witch hunt against individuals battling mental illness but an attempt to raise awareness for the challenges a family caregiver faces while supporting a loved one with "high functioning" mental illness. Mental health family caregivers face a sometimes insurmountable task of being more than a caregiver to their loved one. They are wives, husbands, parents, children, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. All of those roles are in addition to being an individual with needs wants and desires of their own that many times are deferred or neglected as they become consumed in their caregiving role(s). Supporting a loved one with a long term illness who is unable to manage their life without assistance is a weighted role in itself, but most times isn't met with as much resistance a a loved one with high functioning mental illness. A caregiver who only gets the "frantic" call every now and then may be seen as not having much to do in terms of support, both by the loved one and other family members. When that loved one calls however it can be a "seven alarm fire" or it can be a "mini blow out" either way at most times it can be complicated further by the loved ones resentment of needing assistance. A loved one may blame the caregiver for "over interfering" in their life, the family may deem the caregiver a meddler and all the while the caregiver and the loved one understand the importance of their role in their life. As a caregiver who lives with the loved one things behind closed doors happen that only the immediate occupants are aware of most times. Sometimes, not most times, a loved one stays composed out in the workplace and comes home to have a "melt down" or lose it completely because they have had to be "on" all day. A caregiver in that instance absorbs the negative behaviors and either must help to clean up the mess or help them to stabilize . Whatever the case it means work for the caregiver. Work no one else may see, but work that must be done. One of the reasons it's good for caregivers to seek out other caregivers like themselves who are experiencing like experiences. Knowing you are not alone is only ONE of the key factors in successfully supporting your loved one, but also one of the MOST IMPORTANT. Experts call it "self identifying". So many people are in the role of caregiver and don't know it and they are suffering for it. How does a caregiver handle the conflicting emotions that come with such a complicated role? Here are a few points I learned while caregiving for a loved one with high functioning mental illness: 1. There is no way you will ever be totally prepared for what your loved one needs from you during a crisis. Mental illness is a daily struggle, because your loved one looks like they are okay doesn't mean they haven't been fighting a battle all day in their mind. Your loved one doesn't know when or what day they are going to lose their "ish", they may feel themselves approaching the threshold but have been fighting, longer than they will honestly tell you, to keep from falling over the edge. If they don't know when they will need your help you surely can't predict, accurately every time, when they will need you. I can't tell you the many times I swore my loved one was going into crisis mode only to see them bounce back with fierceness. Being there when they need you in the capacity they need you in is sufficient. 2. Don't fall into the trap of being accused of "over interference" by a loved one or by family members. Mental illness is easily missed if people don't know what they are looking for, that's why it's called the invisible illness. Many individuals with "high functioning" mental illness are sometimes seen as "faking" or "pretending", and caregivers share in the burden of the stigma of mental illness being a "fake illness". Caregivers get the Lions share of flack from both family and the loved one who may not appreciate the support afforded them, or worse yet, are in denial of their struggle with their illness...and that's if they are even acknowledging their illness. You are doing an "impossible" job, one that even psychology researchers are still struggling to understand. Give yourself some credit and some patience.
Would you like to meet other caregivers and share experiences? Join our Online Caregiver Support group and community called " Care-FULLY"