Archive for January 9th, 2008

Emotional Reactions to the Trauma of Mental Illness

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

When discovering or beginning to suspect a loved one has a mental illness, mothers, fathers, children, siblings, spouses will find themselves deluged with strong emotions. Many of these emotions will continue for a long time. I found this to be true for myself when my son began to have one mental illness crisis after another in 2007. Here are some of the emotions I am talking about.

  1. Sadness or depression. For me, I was majorly sad, almost to the point of suspecting depression in myself.
  2. Anger. I was angry at the doctors, the therapists, the hospitals, the social workers, society, you name it. I felt they could do better. Sometimes I was angry at my son for not trying harder to “snap out of it” or even just listening to me. (I know, being angry at my son for being ill is stupid.)
  3. Anxiety. I was anxious all the time when he was home. (What is he going to do next?) I was anxious when he was in the hospital. (When are they going to discharge him? Will he be any better when they do?)  I still flinch when the telephone rings. (What has he done now?)
  4. Fear. I was afraid of the illness never getting any better, afraid of the next verbal assault from my son, afraid of a possible physical assault. I was afraid for my son that he would become homeless. I am still afraid of these things.
  5. Helplessness and hopelessness. Despite seeking medical care, recovery and even improvement were nowhere in sight for a very long time.
  6. Confusion and frustration. Many times I feel I do not even know the right questions to ask. When I would start making telephone calls for services, I would be referred to three other places to call because the first could not help. Many of these other places were deadends, too. There were long waits for things to happen.  There is the frustration with the medical system not volunteering information. There is the frustration of coping with the symptoms of the illness day after day. There is the frustration of my son not wanting to contact the doctor at times. There is the frustration that improvement feels like it has come at a snail’s pace with backsliding commonplace.
  7. Isolated and embarrassed. I found myself unable to tell anyone but a few friends. Even though I know mental illness is a physical illness, I am painfully aware that the rest of the world does not always see it that way. If my son had cancer or some terminal disease, I am sure I could ask our church to pray for him. I came very close to making a prayer request for my son many times this past year, but I just could not bring myself to do it.
  8. Guilt. I feel guilty that I cannot let my son live at home at this time, until his symptoms improve or his siblings get older, and I become stronger.

Mental Illness, emotions

photo by John Suler

Mental illness is devastating to our loved ones. It is a catastrophe to their families. Is it any wonder then that these emotional reactions are normal? There is nothing wrong or bad about these feelings. It is also helpful to remember that these emotions can run in cycles. One day, we may be feeling accepting, then another day we are back to the anger and frustration, especially when a relapse or new crisis occurs. With this in mind, let us be gentle with ourselves and each other.