Some time ago I was reading another mental health blog about what living with bipolar on a daily basis is like. I found it very interesting because bipolar is one thing I’ve never dealt with in my own life. I have known a few people with this illness, but most of my “knowledge” was hearsay. There were over a hundred comments on the post, some from others who had bipolar who were agreeing with what had been written or adding their own struggles. Others were grateful she had been open, so they could understand the illness better. Then there was one woman who left a comment saying how sick she was of people with mental illness being lazy, feeling sorry for themselves and using the illness to get out of all responsibility. She related how she had had to quit her successful job to move back in with her aging parents because her sister with bipolar would do nothing to help and that their parents let her sister get away with everything. While it was perhaps a harsh and overgeneralized judgement to make, I also saw her point. As someone who has lived with mental illness off and on for many years and as someone who used to live with another person who had mental illness I feel qualified to talk about this subject.
As I have already made clear from other posts mental illness is real. As real as any other illness. You can’t tell someone who is suffering from depression to just simply choose happiness anymore than you can tell someone suffering from asthma to simply choose to heal their bronchial tubes. Just because someone with depression is depressed, just because someone with anxiety is anxious, just because someone with OCD is obsessing, just because someone with bipolar is depressed, anxious or/and obsessing doesn’t mean that they are lazy or feeling sorry for themselves. However, I do believe in personal responsibility. I don’t believe that our ability to choose, our gift of agency, is completely denied us simply because we have mental illness. It is up to us, or those around us who care about us, to do everything we can to help—the same way someone with asthma or family and friends of that person would want to help them with their illness.
A family member of mine has very extreme OCD. He had a few different doctors/therapists say he had the worst case of it they had ever seen in their careers. He’s spent the last thirteen to fourteen years in and out of hospitals and jail because of it. I lived with him during some of these times, and while my heart ached for what he had to go through, my blood also boiled at how unwilling he was to at least try. What got me even more was how his parents let him get away with everything—just like the woman who left a comment on that other blog. It’s been the same old story for the last thirteen or fourteen years. He has a complete breakdown, does something crazy like driving donuts in a farmer’s field and gets thrown into jail, or during a psychotic episode he does something violent like attacking his own mother and gets put back in the hospital. While there, they get him on the medication and the therapist he needs. He’s even been court ordered to do these things. Each time he gets out, he swears he’ll be different, that he’s changed, that he can handle life, and each time he refuses to take his medication (I saw him dump his meds down the toilet once), and he refuses to go see his therapist or do the things they have counseled him to do. I watched him play his parents like a well-tuned violin so many times! And like him, each time they would swear this time would be different, this time they would enforce the court order, make him call in his medication, make him see his therapist, and each time they gave into that lulling tune he played. Each time, they would claim that no one else in the world could possibly understand what he was going through, what they were going through, and that no one else had ever suffered the way they all had. And then the cycle repeats.
This family member is almost thirty-three, still living with his parents, no education, can’t ever hold down a job and has no clue how to live on his own. I, and other family members, have asked his mom what’s going to happen when she and his dad die. The question is always skirted around or met with an angry, “I don’t know, all right?! I don’t know!” Well, I know. He’s either going to end up on the streets, in jail or in the hospital the rest of his life. Probably all three. Why? Because all responsibility has been lifted from him. Yes, I get that he has mental illness. I get that it is extremely debilitating. But I bet there are people reading this blog who have experienced the same thing or have known someone who has experienced the same thing. Everyone wants to believe that they are unique. Guess what? We aren’t. Once you start opening up, it’s amazing to find how many other people are like you. And steps can be taken to improve quality of life and quality of life for the future.
Obviously, I’m not God, I don’t know everything, but again, I have lived with these people, I have experienced my own hell of mental illness combined with the hell of a failed marriage, getting divorced, becoming a single parent, and I can say that doing nothing but feeling sorry for yourself will get you nowhere. I’d like to think that if it were my own child, I would do whatever I could to look out for my son’s future. Yes, it might be hard, it might be hell, it might tear my heart in two to see my child suffer as I ripped the bandaid off, but wouldn’t it be better to let him struggle while I was still here to help him, comfort him, walk with him instead of simply carrying him, rather than to leave him completely alone and unable to fend for himself when I was no longer there?
Yes, mental illness is real and it is hard. We don’t live “normal” lives. We can’t. And even the “help” doesn’t necessarily cure us. But there are things that can help—now and later, and it is up to us and those around us who care about us to take responsibility for it the way someone with asthma should assume responsibility for their illness. So, if you are someone struggling with mental illness, do what you can to find help. It may be little, and it may be hard, but you can do it. If you live with or love someone with mental illness, do what you can to help them or nudge them in the right direction. It may be little, and it may be hard, but you can do it.