Good Times, Bad Times: How To Support a Loved One Through Mental Illness

I’m changing my medication. Last week I got extremely anxious to the point that I couldn’t function. I wasn’t able to see friends, family, or my girlfriend. Twice I stopped in the middle of a group of poker tournaments because I couldn’t handle it.

This week, I am on something new. I’m not anxious, or excited, or feeling anything really. I’m just…here.

Is this what my life is now? Tinkering with my brain chemistry?

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Should it be something else?

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I did an excellent job of mastering my anxiety once in the past few days. My girlfriend said something to me that would have normally sent me into a downward spiral of anxiety and self-loathing. Instead, I understood how it made me feel and why, accepted those feelings. Then, I moved my attention to why she said what she said, how she was feeling, and how we could both feel better moving forward.

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Last Tuesday, it took every ounce of willpower I possessed to make it around the block with my dog. I told myself life would never get better. I told myself I didn’t want to live anymore.

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On Wednesday, I took a nice walk with my dog and my mom. We had lunch together. The sun was shining.

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For those of you who are trying to support a loved one who is dealing with mental illness, this sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde act can be incomprehensible. Until you experience it, it’s incredibly hard to understand what it means to be crippled by anxiety. I know, because I’ve been on both sides of the equation. I admit that when my ex was suffering from anxiety attacks, before I had experienced one, I wasn’t understanding.

Is that my fault? That’s a tough question. I don’t know whether I could have reasonably been expected to have had understanding at that time.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter what the answer is.

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A close friend of mine had a confrontation with a family member this weekend. He was overwhelmed with anxiety and had some time-sensitive documents that needed to be faxed. The fax machine was in another room, but he wasn’t able to leave his own. He texted the family member to ask for some help. His family member didn’t understand why he couldn’t do it himself. They got into a fight over it.

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I understand why someone who has never felt the weight of mental illness on their shoulders can’t understand that walking to another room to use the fax could be terrifying and next to impossible. I hope with all my heart that my loved ones never understand as well as I do what it feels like to battle your own brain for control of things like eating, sleeping, and leaving the house.

Here’s the thing: if you are supporting a loved one, you don’t have to understand what they’re going through. What was missing from the exchange above wasn’t understanding; it was trust. As long as you trust the person you’re supporting, they can ask you for something they need from you, and you can say “ok.”

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The silliest part in all of this is that the easier the task is, the harder it is to wrap your head around how your loved one might need help with it. It’s easy to understand how an anxious person might need love and support through, say, a big move, and to come up strong for them then. It’s the simple things, like a fax, or walking the dog around the block, that we resist doing the most. It feels wrong somehow, like our good nature is being taken advantage of.

There is a fine line to walk here, but it isn’t you who has to walk it. We are in danger of allowing our willpower to atrophy, of slipping into an unchallenging pattern and letting life float away from us. But we’ll know the difference between the times when we can’t leave the house and the times when we don’t want to. Trust us to ask for help when we need it and do our best when we don’t. If you can’t do that, then maybe take a step back and re-evaluate your relationship, whether it’s family, friend, or lover. There’s a building block missing here.

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As always, you can donate to my Movember page here. I’m going to match every dollar donated and, for the person who donates the most, I will be donating my time and doing a free poker lesson. Thanks for reading.

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