HomelessSign The stigma of having a mental illness can be as bad or worse than the disease itself. In our society, the mentally ill are often regarded like beggars on the street corner. The well-dressed folks walk by, step over them and refuse to acknowledge their presence. As a society, do we fear mental illness is something we can “catch”? Do we think we can deny it into non-existence?

If that’s true, who is the crazy one?

Like cancer or heart disease, mental illness is a sickness, a sickness of the mind as opposed to the body. It can be as mild as a summer cold or a full blown attack with the most disastrous of consequences. Sometimes it’s effects are fleeting and sometimes they are permanent. Mental illness is scary for many reasons. There is the fear of it taking away what we believe and know as our “self”. It is not a disease that you can see with the naked eyes, but you will surely notice its symptoms. It cannot be removed like a tumor or infected limb. It is something that is difficult to measure and qualify and because of that, there are folks out there who may or may not believe that it exists. Maybe it’s simply evil? Maybe it’s homones? Maybe it’s sadness or maybe it’s anger? Maybe you’re not really an addict? Maybe you didn’t raise your kids right and you never taught them to behave?

It’s the 21st century but there are those out there who wonder if we shouldn’t call in the exorcist?

One thing is for sure. If you have it, both you and those around you must live with it. Shame and lack of available treatment options are just a few reasons mental illness often goes undetected and untreated. Mental illness is like cancer.  As it worsens, the mind can turn on itself. It wants to convince us that it is not sick. It plays tricks with reality, distorts the truth, devours the spirit and takes with it, some of our humanity. our human-ness.

I understand the fear associated with mental illness. If it were possible to pretend it did not exist without incurring horrific side-effects, I’d be right there with my blinders on too but I cannot do that. I’ve seen too much.

How could anyone believe the numerous and recent tragic shootings are anything but the work of a sick and unsound mind?What is there to do when the mentally ill will not seek treatment or take their medications? How do we keep ourselves safe? How do we continue to love and care for the mentally ill person  without endangering ourselves and those we care for?

The reality is that there is very little safety net between us and a lot of potentially dangerous people. The mental health system in North Carolina (as with many states) is practically non-existent. Over the last decade and a half, our state has closed down most of the beds in our mental hospitals and reduced the numbers in our federal prisons by enforcing mandatory sentences that keep misdemeanor offenses constrained to our county jails. I’ve seen this firsthand, seen the judges with their hands tied giving out mandatory jail sentences when they know it is not doing a thing to help solve the problem.

It’s a perfect storm. And yet, as frightening as it can be to watch someone’s life implode under the influence of mental illness, we must also look after ourselves first if we are to help anyone. “How to do this” is a question I’ve been asking myself lately.

I am beginning to accept with resignation that there are certain lines we can and cannot cross regarding mental illness. While we cannot “make” a mentally ill person accept treatment, we can show compassion. We can talk to them in nonthreatening and non-judgmental ways. While we can have bad days, the mentally ill can have really bad days everyday. We can and should open the door to treatment but we cannot make them walk through it. Through communication, if not with them then with each other, we can begin to erode some of the stigma associated with the disease.

Also, we must protect ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually. Set realistic boundaries. Asking “where does my responsibility to the situation begin and where does it end” is imperative. Some forms of mental illness are like drowning and a drowning person will push another under if they think it will save themselves.They will suck all the oxygen from the room if you let them.

We must examine our own behavior for co-dependency. Because a predisposition to mental illness is often genetic, many of us who grew up in dysfunctional families where the disease was never acknowledged or diagnosed may have adjusted our behavior around that sickness. Subsequently, we fall back into those same predictable patterns when faced with similar circumstances. It has been a personal lesson in self-awareness to notice how easily I could slip into old modes of co-dependency.

My mother had some sort of undiagnosed mental illness, similar to bi-polar or paranoid schizophrenia. It was made worse by alcohol. My mom did not always seem to “have” the disease and much of the time she was a good mom, but there were times when I was a child and teenager that life was very difficult. I learned to adapt my behavior to her disease. I became adept at walking on eggshells, did my best to diffuse hostile situations and learned to avoid confrontation by becoming a sounding board for her concerns while diminishing my own. Now that I am an adult, when I am faced with stressful situations, I have to ask myself  if my actions and reactions stem from the comfortable pattern of old behaviors or a realistic assessment of current circumstance. I am learning to trust my intuition, which was another huge gift of my dysfunctional upbringing. If I feel my interactions with someone is not working, most likely it is not. I am not a person who likes to give up, but sometimes the best thing I can do is to distance myself from that person, no matter how painful or cruel it seems. Just because I behaved a certain way at one time in my life, it may not be in my best interest to continue. The co-dependent among us cannot always see the blurred line of separation between helping and not helping. I’d like to think I could save the world if it needed saving, but the truth is, there is very little good we can do in this world except to be compassionate.

Although I was a child in a dysfunctional family, as an adult, I make the choice daily to accept that it was part of my journey, to be grateful for the things that experience taught me and to do my best to live a self-aware and examined life. Yes there are things that go bump in the night of my gene pool but they look much less scary where there is light shown upon it.