Here are a few quick insights from us, a husband and wife who have navigated these rough waters together for several years.
We live in a society where empathy is often doled out competitively—we can feel bad for a person as long as their circumstances are the worst we’ve heard today, we can appreciate a struggle as long we didn’t easily overcome something similar. In reality, empathy and validation weren’t designed to work this way. Empathy sounds more like, “I don’t know how to help you, but I’m sorry you’re hurting,” and less like, “I know you’re having a hard time but it could be worse, at least you have a roof over your head.”
When we empathize with the people in our lives without needing to hold their circumstances up against ours or anyone else’s, we lessen the chance that our loved ones feel alone in their pain and we strengthen the chance that they’ll be vulnerable enough to reach out to us in their times of need.
Validation is simply the acknowledgment that a person has a feeling, even if we don’t agree that it’s an appropriate feeling to have or the response we would have in similar circumstances; validation sounds /like, “I understand that you’re angry right now, that must be difficult.” Allowing our loved ones to see that we acknowledge what they’re feeling can give them freedom to accept that feeling and move on.
If your son/wife/brother was having an asthma attack and your help consisted of saying things like “Try harder at breathing,” it would not only be ineffective, it would be unsafe.
And yet when it comes to matters of the brain, we have adopted the sentiment that grit will get us through—despite our national suicide rate being higher than our homicide rate. Accept that this is a flawed logic, and that your loved one’s mind is valuable and vital to controlling their ability to get well. What do we do when we see someone having an asthma attack? We act fast, we supply them with medication when needed, we give them adequate time and treatment and room to breathe, and we teach them the skills to properly take care of themselves.
Each mental condition, like all conditions, has its own specific set of symptoms that manifests in heightened seasons of struggle, and an important part of being supportive is understanding how those symptoms affect our loved ones. For instance, a person with an anxiety may have difficulty concentrating or feel fatigued and restless; those things may lead to irritability and agitation. Someone with post-traumatic stress disorder may have a hard time staying in the present or have negative changes in their current belief systems; they may feel confused and afraid by flashbacks and memory loss.
No matter the symptom, it is as uncontrollable as sweating and shaking during insulin shock or throwing up during the flu, but when we decide to view these things as choices and take offense, that can lead to further feelings of isolation and shame for our loved ones who are likely already feeling guilt, confusion, and embarrassment.
Just as a roadmap doesn’t indicate each tree along the way, neither can a diagnosis tell of every person’s individual nuances. But taking oneself out of the dark and eliminating the fear of the unknown is a better way to help someone on their journey forward. It can be very hard and lonely to be the person or persons on the receiving end of these symptoms, it can feel like a personal attack and those feelings can understandably get in the way of compassion; because of that it is just as important for family members and spouses to have a network of support as it is for the person struggling with the condition.
Once we’ve faced the reality that our loved one with, for example, major depression cannot get out of bed because of her struggles and not because she doesn’t love us anymore or because she isn’t trying hard enough to find the joy in the small things, we can go to her bedside and say, “I’m so sorry that you’re having a hard day. I love you.”
And then we can further help her by sharing our thoughts on treatment, because we’ve already established an atmosphere of healing and trust, empathy and acceptance. There are a myriad of treatment options for persons suffering from mental illness: medication, individual talk therapy, group therapy, and therapies designed to build or rebuild skills that for whatever reason have been lost or were never given the opportunity to develop (such as emotion regulation and behavior intervention). There can be tremendous success for people who find the right match and method of treatment, and who are willing to do the work; it takes support and it takes time.
There is no magic timeframe for wholeness, and mental conditions ebb and flow for many years. Believing that your loved one should be better in a few weeks or months can set everyone up for hardship; “should’s” are a trap, and everyone’s journey is their own. Resolve to love and respect the person in your life through each part of the process—when they move forward and when they regress, when they have victories and when they stumble back into old coping mechanisms. Let go of idealized timetables and make a one-time decision that just as you would tell someone with cancer that you will remain by their side until they beat it, you are going to be there (even if it’s hard, even when it’s ugly, even if it takes a long time). And then stay, even when you’re pushed away. Isolation can feel comfortable for someone suffering with certain mental illnesses, and sometimes not talking is easier than trying to express thoughts and feelings that they themselves can’t piece together and understand. Sometimes a person feels toxic to their environment, and they pull away to protect people that they are hurting because the symptoms of their illness are out of their control. This is when love becomes a choice, because it can be a confusing and angering time for everyone involved.
Choosing to love someone who acts or feels unlovable can be part of what helps them see that are valued as a whole person, that they are not the sum total of their pain.
Seeing people we love in pain is hard, especially when we can’t relate to their struggle. We may want to fix their problems and be their support system.
But the truth is that no one person can hold another up, no one person can alone support the weight of their own struggles and someone else’s. The best thing we can do to help the people we love is to build a community around ourselves and them.
People can greatly benefit from knowing that they are not alone in their diagnoses, their daily struggles, their ups and downs, their triggers; having a healthy system of support in place can give them access to new ways of coping and brainstorming, as well as emotional validation that can breathe hope into their most desperate moments. Similarly, when a person you love is struggling, you also need the support of your community; if the expectation for our loved ones is to reach out when they need help, we also need to be held to that standard.
People with some mental conditions are not suddenly different people. When they’re struggling, they aren’t monsters, when they get better they are not new people. Sometimes, mental conditions can changes someone’s circumstances…they can even change their personalities for a time, change their interests, their spirit.
But they are the same person you have always loved, and they need you to see that person in them—even when they can’t see themselves clearly.
Using person-first language can help keep us from defining our loved ones by their struggles, and can help us stay focused on hope.
From personal stories on NAMI.