Although my family can take beautiful pictures, we are by no means a picture-perfect family. We’ve experienced significant traumas surrounding mental illness and we continue to grapple with the healing process.
I’ll start by sharing a little of our backstory and what motivated me to write on this topic. In the mid 1990’s my brain activity became highly destructive, and between the ages of 15 – 27 years I lived in and out of three different psychiatric hospitals. During this time, I was given many diagnoses, and eventually clinicians gave up on me and told my parents that it was unlikely I’d ever function “normally” in society.
Since then I’ve learned to better manage my mood and behaviours, and over the past five years, I’ve been reflecting, writing, and sharing a lot about my experience with mental illness. It’s been therapeutic and healing, and in some ways, I think opening up about my experience has become part of my self-care. With that said, I continue to have worrying thoughts about my mental health. For example, I wonder if I’m still crazy and just hiding it better? I wonder if it’s okay that I think about dying on a regular basis? I also worry about the possibility of ending up in a lockdown ward again.
Then, I breathe. I’ve learned to breathe and to place my attention on the here and now. I may not feel okay, I may be escalating high, or crashing low, and both extremes create an intense feeling of disconnection. Sometimes I feel insane, even behave insane, but I’ve learned to breathe and redirect my focus to the present moment. I know I’m okay, even when I’m not feeling okay, and I know my mental anguish will pass. I know my mind, and I have a beautiful mind. I’m proud to say that it’s been over ten years since my last suicide attempt. I still work with big challenges, and I still have work to do, but I have an incredible support network and I’m staying away from lockdown units and the morgue.
I have built a career as a coach and an author by sharing insights on how to use connection and communication to transform our relationships with our selves, and our relationships with others. My work combines my professional experience as a child and youth counsellor, personal experience as a mother, and lived experience surviving relationship disasters – with myself and with others.
I often work with families and I LOVE working with families. In my opinion, families thrive when they work collaboratively to overcome challenges. Whether someone in a family is sick with alcoholism, cancer, diabetes, or whatever; the individual, along with all members of the family, will suffer more if they don’t work together and feel supported.
I believe that the more supported and connected families feel, the more connected communities are, then cities, countries and ultimately our planet. Basically, I think world peace starts with each family increasing their sense of support and connection.
I often find myself reflecting on the disconnection I sense within my own family surrounding our experiences with mental illness. My parents, siblings, spouse, daughter, and I seem to be comfortable talking about my feelings and experiences, but we rarely talk about theirs.
I sometimes wonder if members of my family prefer to sweep their feelings under a rug because they think their feelings are not as important as mine? I have also considered that they might not have thought about sharing their perspective? Or, maybe they worry that if they express themselves, it will open a can of worms and I might spiral into a relapse?
Instead of making assumptions about how each family member perceives our dynamics with mental health, I decided to write a note and ask them. Here’s what I wrote:
Over the past 2 years I’ve written, and spoken, butt loads about my experience with mental health crisis’. I’m working on a new article and I’d like to include more about how mental health affects the individuals within a family unit. My intention is to demonstrate that families can speak honestly, and respectfully, about their experiences with mental health. There’s no expectation that everyone agrees, my hope is to inspire others to open the door for heartfelt conversations and give space for all to share their perspective.
I’ve attached a word doc with a few question prompts; feel free to reflect on any one, or more, and send back your notes. There’s no word count max, or min, and grammar is not overly important bc I’ll only be using some snippets. You can include stories of memories, highlights, lowlights, etc… please send back by July 10 and I will send my final draft to you all before going live.
Thank you for considering!
I really do love and appreciate our family, 💕 Amber
I specifically asked:
In your opinion…
How has mental health impacted our family?
How has mental health impacted you?
What have you found most challenging about navigating mental health crisis’ in our family?
What words of wisdom would you share with other families?
Anything else to note?
I sent the note to eight family members and received some insightful responses that shed light on the complexities involved with how mental health affects each of them. I’ve compiled their responses and organized them into this newsletter in hopes that it touches the hearts of readers and generates honest conversations among others who have a similar dynamic with mental illness in their family.
Even though I’ve spent many hours in therapy preparing myself for this important part of my healing journey, I felt incredibly nervous to read the responses. I felt nervous because I anticipated that people would write about how hurt they’ve felt when I’ve been in crisis, and it’s difficult for me to digest that I’ve contributed to a sense of hurt amongst my family members.
I have a memory of a time when my parents came to see me in the emergency department after I barely survived a lethal suicide attempt. They expressed how happy they were that I was alive, and I think they expected me to respond by saying how relieved I was that my plan to die hadn’t worked. However, I was cold and direct when I told them that I was disappointed that my plan had failed. I looked them straight in the eyes and told them that I was not happy to see them. I remember the look of dismay in their eyes, I knew what I said hurt them deeply and I had no sense of remorse.
Sure enough, some answers were difficult to read, but I’m glad I reached out to them and here’s an overview of what they submitted to me.
Almost every family member had something to say about the question “How has mental health impacted our family?”.
“Strained, challenged, eventually, pulled tighter the people who were open to vulnerability. Perhaps encouraged openness to those who weren’t so much.”
“Our family has been shaken up forever by mental, emotional issues and year after year the overwhelming feelings of desperation are still fresh.”
“Our relationship is governed by [this] in a way. I have questioned your judgement and will probably do so again given certain feedback from you about feeling unsteady.”
“Too much drama and I needed to distance myself from the family.”
One family member also shared that they tend not to think about it. I don’t know if that’s because this person finds it too tender of a spot to open up about, or if they truly feel that mental health has had no impact on our family.
Overall, something that stood out for me when reading their reflections to this question is that most people wrote in present terms. This indicates to me that, even though it’s been over ten years since I’ve had a mental health crisis, the impact of the trauma is still salient within my family.
When my family wrote about “How has mental health impacted you?” there were some responses about how my mental health impacted them personally, and there were also some reflections about their own personal experience with mental health. Here are a few snippets:
“I have fears about you killing yourself. I own my fears, and I ‘should’ on myself a lot about this, but it’s all very real.”
“I found it really hard to work on my own mental health because you already took so much of mom and dad’s attention. I think I would have been mentally healthier if I had accepted that it’s okay for me to have issues too.”
“I feel closer to you through all of this, it has been a good thing for me in terms of my definitions/understandings of love.”
“You demanded a lot of parental supervision, emotional support and time, the other siblings lacked the same from our parents at times.”
“I continue to learn to manage lowness, depression, tendencies toward negativity. Having learned passivity and avoidance in my childhood I did not understand the importance of assertiveness and I let it all slide. It’s an ongoing thing for me, a conscious and subconscious drive, a noise I listen to.”
“It’s been a heartbreaking rollercoaster that has forever changed me.”
The responses were unanimous in that everyone expressed feeling impacted by mental health in some way; however, there was a broad spectrum of responses to this question that left me wanting to know more. For example, one person put quotes around the term mental illness (“mental illness”). I understand some people do that because they don’t think mental illness is a “thing”, so does this person think mental illness is not a thing??? Or, is there another explanation?
I included the question “What have you found most challenging about navigating mental health crises in our family?” because I think it’s important for people to speak about their challenges; not in a whining or complaining way, but in an honest way. I think the more we can increase our awareness of the common challenges families face, the more accurate our mental health care system can be in building appropriate support networks. And, as one family member put it, “Professional help is often necessary to deal with the struggles, the ups and downs.”. Here are some challenges that my family members shared:
“I remember watching you talk to mom and she would actually listen to you and care about what you were saying. I did not feel listened to and I felt like all of mom’s thoughts were on you. I will always remember an image on the porch and coming to that realization and really being upset that she did not hear me, but she heard you. I also felt that this translated to her having more love for you.”
“The loneliness of working against the system, the desperation, the exhaustion, the guilt, the unknown, the future, the ‘What-ifs”. That it never really ends.”
“Trust. Do I trust Amber? Is she in her ‘right’ mind? What is a ‘right’ mind? General dislocation, general feelings of disorientation, a dark lostness.”
“How fragile families are. How mental illness affects us all.”
Aside from one reflection that indicated everything is fine, no challenges – it seems that members in my family have felt, and some are still feeling, lonely and uncertain about how to process their feelings and experiences.
Sadly, their expressed feelings here didn’t surprise me because I remember how challenging it was for each family member, and our family unit collectively, to find support. Although there are family supports in place in various communities, I don’t think that family support is enough of a priority in the treatment plan process for mental health. I think there’s a gaping hole in our mental health care system when it comes to families accessing support and all too often parents, siblings, even those struggling with mental illness, are left to fend for themselves.
When mental health challenges arise, it’s frustrating and it can be hard to accept the things we have no control over. During these periods, we need to remember that we are not alone and there are other families who have survived similar challenges. There’s a lot of wisdom out there that can inspire us to persevere and I was curious to hear what words of wisdom my family would share. So, I asked, “What words of wisdom would you share with other families?”. Here’s what they had to say:
“Keep all members informed, regardless of their situation. When I was at university and you had an attempt at suicide, people did not tell me because I was in exams. I found out from talking to nanny and I was really upset that you kept me in the dark.”
“Be kind. Be thoughtful. Be funny. Be a good listener. You cannot be all things to all people. Pick your battles. Finally, make time for yourself!”
“I would let other families affected by mental health know that while mental health crises come and go, the family will never be unaffected or done with mental health altogether. It will always be a part of your family, and you should take that as an opportunity to learn from one another and grow as a family unit. Crises will never disappear completely, they will come and go in the years ahead. And hopefully, in dealing with them in the past, you can acquire the tools and confidence to deal with crises that come up in the future more effectively. We all learn from our coping mechanisms – what works for our affected family member and what doesn’t, and you should take that experience and use it in your communication going forward.”
“Listen with an open heart. Everyone believes they are doing the best job with the tools they have. If in crisis GET HELP. You are NOT alone. Share, Share, Share as you will learn how others are coping, surviving, and thriving.”
“Be together, BE together, be TOGETHER, be present with words, and with listening to words.”
Overall, I believe that my family’s responses – also lack of response – only scrapes the surface of what they’re processing around our experience with mental illness; and I truly feel that nobody is right or wrong. My family, like every family, is a little community of unique individuals and all members (no matter how young or old) need to feel validated and valued. This inquiry I sent about mental health was an effort to create a space for them to open up about their experiences so they might feel more validated. As a result, I hope my family heals a bit more and we have a greater sense of support and connection.
In the end, I wasn’t sure where this family research would go and I have a lot to digest. I imagine it will take me a while to harvest all that bubbled up to the surface, but one thing is clear, I now feel even more motivated to advocate for an increase in dialogue/support for all family members affected by mental illness.
I think many of us overlook the power of having ongoing meaningful family dialogues and when we don’t open up to these dialogues, we miss important healing opportunities. Of course, there’s a time and place for certain conversations (i.e. formal therapy sessions), but we need to learn how to create a space for honest communication in our everyday lives, even at our dinner table, because the more capable our family members feel to support one another, the more connected and resilient we all become.
I hope some readers reach out to me, both family members and those personally living with mental illness. Positive changes happen when the time is ripe, and I think the time is “ripe now” for families and communities to be asking for more comprehensive mental health support. One of my family members wrote something that speaks directly to this:
“We are all familiar with Mental Health. It’s frontline news now, for a reason…. we are all affected by mental health. It will always be a part of our lives. How we respect, react, and act will determine a healthy outcome for many families embracing Mental Health.”
I am thankful to everyone in my family for their honest shares. Every year I learn more and more from each of them and I feel deeply grateful.