We hear it all the time… “love, love, love.”
Love is the most powerful emotion. Love heals, love wins, love is the end all be all. We aspire to it, spend our whole lives chasing it, seeking it, giving it, losing it, and wind up starting all over again. Many mental health issues are caused by the lack of love, loss of love, or inability to receive the love around us. Chronic mental health problems make love even more scarce…from us, from others, from society.
So, let’s look at this in more detail. Depression, anxiety, ADHD, mania, psychosis…they all start by isolating us from others. Our differences in behavior begin to get noticed and can be misunderstood or feared. Our fear,then, can cause us to react with separation or distancing ourselves. It’s self protection we seek, but we both lose and take away chances for love in doing so. We fear what we don’t know or understand. Until our brain makes a pattern of something, we have some fear attached. The more that pattern becomes familiar, our fear lessens.
With depression, we lose energy and start to withdraw from daily activities. We lose joy in things, which keeps us from repeating activities, social or otherwise. We lose the ability to receive love through our interactions with others.
Similarly, anxiety steals our love by making us question and distrust things. The “what ifs” start to take over and we become lost in our head of worries, instead of being in the moment where love resides. You can only feel love if you are present, which is why mental illness can impact us so dramatically. Mental illness steals the moment from us and drowns it in doubt, shame, and false truths. Mania, which is a mind state of excesses…everything in excess, simply overtakes the moment. Life becomes a search for a level of excitement that can never be found. Psychosis simply distorts. Reality becomes a puzzle of trying to find out what to believe. All of these mind states serve as a distraction from the most important things: the present moment, relationships, and love.
As we fall deeper into our distortions, we become more self-involved, more detached, perhaps even engaging in behavior that appears odd to others. This is where we may actually influence people to now distance from us. Others don’t understand our internal struggle and may misinterpret our behavior. They may feel rejected by us and simply “return the favor.”
In more extreme cases of mental illness, groups like our workplace or school often have rules that separate us if we exhibit such behavior. We may even be suspended, fired, or arrested and permanently separated from love. We may struggle with suicidal thoughts, believing it is simply too hard, or losing faith that things can ever get better. We may start to give up.
But what does it mean to really let love in and use love to heal and grow relationships with someone who is struggling with mental illness?
First, we must educate ourselves. We must learn the symptoms of the illness and treatment processes so we have clear, understandable expectations about what lies ahead. Do not attach a timetable to this illness, many mental illnesses can ebb and flow for years. Your beliefs about timing can create hardship for your loved ones and may further isolate them. Also know that your loved one is not weak if things don’t get better right away. Symptoms are not “choices” someone makes. Understanding this gets harder as the symptoms may continue. This is a physiological illness that can’t be fixed by determination or spirit. Mental illness requires professional help, along with family and loved ones’ support.
Make a decision about your commitment. You must make a conscious choice to love and respect your loved one through each part of the illness. Be willing to stay when pushed away and perhaps give space and come back again. Get support and love for yourself so you can stay strong for the long haul, if necessary. Realize that love is what you both need to get through this struggle.
Embrace small steps and remember: little things may be all you can offer at certain times. A hug, an “I love you”, a favorite snack or treat, or maybe just silent companionship. It could also be helping with transportation, small amounts of spending money, or other ways you can offer your loved one independence or autonomy. Our tokens of love can look like many things and you many need to get creative to find what your loved one needs or can accept. Each gesture of love serves to help our loved one, but also help us.. We feel love by giving it each time and it in turn grows within us.
Loving someone with mental illness involves many roles. Cheerleader, watchman, coach, nurse, just to name a few. LOVE can really ask a lot of us in relationships. It can be overwhelming, but the important thing to realize is showing up is step one, and no matter what you’ve missed so far, it doesn’t keep you from achieving the feeling of LOVE again for you and your loved ones.
You can find much support about mental illness and caring for those with mental illness at the National Alliance on Mental Illness website.
Stay tuned for part two as I dig deeper into the psychology of having the courage to love and be loved.
– Candace York, LPC