Is there someone in your family that you dread seeing, or who displays hard-to-understand behavior? Maybe they are quick to blow up or fall apart, or just don’t make any sense to you? Ok, we all have someone in our family tree that’s “eccentric” or just a little different…
But what about those family members who go beyond the eye-roll-eliciting comments and behaviors who seem immune or defensive to any feedback, request or response? True mental illness is not that common, but it’s not all that unusual either. Under stress, symptoms and behaviors can be magnified. Throw in a little alcohol, other substances, crowded spaces, strange environments, high expectations…all contribute to the likelihood of an “event”.
So, what can you do? First, don’t refer to this person as “crazy” – that encourages you to just feel defeated. And feeling defeated may lead you to impatience, lack of compassion and even becoming a big contributor to the problem at hand.
It’s also really unkind and unfair – let’s say your niece is challenged with bipolar disorder. Every so often, something “sets off” difficulty. It could be that she didn’t take her medication, or that it doesn’t really work for her; she could be under extra stress that no one knows about, or any number of things that others don’t realize.
Or perhaps your brother struggles with depression. He inevitably retreats to a quiet room, focuses on the TV or acts like he is angry. Maybe he is, or maybe it’s just all a bit much for him…a lot of loud exuberance in the environment when he struggles just to get through the day. Expecting him to “cheer up” is unreasonable.
You wish this person would knock it off…you know who else wishes that (other than everyone else there)? The person struggling. They don’t like losing control, getting into battle or shrinking into the emotional fetal position either.
The nature of mental illness makes it hard to self-monitor, read a situation accurately and almost impossible to know when to walk away. It’s an unfair expectation for a person living with mental illness to just “get it together”.
Maybe a parent has some trouble with substances that flow too freely at a party. Things get said that can’t be unheard, and regret doesn’t erase those hurt feelings. A sibling may struggle with anxiety that gets escalated in high stimulation environments, or when things feel pressured. Once the “eruption” happens, it’s hard to recover.
Instead, it’s important to look at prevention. Starting from a perspective of being supportive, not critical, will allow you and other family members to approach the situation differently. Are there people close to your concerning family member who can provide some help? Is alcohol a big contributor to the problem (I am going to go out on a limb here and say, yes, for the person living with mental illness it is, and for all who don’t fall into that category it may be). Can you make family gatherings a “dry” tradition, offer options for engaging, or a graceful way out for those who are overwhelmed? In short, what would help to minimize stress for everyone, including a person who is struggling.
If there are modifications that can be made, you can lead the charge in making the next family gathering better. Sometimes, there really is nothing you can do. You don’t want to exclude anyone, of course, but there are times that the family-mix is too volatile, and connecting separately, or in smaller groups or doses of time, makes more sense. If you choose this route you may encounter initial resistance, but ultimately you won’t feel so helpless about the unraveling of people you love.
Just to be as clear as possible – not everyone who struggles with mental illness is difficult; many, if not most, people dealing with mental illness have excellent self-care and know when to say “enough” for themselves. Not everyone who is difficult struggles with mental illness. There are always going to be people who rub you the wrong way, or just seem “off” to you. The statement “Ugh, that person is such a pain” is not diagnostic – and besides, someone could be saying that about you!
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