Every day, Elizabeth watched her husband’s moods rise and plummet without warning. She knew something was wrong, but the more she begged him to seek help, the more he brushed it off.
“I didn’t know what it was; I didn’t know what was going on,” Elizabeth recalled. “Between not understanding what he was going through and him saying ‘I’m fine, I’m fine,’ I took it as that.”
No one understood the full weight of his mental illness until he tragically took his own life in 2013. Their kids, Sara and Daniel*, were only 13 and 16.
From there, the family’s life began to unravel as both teenagers began showing symptoms of their own mental illnesses. Sara became increasingly belligerent, lashing out at Elizabeth verbally and harming herself. While Elizabeth sought help for her daughter, Daniel began withdrawing, harming himself and becoming deeply depressed.
Seeing her children struggle, Elizabeth felt a familiar pit in her stomach.
“It was almost paralyzing because I had just gone through this, and I knew how that one ended,” Elizabeth said. “I was living in fear and starting to lose my hair. I thought, ‘I can’t go through this again. I don’t understand any of this.’”
Sara was soon diagnosed with major depressive disorder with anxiety, and doctors suspect Daniel has bipolar disorder with anxiety. Family life became a rollercoaster – one crisis, one argument, one breakdown to another. Elizabeth knew she needed help to support her children but didn’t know where to start.
Shaking it up
During that time, Elizabeth learned about United Way supported National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) St. Louis’ Family-to-Family program, designed specifically for relatives, spouses and friends of those with mental health conditions.
“You can’t know what no one has told you, and a lot of times, our participants have continued to interact with family members the same way,” said Joyce Johnston, director of programs at NAMI St. Louis. “We’re trying to shake that up and teach them new ways to do things. And by doing that, it changes the family dynamics. It really helps the whole entire family, not just the people taking the class.”
In the U.S., more than 1 in 5 adults experience a mental illness at some point in their lives, and 20% of teens ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition. While mental illnesses may be more common than some realize, there are many misconceptions about what they look like and where they come from, Johnston said.
“People don’t have the information they need to actually see that this is a chemical imbalance, a biological disorder,” she said. “Those coping with mental illness can’t help it; they’re not trying to be difficult.”
Once the Family-to-Family participants understand the realities of mental illness, they’re able to begin learning to address its impact on their family through effective communication techniques, problem-solving tools and in-depth knowledge about specific conditions and treatments.
The classes opened Elizabeth’s eyes to why her old approach to her kids’ crises was doing more harm than good.
“I’m a very emotional person, and the mom in me talks big sometimes,” Elizabeth said. “Not understanding what was going on, I might have pulled the whole, ‘not under my roof’ thing. That doesn’t work. You have to go about it through the back door a little bit.”
When Sara would lash out, Elizabeth learned to control her own emotions and understand that her daughter might simply be feeling scared about her future. When her son became discouraged about having to try so many different medications, Elizabeth knew how to explain the process to him.
“What’s effective for me is to validate their feelings,” Elizabeth explained. “Because whatever they’re feeling at the moment is what’s at the core. You say, ‘That must be frightening.’ What they really want is just for you to identify.”
“Coming from a place of confidence”
By the end of the class, Elizabeth’s life looked completely different. She and her children were arguing less, and her own anxiety started to lift.
“I was no longer terrified,” she said. “I could start sleeping again since my brain wasn’t on high alert every night.”
Elizabeth even felt empowered enough to begin to heal old wounds from before she understood what her children were going through.
“I had a long conversation with Sara,” Elizabeth recalled. “I said, ‘I want you to understand I didn’t understand what was going on. I would have handled it completely differently.’ Coming from a place of confidence, I said, ‘I want you to know that it is different now, and I apologize for misunderstanding.’ Even just being able to call and tell her that helped her.”
Now, Elizabeth has accepted that in some ways, her kids’ lives may not look like their peers’, and they may continue to face challenges because of their mental health conditions. She knows that she has the skills and confidence she needs to look toward the future with hope.
“For some reason, I kept waiting for my kids to be cured,” she recalled. “But I do remember that very strong emotion when it hit me: This is the rest of their lives. We’re probably going to have ups and downs, and that’s okay. Because now I know, and I’m okay with that.”
*The names of Elizabeth’s children have been changed to protect their privacy.
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