Fr. Peter J. Daly
August 13, 2003
What happens to a family that is touched by mental illness?
It lurches from crisis to crisis. It is torn apart by violence. It spends its time, its money and its emotional energy trying to help a sick family member who often does not recognize the illness and does not want to be “helped.”
The family finds it cannot celebrate like it used. It does not want to include all its members out of fear that some disaster may happen. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and graduations are ruined. Family gatherings are dreaded.
Family members start to quarrel among themselves. They blame each other. “You are an enabler. You are a failure. You don’t care. You don’t understand.”
They ask each other questions. What is this disease? How did they get it? Who is responsible? What is the cure? How can we protect our selves from being hurt any more? Most of all, how can we find peace?
Some people can’t deal with it. They start to withdraw from the family. Some people want to fix it but don’t know how. Some just deny that anything is wrong. “It is just a bad run of luck. Things will change this time.”
Everybody is touched by sadness. Everybody feels pain. Nobody is immune from difficulties. It is hard to think of anything else.
Mental illness is not just about one person. It is a “family” disease, because everyone in the family is affected. Gradually the family member you thought you knew, you thought you loved, changes right before your eyes. After a while, you feel like you hardly know the person anymore. You cannot understand how all this happened.
I know, because my family, like so many others, has been affected by mental illness. Even today, in our sophisticated culture, there is a “stigma” about admitting that. But if people are honest with themselves, they will know that that troublesome uncle, that difficult sister, that irresponsible cousin, was probably mentally ill. The longer I am a priest, the more I realize that almost every family has someone who has some form of serious mental illness.
I have also discovered that there are three important aspects to coping with mental illness: prayer, guidance and support.
For prayer, I am turning more and more to the Eucharist and the rosary. One of my brothers has started saying the rosary everyday for our family member who is ill. I picked it up from him. I also bring my troubled heart to the altar every day. Sometimes when problems are too much for us there isn’t anything else we can do but give them to God.
For guidance I have tried to turn to counselors and professionals. Our parish has a wonderful counselor who lets me know if I am doing the right thing and helps me know when to back out. If someone in your family is mentally ill, everyone in the family should have someone to talk to for guidance.
For support, our parish has started a little support group for families touched by mental illness. It is not just for our parish, it is for the whole community. Our group is the local chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. NAMI is a wonderful organization dealing with every aspect of mental illness and offering hope to mentally ill people and their families.
Our group meets once a month. We listen to each other’s stories about crisis and loss, as well as recovery and hope. We encourage each other not to give up hope. We exchange information on mental health treatments and providers. We talk about public policy changes that would help families get help and feel safe.
Sometimes we share a good cry. And sometimes, in the middle of everything sad and difficult, we share a good laugh. You gotta laugh sometimes. If you don’t, you really will go crazy.
(For more information on mental illness and resources for families, contact NAMI at www.nami.org).