Compassion is Out There: A Family Narrative

a pile of tomatoes sitting in a bucket

The first challenge in having kids with mental health issues, of course, is realization and understanding. Our two sons grew from wonderful young boys into rebellious teenagers; from successful and dedicated students to angry young men; from polite and loving children into young adults that resented us and our parenting. And even though there were signs, even though there is mental illness in both sides of our family tree, it was never conceivable to my wife and I that we might have one (let alone two) kids with diagnosable Bipolar I disorder.

Shortly after our younger son suffered his manic break, we were extremely lucky in that we were able to place him in a well-respected mental hospital. Our family developed a close relationship with the staff of their outpatient program, which has continued to be a lifeline over the following two years. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) classes additionally proved to be tremendously educational, while also revealing the power of community. Our marriage suffered as we each tried to cope in our own way; NAMI was a loving force that helped us remove blame and try to lean on one another instead.

We learned that although mental illness is often a very difficult topic to broach with friends and family, there is an immeasurable value in the realization that we are not alone in dealing with these challenges.

We still attend peer support programs on occasion when we start to feel isolated and sorry for ourselves.

The second major challenge is coming to grips with something that we were told in our NAMI classes, which we still reflect on regularly:“It’s time to mourn the child that was, and learn to love the child that is.” It’s heartbreaking, but true.

Of our two boys, one of them has bounced back quite well and is now attending college, while the other has been repeatedly hospitalized and still insists that the very concept of mental illness is a conspiracy and a hoax. With help, we hope and pray that they will both go on to lead productive and happy lives, but they will both deal with this situation forever. And, as their parents, so will we. It’s not a broken bone; mental illness is a lifelong game-changer for the entire family. It’s made us question our own value in this world. During this evolution, we have at times been horribly depressed, rageful, utterly detached, unmotivated, self-pitying, and devoid of the capacity for joy.

What brings us back from those miserable days is the love and support of family and friends, and again, the realization that we are not alone.

The system is flawed and often difficult to navigate. The science behind identifying and treating mental illness is inexact, to say the least. Finding the right help, the right treatment, and especially the right medications is largely trial and error.

The crisis of mental health in our society is underappreciated and still stigmatized.

But there are tremendous resources available, created and managed by incredible, caring people. There are countless stories of recovery, success, and triumph. Awareness of the troubles families like ours face is growing. Compassion – perhaps the greatest tool we have to face these challenges, is out there in great supply. Seek out, and return that compassion. We are all stronger as a result.