On the Importance of Strength

Late last week my mom was taking care of a little girl, at the school where she works, who was going through a terrible sickness. The girl was exhibiting signs of what might have possibly been epilepsy – small, uncontrollable spasms in her limbs which left her weak and disorientated. My mom contacted the little girl’s mom to have her come and pick the little girl up and take her to the hospital.

When the little girl’s mom got there, the little girl didn’t recognize her mom and the mom started to lose it. My mom’s been in the exact same situation with me, there have been times, while in the throes of psychosis, when I didn’t recognize my mom either; I’ve called my mom before while psychotic and immediately started yelling at her to shut up because otherwise they might overhear and come get me. My mom is good in tough situations; when the proverbial feces hit the fan, you want my mom there because you can count on her to keep her cool and do what’s most practical, most pragmatic, most helpful.

My mom, seeing the little girl’s mother starting to lose it, put herself between the little girl and her mother (so the little girl wouldn’t see her mom losing it) and explained to the mother that she needed to be strong for her daughter, that her losing it wasn’t going to help her little girl. The mom, in this instance, needed to summon her courage and do what was best for her daughter, and then break down later, in private, after it was all over.

This is true not only when your little girl is sick, but also in terms of dealing with someone with a mental illness. I very easily and intuitively pick up on other people’s emotions at the best of times and when I’m symptomatic, when I’m not feeling well, I’m a veritable super sponge for people’s expressed emotions. If I’m psychotic and a person freaks out because of it, I’m going to get a lot worse. It doesn’t even have to be psychosis. It could be when I’m manic, or when I’m paranoid – any time my illness is expressing itself I’m that same super sponge, just soaking up other people’s emotional reactions.

Which is why it’s so important to remain calm and rational and collected when someone is experiencing symptoms of their mental illness.

I can remember a time, a few years ago, when I was manic and blew up at my family when one of them suggested I might be manic. Calling someone who’s potentially experiencing mania, manic is a touchy subject. Mania can be some of the only positive emotions a person with bipolar disorder experiences, and to label it “mania” is to take away the joy of the moment and call it something much darker. To their credit, my family didn’t explode back at me. And that made the situation all the better. Mania feeds on high emotions and without those high emotions to feed on, with my family only reacting to me in a calm, reasonable way, I didn’t have anything to fuel my mania with. I soon calmed down and we were able to talk the whole situation through.

Mental illness leads to a lot of difficult situations. People with mental illness can be jerks – when I’m manic it’s most often expressed as anger instead of the unadulterated joy and borderline annoyingness so often depicted in the media. It doesn’t follow human nature to treat someone who’s being cruel to you kindly and rationally and calmly. But it’s absolutely essential. You oftentimes have to ignore your immediate, innate response and go with a secondary response: the kinder, gentler, more loving response.

My family tells me that how they do that is to remember that it’s my illness and not me. When I’m being verbally abusive, I’m not the Chris that my parents’ raised, that my sister grew up with. It’s my illness expressing itself, it’s this other aspect to me which isn’t the genuine me. It’s important to separate the illness from the person.

It’s certainly hard to do. But just like we don’t treat someone with cancer as a cancerous person, we shouldn’t treat someone with a mental illness as simply a jerk or simply crazy – we need to have compassion on them and encourage them to have compassion on themselves. We need to treat the illness and the person as two separate, though related, things.

It’s a tall order, mental illness is so closely enmeshed with my personality that it’s sometimes hard to pick apart the illness from the real me. But there’s a definite difference, a distinction. The real me is kind, responsible, and self-controlled. My mental illness sees me being cruel, selfish, and impulsive. To be able to separate the two, to know that I have these two sides to me – one the real me and the other the sick me – is essential to me being able to handle my illness. As well as for my family to be able to tolerate me when I’m at my worst.

The distinction allows me to work on the sick side of me without having to take on the heavy burden of changing my personality. It allows me to adopt the attitude that I’m treating an illness and not my personality. Mental illness does such a good job of dehumanizing us that we might as well use it to our advantage – to focus on the fact that our illnesses are not us, to dehumanize the illness and not ourselves. To other-ize the illness, make the illness the other instead of making our whole selves the other.

I think back on the advice my mom gave the mother of that little girl; many years of dealing with my illness informed the wisdom my mother found to give to that woman. My mother has always been good in high-stress situations. When I’m not doing well, I always call her. Because I can count on her to do practical, helpful things to alleviate my suffering – whether it’s reading to me from the police blotter, praying for me, reading to me from the Bible, telling me stories about when I was little, or getting in the car to come get me. I’m sure it isn’t something she thought she’d make a lot of use of in her life when she was younger. But the situation with the little girl and her mom reminds me that God finds ways to bless us and others through our suffering.

It was 10 years ago this year that I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. It’s been 10 years of suffering, 10 years of learning, 10 years of growth, and 10 years of blessings. My mom’s interaction with the little girl and her mother is just one of many little instances where our experiences with my mental illness have proved useful or beneficial for another person’s life. And the strength it’s given me and my family is worth celebrating.

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