Friday, November 7, 2008

On thinking about mental illness

OK here is a situation where I am waaaaaay out of my comfort zone. My sister has been diagnosed with a mental health issue and is in treatment. I love her. I want her to be well. I want her to be happy. I want to be able to have a relationship with her. And I am not sure if any of that is really possible in the sense that I know and interpret those things. Mental illness isn't like other illness. I can't put a Diego band-aid on her and have her owie get healed. Healing her owies is going to involve her confronting her own demons. It is going to involve really plumbing her depths. Sadly in the past she has a history of doing this just enough to become functional again but with no real change in her behavior patterns long term or in her ability to have healthy relationships.

I have always figured that the best thing to do was to become educated about situations. So when sis revealed her dx to me I went on the internet, did some reading there and then found a book at the local library which was written for the families of people who suffer from this particular illness. Naively I thought I would get answers. In many senses I did. However in almost all cases, they just made the situation more depressing to me. It would appear that the grim reality is that I need to be able to give up my dream of just having a sisterly relationship. She is truly not capable of that. What she hears from what I or anyone else say is so distorted by her illness and emotional needs that ultimately the relationship becomes threatened by her dysfunction.

Yes, I can train myself to try and speak differently. And I will, because I love her. But this feels to me that I will be reduced to speaking as a therapist almost. It is clear that there can't really be a level of reciprocity in our relationship. She is not capable of hearing my worries or challenges, they will be too much for her. They will cause her to feel that the world she so desparately wishes to order is even more out of control than she had thought.

I feel a great sense of loss surrounding this. I only have one biological sister and I expect that this is a great part of it. I don't have a large network of cousins either, having come from a very small family. However I do have a great network of friends and I also have the family that I married into and I am very very blessed to have a sister through marriage. I have a wife who I love beyond words to describe it and four beautiful children who brighten every day. So I have much, very very much to be grateful for. And I am. My needs can and are being met through the other good people in my life.

I am also though worried for my nieces. All of my reading leads me to seriously worry about the amount of loving care that she is capable of consistantly providing to them. A conversation with her adult daughter raised additional concerns for them in this regard. I worry that my sister's involvement with her own disease is leaving my niece's without loving consistant guidance. Without the parental touch stone that children need to feel safe, loved and brave enough to make the right choices in a challenging world. And I am hampered by distance as to what I can do (if anything) to help in this regard. It is a situation with no easy answers and for now, all I can do is watch, be open and ready and loving and hope for the best.

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