Being a Caregiver to a Family Member with Clinical Mental Illness
I don’t know if it was because it was my mom, or if it was my Super Man complex (not actually a thing) coming into play, but when I got the call mom was in the Emergency Department, I immediately went into fix-it mode. I took a keen interest in mom’s illness, interacting with the doctors, visiting her during hospitalizations, bringing her books, magazines, CDs, clothes, just about anything she requested during hospitalizations. I spent countless hours talking to her, about her problems, trying to reason with her – all in an effort to make her better. Here’s what I finally learned. None of it matters.
Now your obligation to a family member who is mentally ill or sick differs depending on who the person is and how the person stands in legal relation to you. Obviously, if it is a child, you owe that child both a moral and legal obligation to care for him or her. If it is a parent, there may be no legal obligation, but maybe you feel a moral obligation. Spouses, that can be tricky – particularly when children are involved. In short, what is required of you is rarely black and white. It is some shade of gray.
Regardless of whether you choose to fulfill the role as a caregiver or are required to by way of legal relationship, you can only do so much. It is important for you to think about this. Set your limits. Decide what you will do and what you won’t do, and, most importantly, stick to it!
When mom was in an episode, she would run me empty. Literally, she would act out in such ways that I was running all over town. She’d dump our family belongings at churches; collect for sale signs from around the neighborhood and stick them in her yard; she’d go for drives, get lost, and I would have to figure out ways to get both her and her car home; she’d call me at all hours of the day and night – leaving long ranting voicemail messages if I didn’t answer; when I wasn’t answering the phone enough, she’d hit the panic button on her security system which would then lead to the police contacting me; she’d get into fights with her neighbors; she’d give away her money to strangers and churches; and while all of this was going on, I had a steady stream of telephone calls from family members, neighbors and family friends all who wanted briefed or to weigh-in on what I should be doing.
After heaven knows how many episodes, here is what I’ve learned. I’m not Atlas. Doing less is sometimes more. Yes, do what is required, but being the go-to person for information, briefing and saving the day – not my job. My job – is to help this person make the appropriate medical decisions to get the proper care. I am NOT required to be a personal butler, concierge or Super Man. There is nothing I can say or do that will fix mom’s mental illness. And as I’ve learned overtime, letting mom feel the burn from her misdeeds has actually led to her being a healthier person.
So now, when I am in the midst of a “crisis” with mom, I don’t clean up her messes. If she is trashing her house – I let her trash her house. If she drives around and gets lost – I let her car get towed and impounded. I don’t answer her phone calls or even engage her in any dialogue which contains a demand. In fact, the only telephone calls I take is if it is from one of my sisters or a healthcare provider. Everyone else – thank you for the concern, but for me, I found it was draining to respond and have the same discussion over and over and over. These folks may be concerned, yes, but they aren’t showing up to the trench and therefore do not need to know.
This isn’t easy to do. The first couple times you see a family member feeling the burn of his or her decisions… that’s not comfortable, but in my case, it has been for the best. Losing myself to save my mom, it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to me, my kids, my clients, my employees, and, most importantly, myself.