Friday, March 24, 2023
March 24, 2023

From the inside: Insights and advice to help others cope with mental illness

By THERIN GOWER

The struggles of people who have health conditions affecting their mental function and ability to communicate are much on my mind due to some new insights.

Oh, I had education from a psychology B.A, teacher certification and on-going paramedic training. I had 40 years of experience interacting with people in need and crisis. I thought I understood. But nothing but personal experience can convey what it is really like from the inside when your thinking and emotions have gone wild.

In my case, this was a temporary situation caused by a medication intended to fix another problem, now being tapered off, plus another drug reaction causing anemia. I spent a month and a half warm and dry in a house with food and loving support of family and friends. I had the luxury of telling strangers I had to interact with that I couldn’t function well mentally right now because of medication I was on. No stigma or shame in that. I’m returning to “normal” functioning more every day.

But there are a lot of people on this island and elsewhere who live for years, even their whole lives, with these immense mental/emotional challenges, often in much worse physical locations, with few supports. These insights and suggestions may help you to help them.

1. What seems to the observer like a tiny thing to accomplish is an enormous task. There is only so much ability/energy to put together a sentence; only make them do that for things that matter.

2. It was like having ADHD x 1000. Lines of thought shooting off in all directions, intentions formed and immediately lost, distracted by the next thing. Walk two steps to do something, think of something else and move to do it, forget the first, be agonized trying to remember what is important. Making lists and ticking things off saved my sanity. You could help them do that if they don’t have the mental or physical resources.

3. Managing to eat was a huge task. Even with food made and set on the table, sitting down and consuming it often took several attempts as distractions occurred, and required someone to monitor that it happened. Get them food and make sure it gets into them.

4. What can you trust if you can’t trust your own thoughts? It was clear a minute ago, now it makes no sense. Maybe this bad thing is happening. You can’t stop obsessive thoughts. You read what you wrote and it says something different than what you thought. Or something is so clear to you, but everybody else is seeing it differently. Is that because you are missing something, or are you right and they are dismissing you, assuming you aren’t thinking clearly? Be the person they can trust. Consider what they are saying. Paraphrase to clarify, so they can agree or disagree. Acknowledge they see it that way, but say you see it differently. Reassure them if you can, repeatedly.

5. It’s too much work to make a decision. Avoid multiple options.

6. I needed help but it was too much work mentally and emotionally even to call a friend. Conversely, once I started talking I couldn’t stop. Be prepared either way. Be the one that calls them. They can always say they don’t want to talk. If you send them an encouraging email or message, be prepared for them to not respond. It may be just using too much mental power for them at that point, but they will be encouraged.

7. When things did get arranged, I forgot them. Remind the person, confirm more than once, or better yet be the one that makes the arrangements and picks them up.

8. Every task seems insurmountable. Go to this place, talk to this person, explain this problem? Better to not even try. If you can accompany them, do. The reassurance of having a second brain there that will understand and remember what happens is enormous. This is especially true of medical appointments. Bring a notebook to write down questions ahead of time. Note the answers, and new instructions. If they must do a task alone, make each step short and clear for them. Don’t run steps together.

9. Medications/health monitoring become a big part of the day, with multiple steps and combinations. Again lists, charts and especially bubble packs helped. Anything that can help with organization and routine and confirmation is good here. Make sure they take the medication immediately from the bubble pack to their mouth without putting it down anywhere. Recognize that it all gets wearisome.

10. I couldn’t control what I said without big effort. I couldn’t control emotional outbursts at all. Listen to the good parts, toss out the bad parts, don’t take it personally, don’t think they mean it. Never say “Calm down.” Be calm yourself. Be there. (Caveat: be aware of your personal safety. You can comfort them by your physical presence from a distance, with an exit available behind you if applicable.) Participate in the calming: “How about if we take some breaths together?” If you can and they want you to, just hold them.

11. I couldn’t cope. With pretty much anything. Just be the person who copes.

12. Everything becomes self-centred because the inside of your massively chaotic brain is as huge as a planet, and you feel like you are trying to control the winds of Jupiter in there. The whole world outside your brain keeps trying to thrust more information in. Too much! So don’t expect thanks, don’t expect understanding or empathy in return, just know that you are helping to make it slightly more manageable in there. And that is a huge gift to give.

The writer is a long-time Salt Spring resident.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I live with that every day. That is my normal, day in and day out.
    It’s like FASD. ( Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder)
    ADHD is one of over 400 comorbidities that accompany FASD.

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