No one in my family understands me.
Actually, no one in my family understands my illness.
My mother-in-law doesn’t believe that mental illness exists. And in a way she has a point. If she hasn’t experienced something, for her it doesn’t exist. Most people are a bit like that sometimes, especially regarding mental disorders. There are only a few varieties of broken arms, and when you’ve got one, you know it. When you’re talking synapses and neurotransmitters, thoughts and feelings, it’s obvious why “invisible illnesses” aren’t obvious or well understood.
I didn’t understand my disorder at first, either. I remember driving past a building with a sign: South Community Mental Health. I didn’t know what I was feeling, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t mentally healthy. I went in and began the journey.
My family had the following reactions when I told them I was going into therapy and when I first started taking medication:
Dad: Just as long as I don’t have to go.
Mom: I’ve heard Prozac is a ticking time bomb.
Mom (later): I thought you would feel better after you found a good job.
Sister: Why should you spend $100 a month just to talk to someone? (The clinic was on a sliding scale, so I actually paid only $5 per visit.)
I understand some of those reactions. Dad had heard about how psychologists blame parents for messed-up kids and he wasn’t going to someone to be told he was crazy, and a bad parent besides. And his fear was not that unreasonable. Dysfunctional kids often do come from dysfunctional families. But underlying my disorder was brain chemistry. I never asked him to join the couch gang.
Mom watched Phil Donahue (for you youngsters, think Dr. Phil). And there was at first over-prescribing of Prozac and suicides once the patients gained enough energy. Plus she thought my depression and anxiety were reactive and would clear up when my living situation was more stable.
My sister, I don’t know. I don’t understand her either. I’m sure she has psychological problems too, of one sort or another. But I’ve been diagnosed, so I’m the crazy one.
My husband, who has a background in psychology, “got it” a little better once he stopped trying to “fix” me. But he never understood in a visceral way until he had his own first meltdown.
“You know how you’re feeling now?” I said. “Try feeling that way for a couple of years instead of a month.” Later he did. So at least he knew what half of bipolar was all about. He still hasn’t felt the rapid cycling or the constant roller coaster or the extreme physical and mental battering of going on and off medication after medication, hoping the next one will do more than make his hands shake worse or his memory turn into Swiss cheese.
Still, it’s better to be partly understood than completely dismissed, and to have a family that tries. And to have a family of choice that does understand, because a lot of them are in the same leaky, patched boat.
I could have done a lot worse.