Yesterday, driving in my middle class neighborhood towards the shopping center, I see a field of grass ahead, it registers in my mind, that I am seeing a person, shirtless and shoeless sleeping in broad daylight surrounded by their belongings under a tree. Upon getting closer I can see said sleeping person clearly. I know he has a name, I know his birthday, the color of his eyes if they were open, his favorite food, his shoe size, his favorite color and his favorite sports team.
None of those things seem to be of great importance any longer. He is sun burnt and exhausted, unemployed and virtually skill-less. He is manipulative and has carved a niche for himself into the fringe of our community in the last nine months. All day long, every day he does nothing, except walk from location to location, carrying his meager belonging on his back, desperately searching for someone, anyone that will listen to his tale of woe, offer him a meal, or a ride and conversation. Conversation that he can use in some way, for however brief a moment in time, to break up the monotony of his current lifestyle choice.
He will play to your heartstrings. Within moments of his engaging with you he will be able to tell how to manipulate the conversation to get what he wants in that moment. Food, a ride, money. His renderings of the last 12 years of his life are not at all what he has really lived. Yet as a stranger how would you know that? He is not remorseful. He is sorry, but sorry just states how he feels when he stops to think about what he no longer has. But the sorrow is fleeting. It doesn't leaves a strong impact in his broken mind. At least not a strong enough impact that would allow him to consider doing an about face and walking away from this situation, or trying a different path. He’s not broken or willing to place himself under any authority that could change his circumstances. He is okay. Everyone else is the problem. He is living his "best life ever". No rules, no authority, no consequences except the natural ones, (like no money, no food, no shower, no power) but even those are also not his fault.
This is a day in the life of my second youngest son. He is mentally ill. A phrase that I do not throw out lightly, nor am I over exaggerating the dire situation he is in, or that we as his parents are enduring as a result.
I find myself repeatedly at a loss for why doing the hard, yet right thing 14 years ago; following a calling to adopt "special needs" siblings, has lead us down this path. If you had ever told me this would be where I am, and what I would be struggling with, I would have laughed at you. I would never, not for one moment, believed that I could have endured so many highs and lows in these years, which have lead us to this point in time.
Here is a list of the horrible side effects for the families of individuals with mental illness. Understand none of these side effects, affect the one that is mentally ill. This is in no way is this an exhaustive list. This is based solely on my personal experience up to this point in the journey. Actuarily speaking, we are on a journey, which in the longevity of a life span has just begun with no end in sight.
The list in no particular order. Helplessness. Guilt. Anger. Bitterness. Resentment. Frustration. Second guessing. Enabling. Broken heartedness. Rage. Confusion. Sadness. Grief. Sorrow. Anxiety. Dread. Fear. Doubt. Reflection. Stop at any point and cycle back to the beginning, because you can feel more than one symptom at a time, and you can dwell on multiple "like" symptoms until you think you're going to lose your mind. None of which helps, heals or promotes good mental health in the life of those living without mental illness, but whom are trying to minister to the needs of those they love with mental illness.
When someone you love is so broken, and yet they are so deeply entrenched in the denial of their mental health problems, they never own their current situation. Blame shifting and manipulation are the lenses through which they live their days causing all others in their paths to live on egg shells if you are immediately attempting to care or guide said individual. All of your safe places are no longer safe, because they begin to surface in those places lingering far longer than is socially acceptable. Begging borrowing and creating a general nuisance of themselves. But in this, they remain oblivious.
For others on the fringe of a family that is struggling with someone suffering from mental illness, they are faced with the options to engage or ignore. Engagement is messy. Because mental illness is messy. There is no logic, no rhyme or reason to how the affected individual will behave in any given situation. Engagement always leads to devastation in the life of the one that volunteers to step up or step in, because even though you have shared your journey, others stepping in, often think that they can do the same thing you have been doing for years with different results. Maybe for a week or two the "engager" will see some hope, but it quickly ends in devastation, because anyone with mental illness is unable to sustain "normal" for any length of time, until they go "off the rails". Typically just fleeing, with or without any of their possessions. Many, after one attempt themselves, or because of watching another person attempt to help, will select the second option. Ignoring the situation and the family and their needs. At best they may lend a listening ear, while rejoicing in their minds all the while they "listen" that their life is not this messy!
As a personal testimony to the last 14 years of my life, I did not think mental illness was affecting me. I was living with occasionally unstable adopted children providing for them a loving home, working hard to provide for their emotional physical and spiritual needs and balance the life of mom, employee, wife, volunteer etc. At the time of their adoptions, mental illness was not known to be the cause of these children's issues. Diagnoses like ADHD, Reactive Attachment Disorder, Autism, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (while playing a critical role in who they have become today), were only discussed in terms of "special needs".
Subtle changes happened along the way in their progression from adorable "special needs" kids to hormonal, challenging teens. As a parent or loved one, when you are in the trenches protecting, guiding and attempting to navigate these waters on the day to day, all of a sudden the issues have mushroomed to something so large, that most people do not really believe that this is happening in your home.
These children/young adults with mental illness do not, and would never, behave that way for strangers (remember manipulation is huge) teachers, neighbors or extended family. Before too long you look back and you see that your friends are distant. Your personal life is on hold, and your lack of desire to even pretend any longer that life is normal, causes you to just stay home.
Before our move four years ago, our life was much different. We were known in our community. We had supports. Relationships were built between all our kids with other adults (neighbors, extended family, church members) that allowed for less trauma overall to the others when one was having significant struggles. With a call, children were carpooled to and from work and school. Homework helper would appear Monday through Thursday, around our 12 foot table. Breaks were given to us as parents, when one or more people would step up at the same time to ensure care for all during our break. Errands were run for us. Physical needs were meet at the very least with a meal, but often times groceries, financial gifts and more often than not just the gift of time was given. A listening ear, someone that folded the laundry while I made dinner. Now they are older, it is messier and we are1100 miles away from our family and friends. Most will politely inquire, but have been removed from the day to day, and struggle to understand.
As each day progresses, the only thing that I can stand firm on are the promises of the Lord. I have been faithful. I have been diligent. I have been obedient. I trust that what the Lord has called us to, He will equip us for, and I know that more than anything, the Lord loves these kids more than I have or every will.
My wrestlings come as side effects of living this life. We can't leave the house for outings, my husband and I together, because of the way these adult-ish kids behave when alone together. We have to lock up all things valuable when we do leave the house or pack them into the car and take them with us. We now have to lock the house all the time since we have a desperate homeless child lurking in our safe spaces. We can't drive or shop or worship without the constant thought of who is where, how long they will be there, and when do I/we need to be back in a supervisory role based on the dynamics of the ones that will be around. When we get breaks, over the past couple years, it has mostly been one of us at a time. While I am confident that while I am away my husband can handle the chaos, he never gets to rest when he is away, as he is always worried about my ability to handle the kids in his absence. One of the major issues not even discussed in this post is that the boys have a great dislike, bordering on hatred of any woman in a position of authority over them. Well folks that's me the mom. While I understand it, and do not take it personally (most days) it makes it hard to engage them in any situations where I need to correct instruct or re-direct.
In this all, I can rejoice that it is a season. In this season, most especially being separated from family and friends, we have learned to cling to the promises of the Lord and to depend on each other. I rejoice that in all this, the prince and I, our ideas, values and goals regarding what to do and how to do it for ALL of our kids has been mostly unified.
While it is our goal to stop allowing those that are "special needs" to stop train wrecking our every day, we are not there yet. It could be some time until this season ends. Some days are good, some days are not. Yesterday was not. Seeing my son, lying in a field of grass, almost naked, sun burnt sleeping, surrounded by his meager belongings, brought my heart break to a new and painful level.
Not only did it physically hurt me, it took me on a journey of self doubt, of anger and frustration. I would stop and arrest my thoughts throughout the remainder of the day, but my mind kept picturing him lying on his row of broken down cardboard boxes sleeping. Knowing what I know to be true, God's word, yet still wondering if I did enough. Could I do more now. Should I do more now. Remember almost simultaneously the ways that I have been recently manipulated, and how he has responded with no remorse, not desire to change... and so the loop plays and replays, sometimes more emotionally raw, sometimes more anger and bitterness. Insert the truth.
I wish it was as easy and brushing my hands together in the air and saying. "I'm done!" I wish there were facilities for such persons to get the help we know they need, but there are not. Because for them to get help, they have to recognize that they need help, and then they have to ask for it. I am waiting for that Aha moment, knowing in the depths of my heart that it may never happen.
God's got the details of their lives and mine. I'm along for the ride, and in this I am praying that with each blog I post, each conversation that I have, I will be affecting awareness about mental illness. The deep uglies of a not so perfect life, and how it affects all involved. Knowing that somewhere along the way, the Lord will use our story to speak to others, to offer encouragement, and to let others know that they are not alone on this journey.
It is times like these when I really wish I was making this stuff up...