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Living with a Loved One with Untreated Mental Illness

Let me preface this post by saying this is absolutely 1000% a personal post.

This is about me and my lived experience, starting from birth all the way up to the minute I'm writing this. This is not anyone else's experience but my own.

I'm going to do my best to respect the privacy of my family members but I also want to share the impact their untreated mental illness has had on me. We love our people with untreated mental illness dearly and in our attempts to "protect them", we end up carrying a lot of our pain in silence.

Recently, I ran into an acquaintance. We hadn't spoken in months, but in a neutral way. She looked frazzled when we ran into one another, so I asked her what was going on. She mentioned to me her dad just checked into rehab for alcohol addiction.

I was shocked- I had NO IDEA her dad was struggling with alcohol. She had never mentioned it to me before. My first thought was: "I wish I had known sooner".

I completely understand why she kept it close to her chest, but I would've perceived interactions we had so much differently if I had known the battle she was fighting. She's one of those people who has a tendency to be really blunt and sometimes harsh (borderline cruel at times). For the past year I thought: "damn, she must not really like me". If I had just known this, I would've realized it was never about me. (Note to self, it's never about us!)

I share this to say, these silent wounds we carry deeply impact the way we think about ourselves and how we show up in relationships. Loving a family member with untreated mental illness is one of those silent wounds.

Even as I write this, I'm worried how my thoughts and feelings will impact the people I love. "What if people find out what's really going on? I don't want to embarrass them"

But another voice asks: is that really helping them? is that really protecting them? The stigma around mental illness wraps it in a stuffy, itchy wool blanket. Is anyone really comfortable?

Watching my family members struggle with untreated mental illness is like watching an approaching hurricane: there ain't nothing I can do about it.

I've watched the cycle play out since I was born: tentative peace, then the tension builds, then there's a trigger that no one talks about, then there's the chaos of the behavior, then there's the personal attacks, then there's the crash. And so on and so on.

Every time the tentative peace comes back, there's a thought of "maybe it'll be different this time. Maybe it'll stick."

Then when the chaos drops, there's hopelessness, overwhelm, and exhaustion. Of course we're here, nothing has changed.

I wish this was a post with answers. For me, for you, and for all of us. I wish there was a way to get people to change. I wish I could wave a magic wand and let my family members know I love them and want them to get better- not for me, but for them.

This is a post about learning to live with grief. This is a post about taking that silent pain and making it a little less silent.

Every day I have to remind myself that for my family members: they could get help. Treatment for their mental illnesses does exist. They are actively choosing not to take that path. (an aside: I realize this is not everyone's reality and wish there was a world where this was not the case.)

In my family's case, I think there's a very slim chance that they will ever take the healing path. I think this cycle is what it is.

I'm practicing acceptance as much as I can. Acceptance is a practice in learning to live with grief: practicing boundary setting; practicing staying in alignment even when someone is fiercely trying to throw you off; and practicing healing the stomach aches that come with each new cycle.

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