Mental health illnesses, whether that be eating disorders, alcoholism, or anything else, affect everyone involved in the patients care.
The idea that only the person with a diagnosis is ‘the sufferer’, is wrong, as the effects of mental illness can impact upon children/spouses/parents, to an equal extent.
‘How can you say so with such certainty?’, you may wonder.
Well, having been both patient and family member of patient(s), I can understand, first-hand, the struggle that each scenario results in.
When I was in the depths of my eating disorder, not only was I struggling, but so were my parents. I couldn’t understand why, at the time, because I was in denial that there was even anything wrong with me. Seeing them struggling angered me, more than anything, because I couldn’t comprehend what reason they had to be upset, when they weren’t the ones stuck in my position.
But, fast forward a few months, and now I completely understand how my parents felt, for I have since been in the very same situation, with my Mum.
My Mum, who I love so much, was a ‘high-functioning’ alcoholic, struggling day in, day out with her addiction.
She would go from being the funny, caring, strong woman I was so familiar with, to a complete stranger, filled with hatred, both for herself and for those around her, at the tip of a hat (or, perhaps more appropriately, given the context, the tip of a vodka bottle.)
I was always able to tell when my Mum had been drinking. There was something about her eyes when that stranger I talk of had taken over. The shine would vanish from them. And at these times, I had to accept that I wouldn’t be getting my Mum back until tomorrow, for the stranger wouldn’t leave until she was sober. Until then, all that would be present of her, was a shell.
As I’m sure you can imagine, this was an incredibly hard period, not just for my Mum who was going through the addiction, but for me, too.
I had to watch the strongest woman I know, struggle, not knowing how I could possibly help her.
I was left feeling hopeless.
It was so hard.
In fact, I would even go as far as to say that it was harder than when I myself was directly struggling with my eating disorder.
Because when I was ill, I had some level of control over myself. I knew that if I really wanted to change, if I really wanted to recover, all it would take would be a change of mindset. With my Mum, though, I had none of that control. It was all up to her to decide to recover, and thank god she did. She voluntarily went into a residential rehab center for a week last June, and has not touched a drop of alcohol since.
Whilst going through my eating disorder, and shortly after, watching my Mum go through her alcoholism was incredibly difficult, I am grateful for the experience its given me from ‘both sides.’
I can now sympathize with both people who have had a diagnosis, and people who are supporting the diagnosed, as I have been through both situations myself. As such, I know that neither is ‘easy.’ They’re both incredibly difficult situations to be in- situations that have a profound impact on whole families.
The fact that the impact of ill mental health can be just as bad for family members as it is for the patients themselves highlights the importance of therapy, not just for patients, but for support networks (family/friends) too.
I was fortunate in that my eating disorder recovery involved family therapy. However with my Mum, there was no family therapy involved in her treatment. This gave me no outlet to express my emotions, which, in my opinion, just isn’t right.
Family therapy should form a key part of treatment for everyone, regardless of the specifics of their mental illness. Why? Because, as I have discussed, mental health does not just effect the diagnosed, but whole families, and therefore it should not just be the diagnosed who get access to therapy, it should be the whole family.
To conclude, I definitely think that family therapy needs to be incorporated as a key part of all treatment programmes, across all mental illnesses.
Doing so would help to preserve the mental health of everyone, which is so so important because, as this post has highlighted, mental health does not just effect the diagnosed, but whole families.
So, lets hope more families are listened to.
Lets hope we inspire change.