The Foundation is Cracking: An earthquake, a tsunami or the breakdown of a family member? Viewing Charlie Sheen on the T.V. screen, gaunt and pulsating with the energy of an avalanche, full of spit and spin, dark circles rimming incendiary eyes, evokes a sadness and melancholy in me for both him and his family. Though he will be making mega millions from his solo tour, soon to appear at Madison Square Garden, and CBS is showing a renewed interest in bringing Charlie back, “Winning”….what comes to my mind is the family that is collapsing under the weight of mental illness and/or substance abuse. And this is not Charlie’s first family to undergo the ordeal of familial desecration. In fact, it is his third family. Does he need anger-management, hospitalization, or detox? What is a family to do?
Taking Down a Family: When a partner is unraveling, whether it is slowly over time, or overnight, the entire family is brought to its knees. Mental illness and the devastation of substance abuse can seep into the foundation of a family system not unlike a mold or the seemingly innocent creeping of an evening’s fog settling over country roads. Soon no one can see where they are going.
Reality and Support: Recognizing that someone whom you thought you knew so well, is changing, has changed, is the first step towards dealing with a crisis. With many forms of mental illness, particularly mania found in bi polar disorder, and substance abuse, for the afflicted, “denial” is the frontline of defense. Confronting or attempting to reason with the individual in the throes of mental illness or substance abuse, is futile, as their illness or addiction is dependent on a skewed and distorted grandiosity or paranoia. Powerless to exert any influence on the marginalized and accusatory partner, spouses, children, and best friends are left desperate, frightened for themselves, their family and their beleaguered loved one.
Step One: Go Outside The Coupledom For Your Reality: A typical strategy of these illnesses, visible in Charlie’s rants, is to characterize others as misguided or mal intended if they don’t drink the same Kool-Aid. “Help” is seen as “Harm” or delegitimized due to “ignorance” or lack of understanding (remember the grandiosity/superiority theme of the afflicted) or the equally powerful “Don’t you believe in me, trust me?”, hurt and injured twist. Remember, the illness is not only manipulating the afflicted, it is attempting to manipulate you! Therefore you have to go outside the inner circle, separate from your dependence on and trust in your partner, and share with strangers, or acquaintances, what feels like a shameful secret, “I think my wife/husband/mom/dad/sister/brother, is “crazy”!
Step Two: Support Groups: Feedback is Critical. The reality testing needed to confirm that something is very wrong here is often most reliably located in a self help/support organization. Since family members and friends have the slanted view that proximity, familiarity and emotion often color our objectivity, organizations who are strangers to your loved one but no strangers to the illness and addiction can offer the necessary feedback to confirm that something is wrong, and begin the educational and supportive journey needed to deal with and survive this ordeal.
NAMI and AL-ANON: Nami, an acronym for the National Alliance for Mental Illness and the more familiar AL-ANON AND AL-ATEEN, in my opinion, offer tremendous support and education to family members at no cost and are easily accessed in most communities and online. The medical community can diagnosis and treat these illnesses in the suffering individual but for the families to first identity the “illness” and locate a knowledgeable guide to help them make decisions, cope with the pain and fear, and sustain the journey, support groups, often with the addition of an individual psychotherapist, are the best resource.
Courage is Needed For Step 2: Going outside The Coupledom or the family, may seem like a betrayal to your partner or the privacy teachings of our culture. However, as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes several villages to deal with mental illness and addiction. Gather up the necessary courage to contact these organizations, go to the first meeting and DO NOT USE RATIONALIZATIONS AND DENIAL TO JUSTIFY NOT RETURNING!!! “I JUST DON’T IDENTIFY WITH THOSE PEOPLE. THEIR SITUATION IS SO MUCH WORSE THAN MINE.”
I have heard these disclaimers for decades. This is tough stuff! So faced with the personal agony and rawness of an ill partner, in a weakened state from fear and suffering, and inclined to be “private” and invulnerable, exposing one’s self to strangers with your guts hanging out, is the last thing on one’s list of desired activities. Shields of self defense go up, and none are more common than rationalizing, diminishing, refusing, and distancing, aka emphasizing “differences”. Don’t Be Fooled By Your Psychological Defenses….they are not always in your best interests.
Step 3: The New Reality Takes Time: Life changes in a nanosecond! And when it is your life that has changed, because the life of your loved one has entered a very dark tunnel, time is required to adjust to this new reality. Time coupled with learning, support and an unwanted but necessary addition to one’s identity : “I am the wife, mother, sister or brother of a ………………”. Fill in the blanks. You have joined a new club. Not a desirable club, but one that has many other members. Seek them out. Let them help you. To integrate this new world requires a blend of education, courage, and new shoulders on which to lean. For now, you can’t rely on your partner to validate your reality. Nope! But you can rely on others.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011