Mental Illness and Substance Abuse … They Stole Her Away From Me

In November 2013 I lost a good friend to mental illness.  Both of us had a nerve injuries to our arm.  I have had a brachial plexus injury since December 2008 and have struggled with the nerve pain since then.  My shoulder and arm were paralyzed for 1.5 years and while I have gained 80% of the movement back, the pain is still awful.  We bonded over the frustration of no one understanding how hard it was to live with chronic pain.

Her injury was much more recent and I felt as though giving her hope that things would get better was my job.  She struggled with deep depression as well as drug abuse.  She was in therapy but still felt like no one understood.  She felt like talking to those around her just made her seem like she was complaining and everyone would get sick of it.  I understood completely what she meant. 

I think most of us with mental illness can understand that though.  After a while, when we tell people that we are down, it just seems like people say, “What’s new? You always feel that way.  Why don’t you do something, go out, have fun, get a hobby, spend time with friends, etc, etc.”  We seem like a burden to those around us.  I think it got the best of her.

Her only escape was drugs.  It took away not only her physical pain, but her emotional pain too.  I feel guilty many times because I feel like I should have done more.  What if I had been there for her more?  What if I had listened more? What if I had pushed her to get into a rehab?  What if I had shown her more hope, and pretended that my life was better and not complained about my pain in my arm so much?  Would things be different?  Would she still be alive? 

Unfortunately that is what mental illness does, it is a vicious disease that tears us apart and lies to us about our lives.  And when substance abuse is involved it clouds our minds even more.  These two things took away my friend.  They stole her from me.  I know she made the decision, but I also know that if she hadn’t been affected by these two diseases that her decision might have been much different than it was that night.  Her outlook might have been much more hopeful.

Despite that she left this world 8, almost 9, months ago, I still think about her all the time.  Sometimes I am jealous that she is not in pain anymore and I still struggle physically and emotionally.  But then I think about all the pain she left behind her – the pain that her family and friends feel.  I look at it and think about what would happen to those around me if I let mental illness win.  I have to stay strong.  I have to keep fighting this battle.  I have to win it – for me, for my family, for my friends, and for her.

When You Have a Family Member With Mental Illness

I know my illness affects those around me.  I know that I have said and done things that have hurt my loved ones.  I am sorry for that.

Today, I saw a post on a site from a family member of someone with mental illness (no one related to me) that said something to the effect of, “What about the family members, we deal with them all the time, we have to suffer all the time!”

I actually had two reactions to this:

-In one way I was actually mad.  You deal with it! Think about me! I DEAL with it. I LIVE with it.  Think of what goes on in my head.  How much I struggle with it. Think about how much I hate to do the things I do and struggle to not do them and fight with myself and feel depressed and manic and suicidal and have no idea what is going on in my head a lot of the time. 

-And then, there was a part of me that agreed with their comment.  Yeah, they do have to deal with us.  They deal with our “drama” of our emotions and ups and downs and hospitalizations and medication changes and whatever else we might be going through. 


So what can family members do to help them when they are having a hard time with us? There are some things that family members can do to help them cope with having a family member with mental illness.  This will allow them to keep from the anxiety, frustration, exhaustion, and burnout that can occur from the caretaking and worrying of their loved ones.

1) Avoid placing blame – You cannot change anyone. You are not a magician.  Just be supportive of yourself and your loved one and look toward the good things.

2) Take time for yourself – set aside time each day for yourself.  Even if it is just 20 minutes that you can get away at first and slowly build up.  Practice meditation, read a book, get out in the sun, go for a walk, do something you love to do.  This will give you some time to relax.

3) Set limits (boundaries) – Learn to say “no.”  If your family members are asking to much of you, just say no.  Take care of yourself first. 

4) Educate yourself – Learn about the mental illness.  Sometimes it helps just to know about what is going on.  If we understand what the person is going through we are more empathetic about their situation and often get less frustrated when situations occur and know what to do during a crisis.

5) Find a support group – NAMI has a Family to Family Support Group where family members and friends of those with mental illness can come together for support. NAMI also has a Family to Family Course that is 10 weeks which helps educate on different mental illnesses. DBSA also allows family members to attend their support groups alongside those that are mentally ill, so it is a mixed support group.  There are also support groups for those with mental illness through both NAMI and DBSA that you can get your loved ones involved in as well if they are willing.

Asking a Question and Getting an Honest Answer

If you could ask someone a question, and they had to answer it honestly, what would that question be?


For me, I would ask them – “How are you?”

All to many times, when we are asked this, we simply say, “Fine,” or “I’m, good.”  We know that usually when this question is asked, people are just trying to be polite.  They do not really want to hear how we are.  Sometimes though, people really do care and want to know.  When we are with friends or family and they ask, sometimes they really do care and are there, sitting in front of us, wanting to know how we are.  But we are so used to hiding it or feeling like we have to be ok, that we lie.  We don’t want to be a burden and so we just go with the flow.  We say what is expected of us, we are fine.

I am so used to replying, “I’m fine,” that even when my therapist asks me how I am that is my response.  Then there is a series of follow up questions, “a good fine, or a bad fine?” – “explain more,” etc. etc.  It has just become such a huge normality for me that no one really wants to hear what is really going on with me that I don’t even think my therapist wants to know, at least not from that start.  I know we will eventually get into it, but I feel like in the beginning you just say “I’m fine.”

One of the most common lies is actually telling someone that nothing is wrong.  Saying that everything is fine. That you are doing well.  It is not making up a story when you do something or creating some random lie to get out of something.  Although these things happen frequently too.  But we are asked frequently, by family, friends, strangers how we are when we are on the phone or out on the streets and the polite thing is to give a quick response so as not to “burden them with our lives.” 

I would really like to hear how someone is doing though.  If I ask you how you are doing, I really would like to know.  To be honest, if I didn’t want to know, I would just simply say hello.  Or if you were a stranger I might nod or even try to avoid you — my social anxiety would get the best of me.  But if you look down or like something is wrong, I would really like to talk to you, to empathize, and let you tell me about your day or week or month. 

Everyone has a story and we just need to take the time to listen to it.  We shouldn’t be asking people how they are just to be polite.  We should ask it with the intention of really wanting to know, really meaning it.  Perhaps this will show to that person that someone cares when they might feel like no one else does. 

Of course, this is just my opinion and others might have a different perspective.  But, if I could ask someone one question and get a completely honest answer back – I would ask them how they are.  I would ask them how they are so that I could hear their story.  Understand their story.  Get to know them.  Be there for them if they needed.  Or even laugh and smile with them if nothing is going on at all and they are having a great day, week, month, or even year!