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Helping Someone You Love With a Mental Illness (2)
By: Beth McHugh 2006
By the time Lilly was 15, she had developed an eating disorder and clinical depression. She came from a household where there was a lot of personal freedom but little love. Lilly was a seemingly vivacious young girl—happy, intelligent, and personable, but it was all just a mask. Years of passive neglect by both parents had left her feeling unloved and worthless. Her unhappiness turned to depression, and in a bid to control a life that was swinging out of control, she decided to control her eating habits instead. Lilly oscillated from restricting her food intake to periodic binging and purging. Eventually even her emotionally absent parents noted that something was amiss, and sent her to a psychiatrist to be “fixed”. She spent a year in therapy and was placed on antidepressants.
Fortunately, she later came along to our practice where our first task was to look at what was causing Lilly’s unhappiness. Our diagnosis? Lack of love and attention. Family therapy was called for. Unfortunately, Lilly’s parents decided that Lilly was the one with the problem— an obvious conclusion since she was the only one in the family binging and purging. Yet the problem was a family one, and the family needed to be healed. In this particular case, the family refused to be healed, or to accept their role in Lilly’s illness. Consequently, by the age of 18, Lilly was faced with the choice of remaining in an unhealthy environment or choosing to leave. She chose the latter.
Lisa was sexually assaulted and developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which severely affected her life, leaving her unable to work for a period of time. Fortunately, she was lent a book on the subject by a friend so she could better understand her condition. Lisa also showed the book to both of her parents, so that they too could better comprehend what had changed their daughter from a happy, successful young woman to a quivering mess. Lisa’s father refused to read the book outright, saying that he “knew dozens of people with this disorder and nobody liked them, so she’d better get over it.” Lisa’s mother seemed a little more approachable and took the book to read. However after many weeks, Lisa asked her mother how she was progressing with the book, as she wanted to return it to her friend. Her mother stated that she hadn’t actually read the book as “you know reading gives me a headache”.
Lisa was devastated by her parent’s lack of interest in her. It took a lot of time in therapy for Lisa to realize the obvious: her parents could not deal with the situation so they rejected the proffered information. Unfortunately in doing so, they also rejected Lisa.
Of course, neither Lilly’s parents nor Lisa’s parents would ever admit to having behaved in a destructive way. The pain that both these young women suffered was made all the more acute because it was done by close family members.
Happily, not all friends and family react as Lilly and Lisa’s
parents did to the specter of mental illness. In articles to come, we
will look at how you can best help your loved one, and best help yourself
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