You Are Not Alone

This incredibly raw and brave and honest post by one of my favorite bloggers about her teenage daughter’s struggles took me back to a familiar, yet frightening, place. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I read it. Because 23 years ago, I was in her shoes. I remember the confusion, the terror and the sense of helplessness like it was yesterday.

I am so grateful that she wrote about it. I am so grateful for the gift she gave us by sharing her story. She reminded us that we are not alone.

If you have a family member who is mentally ill, please read her words. Read the outpouring of love and support in the comment section.

You are not alone.

Hoarders, The Television Show. Helpful or Hurtful?

Okay, well, I’m not exactly up on the latest in popular culture. So while Hoarders is nothing new to many of you out there,  it was new to me. I caught a couple of episodes this week for the first time almost by accident while I was working on the computer with the TV on in the background.

The next thing I knew, nearly two hours had passed. Another Hoarders episode was coming on, and I WANTED TO WATCH. It took real strength to turn off the TV and go to bed, which is what I really needed to do.

My first instinct, honestly, was repulsion. Not at the people depicted on TV or their situation, but repulsion that someone out there thought this would be entertaining. And, to be truthful, repulsion at the level of my own interest in the show.

Full Disclosure: I’m not a reality TV watcher. I’ve always thought reality TV simply elevates the old circus freak show to a broader audience. I know people love it  — from Survivor to Jon & Kate to the Bachelor. Eh. Just not for me.

I know hoarders, and I had one in my family. I had a very difficult time letting go of my mother’s belongings after she died, and I can empathize with those people who react with anger and frustration when people start throwing their things out, no matter how much they resemble trash. I was frustrated and saddened that these people and their mental illnesses would be subjected to this level of public humiliation. I was annoyed that the deeper issues behind hoarding weren’t really explored, and I felt like the hard parts were being swept under the rug. Where was the slow, probably agonizing therapy that I knew must occur for these people to actually get help and get better?

And then, I found this lovely site called the Children of Hoarders. And I watched the video of that lovely man, Jason, telling his story about living with a mother who was a hoarder. And I wanted to cry and scream and hug him at the same time. And I realized that, while I still think the show is simplifying a very complicated problem, it is doing something that I admire. It’s bringing attention to mental illness. It’s giving people hope. It’s telling them they are not alone. It’s telling them they can find help. It is supporting the families of the mentally ill — people who need far more support than they typically receive.

So maybe, just maybe, a television show can help hoarders move past the stigma of their illnesses and take the steps to rebuild their lives. I still haven’t made up my mind about the show. Watch this space as I continue to struggle with the clash of mass media and the depiction of mental illness.

Is Animal Hoarding a Mental Illness?

We’ve heard the news stories about animal hoarders — people who “collect” animals under the guise of rescuing them until the situation becomes uncontrollable. The photos and stories of starving animals living in their own waste are highlighted in the media across the nation.

The media stories tend to focus on the animals, which they should. These innocent creatures are clearly the victims here. But the news media rarely digs deeper to the real problem behind animal hoarding. And maybe we should be asking, What about the perpetrators?

An enlightening story from the ASPCA talks about the deeper issues involved in animal hoarding cases. It describes the root of the problem as “Animal hoarding is a complex and intricate social issue with far-reaching effects that encompass mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns. Victims can include cats, dogs, reptiles, rodents, birds, exotics and even farm animals. While it’s not clear why people become animal hoarders, current research suggests the cause is often attachment disorder in conjunction with personality disorders, paranoia, dementia, depression and other mental illness. The hoarder does not intend to inflict harm on animals, and in most cases, the hoarder can no longer take care of himself, much less multiple animals.”

I found this article particularly interesting because I’ve had a lot of experience with animal rescue operations, and the deepest issues involved in the problem are seldom addressed. I do believe, as does the ASPCA that “the solution lies in supplying hoarders with the resources and tools they need to keep them from repeating their destructive patterns.”

To me, that means mental health resources, something that is in short supply already in this country.

If you know or suspect someone you love is an animal hoarder, please check out the ASPCA’s Animal Hoarding page.

U.S. Army Responds to Suicide Risks

I was fascinated to read this AP story about the U.S. Army’s attempts to address suicide among their ranks. What a brave man Army Spc. Joseph Sanders is for stepping forward and becoming the face of this campaign. I found his story to be inspiring, and at the same time, I suspect it is more prevelant than he knew at the time.

I’ve never served in the military, but I grew up next door to a military base. My husband’s family has a long history of military service, and I have some idea of the type of environment and culture that comes with the military life. I can’t imagine a more difficult combination of elements that could spark mental illness while at the same time limiting a person’s ability to seek help. I found it heartening that the U.S. Army is at least giving it a try.

The pressure in the military to “be strong” is part of the very culture of the institution. It is not limited to any one branch of service, one country or even one era of human history. For the U.S. Army to change the message and try to address the problem is quite the “about face.” (Pun intended. Sometimes I can’t help myself.)

This story hits home for me in a very personal way, because I know a military vet who is currently suffering from depression. He lives the “be strong” motto through and through. In his case, just like many others, it is preventing him from seeking treatment for his illness. For him, I want this campaign to be just the tip of the iceberg. I want him to feel like it’s okay to ask for help. I want him to know that asking for help doesn’t make him weak. In fact, it’s the opposite — it requires great strength and courage to seek it.

I’m pleased the Army is making an effort to provide more mental health services, and I hope they dedicate the resources necessary to make it work. Keep up the good work, soldiers. And to Army Spc. Joseph Sanders, I salute you.

Help for Teenagers Affected by Suicide: Break Through the Static

My local paper ran a story about a new nonprofit organization dedicated to helping teenagers who are affected by suicide. This organization, called Break through the Static, defines its mission as creating “a caring community aimed at helping teenagers survive, heal and grow after losing a loved one to suicide. At Break Through the Static, teenagers will experience a safe and encouraging environment designed to strengthen their emotional and physical health through positive peer and adult relationships, and by joining with other teens to share and cultivate their unique talents and interests.”

Wow, I wish this group was around 20 years ago.

In fact, I find it a little disturbing that it took this long to develop such a group. It shows, yet again, the large hole in support services for people who are directly affected by mental illness.

If you are a teenager who is affected by suicide, or you know one, please check out Break through the Static. What an amazing resource for an under-served group of people. We are not alone.

The Many Faces of Mental Illness: Get Well Soon, Kahlil Greene

Back when I lived in San Diego I was a big Padres fan. I’ve since moved away and the team I loved has been dismantled, as often happens in sports. But I was surprised when I recently searched for Kahlil Greene, of my favorite players, and discovered he’s essentially been forced to retire due to social anxiety disorder (SAD). In the 2009 season, SAD put him on the disabled list twice and he missed 46 games. Kahlil signed with the Texas Rangers for 2010, but his contract was voided because he wasn’t well enough to attend spring training. I don’t know what his current status is or whether he’s being treated.

I don’t much about SAD, just that it’s a type of anxiety. However, I found the Hacksaw article the most interesting because it shows how descriptions of his personality changed over the years. Back in his Padres days, he was quiet and shy, but in rehab he was “reclusive and a danger to himself.” Were the signs of his disorder always there, but waved away because he was such a talented shortstop? Or had things escalated, perhaps because of the demands of a career as a professional athlete? Whatever it was, I hope he gets the help he needs and goes back to being an amazing human vacuum in the infield.

Breaking the Cycle of a Mentally Ill Parent

My sister and I spent a good part of last evening talking about our parents and our childhood. This is not particularly unusual when we get together. She has a better memory than I do, and yesterday she told me a few new stories that I didn’t remember. Even after 20 years of adulthood, she can still surprise me sometimes with new details.

I love these long, introspective conversations where we dissect small events and hypothesize on everyone’s thought process at the time. We are both parents now, so the actions of our parents are interesting to us in new ways. And, probably surprising to most people, it’s not our mother’s death that is the hot topic of conversation. Instead, it is her actions as a mother of small children that we find more interesting, probably because of the number of small children in our lives today.

It feels grossly unfair that our mother is not here to share in this conversation. At the same time, I wonder if my sister and I would be having these conversations if she were alive today. There is a lingering possibility that my sister and I would not be as close as we are today if our mother was alive; that our close bond was forged in tragedy alone. And our mother’s very presence may eclipse these conversations because she would be here to answer the now unanswerable questions.

I realized during this conversation that, even 20 years later, I still harbor some resentment and anger towards my mother. Not from her illness and her death, which were terrible and tragic, but from the very beginnings of our relationship as an unplanned pregnancy and spirited child. This animosity is completely missing in my sister, whose birth and personality meshed better with our mother’s plan for her life. And I realized that my mother’s mental illness, while a significant factor in my childhood, is not the only issue.

I tell you this because a lot of people find this blog by searching for information about the effects of mental illness on children. I can tell you from firsthand experience that there isn’t much information out there. The truth is that my mother’s illness is only one factor of our relationship that still resonates. Her actions as a young mother in an isolated military community with a daughter whom she didn’t plan on are far more relevant in my life today.

Our parents’ actions affect our lives. There’s no doubt about that. But the children of the mentally ill have choices too. I’m no longer a child, and I don’t blame my mother’s actions for any problems that I have in my life. I do try to learn from them, and with effort, avoid repeating the worst of them. I’m responsible for myself now.

That responsibility means I need to deal with that anger towards my mother that lingers more than 38 years later. I have resources. It’s time to use them again. Because that anger may be playing out in subtle ways in my relationships with my own children. I don’t have any control over my mother’s actions, but I have control over my own. Understanding the difference is one of the key elements to recovery. You can’t choose your parents. But you can choose how you parent your own children. Breaking the cycle is hard. But it’s worth it. I’m worth it. And my kids are worth it too.