Predictable Stages Of Emotional Responses To Mental Illness
I. Dealing with the Catastrophic Event
Denial: A protective response giving us time to process the painful events that have turned our lives upside down. We decide all this is not really happening and/or there is a perfectly logical explanation for these events and/or it will pass, etc. We “normalize” what is going on.
Hoping-against-hope: The dawning of recognition and the hope that “this is not what I think it is”—that it is something easier to deal with. Here we assume that if we make a huge effort it will change everything and our lives will go back to normal. This usually does not work; another crisis or relapse dashes our hopes (families call this the “roller-coaster”).
Needs: *Support *Comfort *Empathy for confusion *Help finding resources *Crisis intervention *Prognosis *Empathy for pain *NAMI
II. Learning to Cope: “Going through the Mill”
Recognition: The fact that a catastrophic illness happened to someone we love becomes a reality for us. It is clear something tragic occurred that has changed our lives together. We begin to mark time as before/or/after the event of illness.
Grief: We mourn the loss of the time before illness struck; we deeply feel the tragedy of what has happened to the person who is ill; we grieve that our future together is uncertain. If our loved ones have attacked or rejected us in their illness, we feel inconsolable. Because these illnesses are either episodic or chronic, our grief does not go away: it is “chronic sorrow.”
Needs: *Vent feelings *Keep hope *Education *Self-care *Networking *Skill training *Letting go *Cooperation from system *NAMI
III. Moving Into Advocacy: “Charge!”
Acceptance: Yes, we finally say bad things do happen to good people. We surely wish this trouble had not come into our lives, but it did, and we can accept our misfortune. It is not our fault; it is not their fault. It is a sad and difficult life experience, but we will hang in there and manage.
Advocacy/Action: With a measure of acceptance, we can now focus our anger and grief, and work to confront the system that has often failed us. We are ready to “come out,” to fight discrimination and to change the world that shames the mentally ill and their families. We join public advocacy groups. We get involved.
Needs: *Activism *Restoring balance in life *Responsiveness from system *NAMI
There are some important points to emphasize here:
- None of these states are “wrong” or “bad.” They are normal reactions everyone experiences when struggling to cope with serious illness and trying to deal with critical disruptions in their lives.
- This process is ongoing—for most of us it has taken years. The process is also cyclical; we will start it all over again every time our relative has a relapse, or suffers a serious setback.
- Different family members are often at different places in the cycle, which is why we sometimes have difficulty communicating with each other and agreeing on what to do.
- This developmental account is not about expectations. This is a human process that you do your way. If you know where you are in it you can be gentler with yourself. We think it offers hope to see that we do progress through pain and grief to acceptance.