To the Loved Ones of People With Chronic and Mental Illness


Recently, I was talking with another spoonie. She was talking about the stigmatization she faces, not only from the outside world but from her own family regarding her mental health diagnosis. Her family keeps telling her “just be stronger,” “just get it together,” and my favorite, “can’t you just make yourself be happy?”

Let me explain something very clearly:

The chronically and mentally ill do not choose to live this way. We do not choose to have our illnesses. We do not choose to have limitations placed on our lives. We do not choose to lay in bed all day. We do not choose to cancel plans for the hell of it. We certainly wouldn’t choose depression and anxiety for ourselves, or migraines or any one of the thousands of other conditions.

Do you think we “asked” for this? That this is the life we would choose for ourselves?

If it were up to me, I would choose a 28-year-old, active but healthy body with no mental illness or any of my other debilitating conditions. I think I would leave my congenital heart condition, because the scar is pretty cool.

I can say with confidence, because this is how it is with many of us spoonies, your loved one probably doesn’t want to live their life like this and would not have chosen this life for themselves either, and you constantly putting them down for things they can’t control, is definitely not helping.

We are sick. We have medical illnesses. We have legitimate, life-altering diseases.

Mental illness is a disease. It’s an illness in our brain, arguably the most powerful organ of all. It is not something we choose for fun. Laying in bed all day while in a depressive episode is not fun. Having so much anxiety that all of these hormones are flooding your body and pushing you into panic mode and telling you that you aren’t good enough, the terrible “what ifs” and worst case scenarios flashing through your mind all the time — it’s not fun. It is terrible. It is exhausting.

But it doesn’t make us less than you; it doesn’t make us weaker than you.

And as unkind or judgmental as others might be to us, we can be 100 times harder on ourselves.

The things you say stick with us. They can repeat in our heads like an old, terrible cassette tape. We already have challenges with our thinking, and if you are going to be unsupportive, then I’m sorry, but just stop. 

The mentally and chronically ill need support. We need our family and our friends. Many of us have an online community we are part of (if you haven’t found a good one, keep searching — they are out there). We need you, our support system, to believe us. To trust what we are feeling is real, and that we are doing our very best.

Every day, we do our very best. But when that’s not good enough, maybe it’s you who needs to change your expectations.

We do what we can, when we can, always doing our best — but we can often fall short.

And believe me, that makes us feel worse than it does you.

At times you may feel burdened. You may feel it will never get better. You might feel bitterness and resentment. That’s OK. That’s normal. We all feel that — the patient and the loved ones.

But still, just love us. Don’t criticize; don’t judge. Just love us.

And please, accept us where we are. We all hope to climb out of the dungeon one day, but that day might be a long time coming, and possibly even longer without support.

If there’s one thing I can ask you, the family, friends and loved ones of someone with a chronic or mental illness:

Educate yourself.

Learn about our condition. The more you learn, the more you can understand us and hopefully be able to empathize (note: I did not say sympathize).

I often recommend organizations like the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to persons living with mental illness and their families, and there are so many wonderful (though also a lot of terrible) support communities on the internet. With the internet, you don’t have to even leave your home to get support. If you check with your local city’s website, they should have a list of support groups.

Please, please do this. Educate yourself, support yourself, so that you can support us.

This is a hard life. It is ups and downs, a hell of a rollercoaster ride. We can’t do it without you. Without your support, we may never be able to do it.

We are not different people; we are the same person you loved in the first place. Work with us, not against us. Support us. Love us, even when we don’t love ourselves. Especially when we don’t love ourselves. Ask how we are doing, in a genuine manner. Respect our limitations and our boundaries. Don’t push us — doing too much can actually make us worse (for some people, myself included).

Some of the comments on my articles indicate there are people out there without any support system, and I encourage them to seek out resources. The internet is full of resources, and a simple Google search can help you find them. There are resources that are different depending on the city and state you live in, but there is always help. It may not be a family member or friend, but there is a whole network and system out there to help.

And yes, the system is broken. The system needs help. Be patient. Eventually, they will get you in. Don’t let your pride stop you from feeding yourself because you don’t want to get food stamps. There are even resources for the utility companies and charity programs out there for medical bills.

You can do this. Even if you have no support system, you can create one. Start by finding a therapist and looking into resources in your local area. If you can’t afford a therapist, there are cheaper, online alternatives with licensed therapists, or a website like 7 Cups of Tea (they are not licensed professionals, but they are free).

But I repeat: You can do this.

We all can do this. It sucks sometimes, this thing called life, but whether we are the patient or the loved ones, we have to weather the storm and hope for the rainbow at the end.

Image via Thinkstock.

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