1) Be informed.
Go to the library or do a Google search to learn more about whatever diagnosis our loved one has. Be judicious, however. Go to reliable websites like the Mayo Clinic, National Institutes of Mental Health. I am proud to be part of the Psych Central community primarily because the information you find here is accurate, responsible and scientifically supported. As you do your research, remember that mental illness falls along a continuum of severity. One person’s depression, bipolar or borderline personality disorder may be quite different from someone else’s.
2) Join supportive organizations.
Before you reject the idea of support groups because you are “not a joiner” or you “can’t relate to those people,” go to at least two meetings. I’d bet my favorite pair of shoes that you will be surprised who is there and what you get from them. Mental illness and addictions touch people everywhere from all walks of life.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI, provides thousands of families with much needed support. NAMI’s mission statement says: From its inception in 1979, NAMI has been dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness. They have a terrific website and local meetings.
Al-Anon also has a great tradition of fellowship and comfort. Al-Anon and Alateen are a fellowship of relatives and friends of alcoholics who share their experience, strength, and hope in order to solve their common problems. There are meetings everywhere, at all times of the day and night, all around the world.
3) Keep healthy boundaries.
Boundaries are hard to maintain when you love someone with a mental illness, but it is crucial. Take time out for yourself. Nurture yourself by exercising, keeping involved in activities that bring you pleasure, getting respite and taking a trip. Keep up your connections to friends. Such actions are not self-indulgent, they are your prescription for good health and resiliency like food, water, and air.
4) Do not work harder than your loved one.
It is their job to do what they can to get well. You cannot make them well. You cannot do their therapy homework. You cannot force them to go to sessions, groups or meetings. As much as you wish you could, you cannot take their medication for them.
Two good books to help you let go, even as you maintain a relationship with the person with mental illness, are Co-dependent No More by Melody Beattie and Stop Walking On Eggshells by Paul T. Mason and Randi Kreger. It doesn’t matter whether or not your mentally ill love is an addict or a borderline personality disorder. The insight and advice in these books are reassuring and practical and transcend diagnosis.
5) Find a therapist for yourself.
Caregivers often get depressed themselves and could use a professional’s eyes and ears to help them gain perspective again. Please do not wait until you are down for the count before you give yourself this valuable gift.