Friendship and Mental Illness: Belonging to "Club Meds"
My son Ben, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at age 20 after five years of confusing onset symptoms, has often seemed "frozen in time" in this phase of recovery; emotionally and cognitively stuck at the age he had been when the symptoms began during high school.
Despite three relapses during this near decade of stabilization (all due to instances of refusing meds), Ben has been in recovery most of those years and has progressed in many ways, as I wrote in an earlier post, Mental Illness Frozen in Time Can Thaw.
But, until recently, Ben had few friends and I wondered if he would ever get that particular joy back in his life, or when he might reach the stage of self-acceptance that is crucial to healthy friendships.
Would he ever again regain what he had before schizophrenia set in; the simple joy of having people with whom he could share a meal, see a movie, laugh and talk, or just hang out?
Recently, the answer to that has been: yes. This has happened in the 18 months since Ben Behind His Voices was published and it's the happiest epilogue I could ever write.
Self-Acceptance and Mental Health Medication
[caption id="attachment_1309" align="alignleft" width="134" caption="Friendship Helps Healing"][/caption]
Before this year, Ben had regained many things: good school grades, full family participation, sobriety, even part-time work. But outside of these activities his phone seldom rang. When he left his residential facility in 2011, his social world shrank even more. A big part of this is due to stigma. He lived in fear that possible new friends would somehow discover that he takes meds to stay stable, and that they would judge him, make fun of him, ditch him. And, yes, that does happen.
But lately, it feels like Ben is somehow getting back some of the years he missed in his adolescence when schizophrenia took over. Lately, texts and calls are coming in from people he has met at school, at meetings, at Starbucks. And, for the first time since schizophrenia, some of these friendships are lasting past the first "date."
Sometimes, they even stay as friends after they learn that Ben is taking meds. That is the biggest miracle I'd hoped for.
Why? Well, many of these friends take meds too. And, wonder of wonders, they are learning not to judge each other - or themselves. They compare notes. They cement the self-acceptance by being open with each other. And, by connecting in this way, they enhance each others' sense of self-worth.
Fight Mental Illness Stigma - and Help Friendships Bloom
Slowly, and hopefully, we can all learn that having to take medication is not shameful, does not make anyone inferior. It
simply IS. I need Vitamin D supplements, Prilosec, fish oil, and sometime anti-inflamatories. I don't like it, but I need it. My friend needs her insulin. Another friend is undergoing chemotherapy. Her son reaches school goals with the help of Concerta for his ADHD. My husband needs his allergy treatments. Sure, there are other elements to our health (good diet, life structure, exercise, etc.) - but the meds help too. Brain, liver, joints, or heart - if meds help us reach our goals, I am grateful they exist. And no one should judge me for it - particularly people who don't know anything about why they help.
And, we all need to know we are not alone. The more we stop thinking that medical treatment is some sort of shameful secret, the more we can move on and see the whole person.
My son's treatment has helped him regain some lost years. Reducing the fears that he will lose all his friends if his "medication secret" is revealed helps him relax and clears his brain to focus on other things with his friends - like discussing the Super Bowl, taking a walk, playing Boggle, working on projects for school.
It's "Next to Normal" and I am thrilled - and surprised - to see this new step.
The Value of Patience
To all families dealing with mental illness in a loved one, let me add this important word to the advice I've given before in this blog ("SEARCH"= Support, Education, Acceptance, Resilience, Communication, Hope/Humor).
That word is Patience.
It works best, of course, when the other elements are in place - but recovery in mental illness can never be rushed. Encouraged, perhaps, and nurtured - but not rushed. That includes hoping and waiting for your loved one to regain abilities, experiences and accomplishments that may have seemed lost forever - and, happily, for Ben, that has recently grown to include friendship.
I am amazed, happy, excited for Ben - and with fingers crossed that he can continue, however slowly and carefully, down this path to self-acceptance, community, and belonging.
Even if it is to "Club Meds." So what? When we have friends, everything is easier.
Kaye, R. (2013, February 8). Friendship and Mental Illness: Belonging to "Club Meds", HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, August 15 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/mentalillnessinthefamily/2013/02/belonging-toclub-meds-friendship-and-mental-illness
Author: Randye Kaye
I happened upon your post in the middle of the night. I got up to check if the schools are going to be closed tomorrow and couldn’t fall back asleep. My sister who is mentally ill just spent the week with us. Her biggest complaint is her lack of friendships. She said, that outside of the family, she has very few conversations with adults. A once very popular cheerleader, she also seems stuck in the glory days of her youth. It was interesting to read that your son seemed stuck as well. I wish we had a kinder society, but because she dresses a little unusual at times, and seems off, people tend to shy away from her. She has been on medication for thirty years and understands that medication for schizophrenia is a blessing from God. I hope she never goes off. Perhaps you could start a friendship website where adult schizophrenics could post to each other. It would have to be anonymous because, knowing my sister, she would be very fearful of the other people posting. But, I think it would be most beneficial and help ease some of the loneliness. There are certainly degrees to this disease and many people, my sister and your son, could use some “normal” friendships with individuals who are struggling along a similar path.
Hi Julie - thanks for commenting here, even if it was the result of insomnia!
I have a few suggestions for your sister that have helped others I know who have schizophrenia to find community and friendship. Your sister is at an advantage in that she seems to have insight into her illness, and knows she must take meds and that they work. There is a lot she can do to engage with others, and I hope it helps. My son generally hides his diagnosis from others, though with friends he comes to trust he will tell them he is "on meds." Those who don't judge are fine with it.
Some things your sister might consider: Check out the "schizophrenia" community here on healthy place. There is also a terrific publication completely written and produced by those with schizophrenia - it is called NYC Voices.
Schizophrenia magazine also has excellent articles.
And, saving the best for last, I would highly recommend she get involved in NAMI as a consumer-in-recovery. Many people I know who live with mental illness have found purpose, community, and friendship by getting involved in helping others, possibly as a presenter, mentor, teacher, volunteer. There is a chapter in my book Ben Behind His Voices where I describe taking a (free) NAMI training to become a "Provider Education" teacher as part of a panel of consumers, family members and professionals. I experienced for the first time what it felt like to feel left out because I did not take meds - that's how easily the consumer panelists talked, shared, and even laughed about their symptoms and treatments.
One of the hardest parts of the illness is the isolation - I hope your sister will find some steps here that are useful. Tell her I admire her courage!
How do you deal with an 18 ye old with mental illness and his inappropriate talk.
I wish I had all the answers, but if your child has a mental illness, he needs treatment and you need support - NAMI is a great place to start. We learn to set and enforce limits!
This is an excellent post! You have written so honestly and clearly about the need for some of us to take medications and the fact that that is nothing to be ashamed of. Taking medications for mental illness is not a sign of weakness, and you have reminded us of that. Thank you!
you're welcome, Tina! and thanks for taking the time to comment :)