How to Love Your Mentally Ill Family

Ten impressive techniques from a mom who stays strong as she navigates challenge after challenge

My family runs on a full tank of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Most days, however, I run on fumes — ignoring the 80-percent divorce rate for families like mine.

Still, I retain some bragging rights: My husband is an acclaimed academic, our son is a published poet and an award-winning musician, and I’ve become a best-selling novelist by writing about the force that threatened to destroy us: mental illness.

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The delinquent — as I call him on social media — is a college senior three states away, living with his buddies. This is a huge achievement. When he was eight and his OCD was at its peak, I charted his daily life like a military campaign. I edited out spontaneity and diffused stress. I plotted alternative routes to avoid traffic delays, maintained his bedtime rituals, created elaborate excuses to explain why we couldn’t “do” sleepovers.

OCD is about control — and trying to provide that control leads nowhere but into a high-speed collision with a concrete wall.

Since those days, intense therapy and prescription drugs have played their roles. But OCD loves to slither through the cracks and attach to any family stress or detour in routine. Now that we’ve added aging parents to the mix, there’s a new level of tension in the family, and when one of my guys gets anxious, so does the other one. God bless their empathetic souls.

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For the non-OCD family member, here are 10 top coping techniques:

1.) Know thy enemy. OCD — not my husband or son — is the issue. By reassigning blame, I’m not making excuses for anti-social behavior, I’m stating fact: “This is OCD.” I’m also providing a tool to help others understand. For example, my family can’t cope with delays in travel. Most people can’t, but OCD manifests as stuck thoughts that prevent the brain from focusing on anything beyond the anxiety of being delayed. I find that by saying, “My son has an anxiety disorder, an invisible disability that makes flying extremely stressful,” other people normally understand.

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2.) Don’t be an enabler. Engaging with mental illness on its terms is exhausting and fuels the beast. The delinquent’s OCD involves lots of subtle checking with me — that is the compulsive part of his OCD. For example, I’ll get a text that says: “I have a sore throat, and everyone in the house has been sick. I think I’m getting sick too.” My correct answer should be, “Yes, you’re screwed.” While that sounds heartless — if I offer reassurance such as, “Oh, I’m sure you’re not getting sick,” I’m merely tossing gasoline on a bonfire.

“Before I joined this group, I felt very alone,” said one mom. “No one I knew had a family member with any kind of mental illness.”

3.) Find the right therapist. Under my son’s first psychologist, we careened into crisis. His anxiety kept rising, I kept asking why, she kept telling me I had a great kid. Then everything exploded during a cluster of delays while flying back from vacation with another family. She said we had nowhere to go but medication. I didn’t believe her. She’d mentioned OCD in passing, so I turned to research. This led me to the International OCD Foundation and its amazing list of therapists — by ZIP code — who specialize in treating OCD with tools that work: CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and ERP (exposure and response prevention). The first therapist I contacted is still my son’s psychologist, and I knew within weeks she was the right match for our family. My son adored her, she always took time to ask how I was doing — and I could see the results of her work.

4.) Never rest on your laurels. Keep educating yourself because meds stop working and disorders mutate. A year ago I was a pro at handling OCD; suddenly I was failing. Then I bought “When a Family Member Has OCD” by Jon Hershfield. That book was my jumper cable. It lives on my desk.

5.) Find support, and don’t be afraid to use it. My super secret support group rocks. One member said, “Before I joined this group, I felt very alone. No one I knew had a family member with any kind of mental illness, so it’s very isolating. You fear being judged.” Support groups are family without the baggage — plus, they speak your language.

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6.) Laughter is anxiety’s napalm. My father gave me the best gift: his dark sense of humor. He was a vicar and for most of my teens, an alcoholic. He also quit cold turkey, which takes true courage. Years after his death, I remember his bravery and laughter, not the darkness. It’s hard to condemn courage, and it’s impossible to be anxious while you’re laughing.

7.) An exhausted helper is useless. We’re not therapists, and we’re allowed to retreat to a shelter when a tornado’s overhead. If your sanity is ripping, walk away. For me that means reading, gardening, and drinking gin every Friday with my BFF.

8.) Bad days end. When someone you love whispers, “I can’t go on,” you’re in hell. But to quote Sir Winston Churchill, who defeated the Nazis and won a Nobel Prize while battling mental illness, “If you’re going through hell — keep going.” Celebrate the victories and trust that when you hit rock bottom, the only way is up.

Related: Anxiety in the Grocery Aisles

9.) Positivity is your anchor. In elementary school, our son’s gift as a wordsmith became obvious. I encouraged this by submitting his poetry to magazines and competitions. When he discovered making music was his Valium, I signed him up for guitar lessons. Before long, his true passion emerged: writing and performing his own songs. We added a voice coach — singing lessons became his oxygen.

10.) Own it. Reach out to others; find your voice. When OCD is sucking the breath out of my lungs, I transfer my emotions to my characters and write like a demon. None of us would choose to share our families with mental illness, but I refuse to go quietly into this good night. My first hero came from my darkest fear: What if, when my son grew up, no one could see beyond his quirkiness to love him for the person he is?

Facing that fear helped me find my niche in the writing world. Every book club I visit turns into open therapy and pushes me to hack away at shame, silence, and stigma. I hope that one day, a broken mind will be viewed the same way as a broken body and no one will need to ask how to love someone with mental illness.

Barbara Claypole White is an award-winning novelist and mental health advocate in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Her latest work is “Echoes of Family.”

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