Sunday, November 28, 2010

Keep Calm and Carry On This Holiday

Keep calm and carry on. That phrase apparently appeared on a rarely used poster that the British government developed in 1939 as it faced the real possibility of invasion from Nazi Germany. Now it's slapped on everything from t-shirts to necklaces. Why is it popular again now? Maybe we all feel like we're on high alert all the time. That's certainly true when you are a caregiver. 

You can't be calm when you are rushing about multi-tasking for all you're worth. The slogan, to me, is an invitation to be a little more sane than that.  To slow down, be more conscious and get more done.

The call to slow down appears many places ... everywhere from Christopher Richards' site  slowdownnow.org  to Bill Hybel's great book, "Too Busy Not to Pray: Slowing down to be with God."

As the year winds to its conclusion, we may find the forces that want us to speed up, speed up, speed up pushing even harder that usual.  So how do we stay slow enough to stay calm?

Richards urges us not to try to slow down quickly.  Even finding one special hour a day ... a slow hour ... can be a start. He notes that this was originally what a lunch hour was for, but all of us who eat over a keyboard know that this has changed.  Maybe slowing down will improve the quality of our thought and our work. Maybe this could be an early Christmas present to ourselves: actually taking a slow hour every day.

For Christians, slowing down has become more of a clarion call over the years as pastors point out the devastating impact of excessive work on families and lives. And then there's this: You can't have a strong relationship with God if you don't spend any concentrated time with Him.

Hybels begins by pointing out the importance of acceptance that an authentic Christian needs to protect his or her time to do God's will.  He suggests taking the time to begin a three-step process:  journaling, writing down your prayers and listening to God. This, too, can be an early gift. 

Slowing down brings calm and teaches patience. Caregivers of people with mental illness need that in abundance. The wonderful book, "Change Your Brain, Change Your Life" by Daniel G. Amen, M.D., also suggested that slowing down, doing breathing exercises and having minute vacations with visualizations, will help the parts of the brain, such as the basal ganglia, where fear and anxiety are sparked. 

So take a step to keep calm and carry on.  You may find a source of strength that you didn't expect.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Holidays When the Relatives Really Are Crazy

The holidays are just about here. For a caregiver of a mentally ill person ... especially the female type ... this means creating an atmosphere of joy and delight in an environment of darkness and despair. It means creating a complicated, great meal while dealing with the impact of additional stress on the family. It means making the best of things, even when the best is painful indeed.

In his post "Family Caregivers: The Silent Safety Net" on Huffington Post, Joseph Nowinski, PhD, notes that families today are overextended even without the issue of caregiving. "As lifestyles become progressively more squeezed by the need to shoulder added responsibilities, families can begin to fray around the edges," he writes.  And how.

Lots of us are in that position.  In fact, Nowinski begins his article by quoting that great mental health advocate Rosalyn Carter:  "There are only four kinds of people in the world - those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers."

So how to deal with the holidays? Just realize that the unrealistic expectations of Joy, Joy, Joy can make things a lot worse for you and your loved one.  The stress can make your loved one have more symptoms, and that can make you even more anxious. I've only found one source of tips: a good book called "When Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness" by Rebecca Woolis. Here are some of her ideas, mingled with mine:

  1. Accept this ain't gonna be pretty.  If you can get rid of your unrealistic expectations and be honest with your loved one and all the other family members, it will go better.
  2. Hey, it's a good excuse to keep the unofficially crazy family members away.  You want a small gathering of your own family.  Period. Otherwise it's too stressful for your loved one.
  3. Keep it short. Keep it informal.  If you have to do the Big Family Thing, let your loved one stay home. Big groups are too much for your loved one, especially when you have to Put On a Happy Face. And do your own celebration. 
  4. If any of your extended family members really want to see your loved one, they know your phone number and where you live. Something private is better.  And try not to be bitter if no one asks. (There's a reason God chose you to be this person's lifeline. Not everyone can deal with this.)
  5. The best answer I've found to the question ... How is he? ... is "About the same." That's tough enough for you to answer.  So please don't put your loved one in a situation where he or she has to answer the question.
  6. If you are having an event at your house, discuss it in advance with your loved one so he or she knows what to expect. Accept his limits.  Accept her choices. Acknowledge his feelings. 
  7. If the person wants to be more visible during the holiday, brainstorm some things in advance.  What will he say when asked how he is? What will she do during the gathering? Is there a quiet place to retreat if needed?
  8. Tell the person whose home you are visiting what you may need in advance.  Please don't put yourself in a position ... helping cook at someone else's home, for example ... where you can't leave with little notice. If you are stuck, have someone ... a sibling or spouse ... available to get the person home if needed. 
  9. All your great preparation may result in your loved one refusing to participate at the last minute. And that's OK. 
If any of you have any other ideas, I'd love to hear them.  Good luck.  God appreciates you, and so do I.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Helping the Hopeless

Let there be hope.  It's one of the essential elements for mental health.

And so it's reasonable that hopelessness and helplessness are a struggle for people who are mentally ill.  When you are working or living with a person who is hopeless and helpless ... who can see nothing beyond the current pain of their lives and who thinks that he or she has no power whatsoever to change things ... it is very difficult and painful for you as well.

I recently attended a training by my church, Vineyard Columbus, on providing support to people in pain.  The first step in helping the hopeless is making sure that the person is not at immediate risk of suicide. If you have any doubts, ask: Are you thinking about killing yourself? Do you have a plan? If the answers to both are yes, assess whether they have the means to do so.  If that answer is yes, call the Suicide Prevention Hotline or 911. Or get someone to help you get the person to the hospital emergency room.

To help someone who is hopeless but not at risk of suicide, attitude is essential. Taking a superior tone (offering real or implied criticism or acting holier than thou) just makes things worse.  Instead kindness is the path. You may not agree with what the person says but you can feel for them.  Vineyard also suggested determining whether the hopelessness is situational ... due to an event that must be grieved, for example ... or a long-term habit of mind. Helping the person toward counseling in either event is good.

When the helpless person is a family member or friend standing in front of you,  these ideas may help:
  • Make a plan of something to do today.  It can be very simple. Getting out of bed and taking a shower is a start.
  • Help them come up with a safety plan that includes who to call when they feel terrible.
  • Help them get to a support network and/or grief counseling.
  • Pray for them.  If they have faith, help them to pray appropriate Psalms that deal with hopeless feelings. 
Above all, keep your own hope. Remember: When the car runs out of gas, it stops. You must fuel yourself with hope by keeping yourself healthy and exercising your faith. Stay close to God. Helping a loved one who is hopeless is incredibly draining and scary, too. You need to stay plugged into God as the Source of all hope. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Practicing the Breath Prayer

The breath prayer -- one way to follow the practice of praying without ceasing -- is also a way I've maintained some semblance of sanity and faith in the bad times.  It's so simple, but so profound.

The first person who actually suggested developing a breath prayer to me was a Hindu. He called it a mantrum.  It worked so beautifully for me that I was pleased to later find out that it is an ancient Christian tradition as well. It is basically a short prayer sentence that you mentally recite as you breathe in and out.

It's so easy to do.  You pick out a short prayer, and soon using it in your daily life becomes pretty natural and routine.  When I wake up at night, the breath prayer is the first thing that comes to mind.

Perhaps the most famous version is the Jesus prayer, which can be traced back to the sixth century: Lord Jesus Christ,  have mercy.

Some people feel that you can "discover" your own breath prayer by ... amazingly enough ... getting quiet and praying about it. Others develop their prayer by imagining a conversation with God, asking for what they really want, and combining that request with their favorite name for God (as in "Jesus give me peace" or "Father show me your love.") You can create a breath prayer out of a favorite piece of Scripture, or just pick a classic like "Come, Lord Jesus."

My breath prayer  is "Come, Holy Spirit," which invites the Holy Spirit to control my mind (such as it is these days.) It's four syllables, and I think it would be tough to go beyond six to eight.

Once you've picked it, practice it.  Say it as you breathe while you are walking or waiting in line. Try it when you are agitated and when you are enjoying the beauty of nature.  And say it as you are going to sleep, after you've figured out five things you are grateful for.  It is truly restorative. A breath of fresh air, no less.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Are you all right?

Staying sane when those in your house are not ... literally ... can be one of the biggest challenges of taking care of people with mental illness. Yes, it's possible.  But you also can end up with the old drop-the-frog-in-cold-water-and-turn-up-the-heat syndrome.  So it doesn't hurt to ask: Are you all right? 

Are you literally feeling sick to your stomach when you have to deal with your loved one with mental illness?

Are you lying about what's going on in your house? I know that many, if not most, people choose to conceal the severity of what they go through.  But if you are lying to cover up scary behavior or conceal violence that is taking place, you need to talk to someone whose judgment you trust about the situation. I also become very concerned when I hear that someone has not told an accountability group ... like a small group ... about the situation at home.

Are you getting isolated?

Are you making decisions from a place of fear or guilt? 

Are you showing symptoms of depression? (This could be sleep issues, gaining or losing weight, losing interest in your favorite activities or even having your own suicidal thoughts.)

We all know that we can't change the person with mental illness.  But we do have the power to change the situation we are in by changing ourselves: taking care of our health, taking much of our own lives back and getting off the roller coaster. So keep an eye on yourself.  If only because you know your own mental health is critical to your loved one's life.