Sunday, October 16, 2011

When Love Is Even More Patient Than Usual

I'm taking an e-course titled Contemplative Discernment ... it just started so I think you can still sign up ... that asks students to spend each day contemplating the famous words found in 1 Corinthians 13. "Love is patient.  Love is kind,"  Paul wrote. 

The words are read at many a wedding. But they also would be appropriate for the moment when you learn that a loved one has a diagnosis of severe mental illness.

I wrote recently about the need to help our loved ones understand that they are not only their mental illnesses. How hard is that? Wow. 

In the book, "A Balanced Life," Tom Smith has several good suggestions for implementing two strategies: minimizing the negative impact of mental illness on self-esteem and maximizing the positive impact of, frankly, love.  You say nothing that adds to the person's feeling that they are worthless because they are mentally ill.  And you create a climate of acceptance, openness and respect.

Of course, people with mental illness get plenty of negative feedback that you can't control.  And some illnesses feature the charming symptom of grandiose self-esteem. (In this case, the kindness is helping the person be more realistic.) Still, the only person you can control is you, and you can make sure at least that you are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

This is where patience and discernment come in.  You have to learn to separate the person from the illness.You can't tolerate unacceptable behavior. But you need to set reasonable expectations that are based on a realistic assessment of what the person can control. When the behavior is out of the control and the person can do nothing about it, you need to get help, plain and simple.  Otherwise, try these steps:

  1. Don't spend much time looking back on what the person was capable of doing before the illness.
  2. Maintain a positive attitude as much as possible. 
  3. Don't take insults, anger or disrespect too personally.  But don't ignore them either. If your loved one is becoming volatile or violent, get help. And don't stop until you get actual help. 
  4. Respond patiently to symptomatic behavior. 
Love bears all things, Paul writes. One of the most profound impacts of having a loved one with mental illness is the growth in your own ability to love. 

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