Mental health difficulties and disorders tend to make life overwhelming ... for the individual and those closest to them. The reason for this is because varying mental health challenges can cause many individuals to live with reactive impulsivity and emotional instability. As a spouse, parent, or family member you're trying to do the best you can to respond well, but you're human and get emotionally exhausted, too. You also can be reactive ... and yes, let's face it, you sometimes over-react and staying grounded can be very challenging.
This is the first of a three blog series to help spouses, parents, and families find healthy balance. This first blog will be a little longer read, however it will be full of practical insight for your journey. Overall, this will not be the answer to every question or difficult situation, however some simple tips to help you stay grounded.
A practical grace refuge vs. the tough love rules
When we're in pain our natural tendency is to get into "fix-it" mode. It's part of the normal grieving process in order to manage the shock, disappointment, discouragement, despair ... and even the hurtful offenses. It is a normal reaction called, "disruptive detachment." The security and comfort is slipping away or immediately gone! You feel like you are losing control and braced for the unpredictable. This will make anyone feel emotionally tense (i.e., "on edge").
The stress to be "normal" when you're feeling broken inside.
NOW, flip the coin to your loved-one, this is the exact battle they are constantly wresting with their mental health difficulty. BUT not with you, it's the battle within themselves ... and they react outward at you.
They feel like they are loosing control of their mind and any sense of their life. They're whole nervous system and brain is in constant "fight, flight, or freeze." No one understands them and everyone, and God, seem distant from their internal battle ... they stay silent (i.e., silent sufferer). They're scared and trying to survive ... because they can't make it stop!
They end up being emotionally reactive and sometimes use poor methods to cope (i.e., drugs, alcohol, wrong crowd, etc). Why? Because the anxiety is overwhelming and they're looking for self-medicating immediate relief ... and it's stressful to be around healthy people who expect them to be "normal" when they're feeling broken inside. It's easier to be with other broken people who deeply empathize and validate their pain. They co-ruminate over the pain while sharing the same method of coping. Yet, it increases their symptoms and the cycle of despair.
The mental health difficulties create a sense of "I'm a failure" which feeds fear and guilt, fear and guilt feeds hopelessness, hopelessness feeds brokenness, brokenness feeds poor coping, poor coping feeds "I'm a failure" ... on and on.
It's rough for both of you and all the fights center on who will have control. No one wins!
The "tough love" and "hit rock-bottom" tension.
Then, it gets more frustrating because you may have been advise it's now time for "tough love" and "to let them hit rock bottom." More rules, more consequences! How did that go? Yeah, more issues and frustration, right?
In family dynamics "tough love" and "hitting rock-bottom" is one-sided by forcing new rules (i.e., standards and behaviors) on another in order to gain control. However, here is what someone hears from "tough love" or "hit rock bottom" ... "Be normal like us and it will be good for you, if not, you will be severely punished and abandoned." All this is motivated by fear and guilt ... fear and guilt is never a healthy motivator and keeps them in the cycle of despair. It makes your life more tense!
I'm sure there are some successful stories from "tough love" and "hit rock-bottom," but I hardly see any of them successful with situations involving mental illness. Why? Because this harsh approach does not empower healthy life, it creates more tension and despair. In their frustration they leave in an unhealthy state of mind and sometimes end up with more traumatizing problems.
A tough-love God vs. an enduring-love God.
It becomes more difficult when God is used to back-up the "tough love" rules. Various scriptures with seemingly harsh tones of "discipline" or "obedience" are used to reinforce these new "tough love" measures. It's okay, remember it's coming out of that reactive shock to try to regain control. Unfortunately, this is a misuse of the scriptures and not a proper translation. However, this ends up setting the the tone of a distant and punitive God. It subtly conveys that there is more of God's blessings for good behavior ... "behave and God will bless us with help and healing." This will ignite a frustrating religious ideology of works and performance. Which if they fail ... now there is a religious cycle of despair.
In fact this concept of God is what has caused many secular organizations, namely social workers, to exclude Christian from the practice. Alan Keith-Lucas was a brilliant social work professor and loving Christian, and in 1972 wrote about this Christian exclusion in his book, "Giving and Taking Help." He writes:
"To the Christian of Law, or of Morality, and indeed traditionally in at least protestant churches, sins are thought of almost entirely as acts forbidden by God. They should be prevented, reproved, or punished. Since these are clearly not helpful methods - people rarely change from being reproved or punished - and since this concept make no allowance for environmental factors or for the working of the unconscious mind, sin became a forbidden word in the vocabulary of helping (i.e., social work)."
Instead of tough love "discipline" or "obedience," we need to remember God's truth is always about grace and opportunity. It is God's loving presence with us in all circumstances (pain, afflictions, trials, or in great success) to guide us into the truth (John 16:13), instructing us by grace (Titus 2:11-12), and seeing the true reality of who we are (Ephesians 1:16-19). God is NOT angry and He is not the tough-love rule, He is the opportunity. God wants to work with desire through grace, not rules by fear and judgment. Through Christ we are enriched to a love that endures through all circumstances and love covers a multitude of wrongs (2 Corinthians 13:7; 1 Peter 4:8). We have to present a God who is patient and working for and with us!
Finding balance with an uncooperative loved-one.
Again, I know this doesn't answer every challenging scenario and I don't have all the answers. We are simply looking at principle ideas that have helped families discover creative ways to navigate their situations.
UNCOOPERATIVE. There is a difference of having a willingness to try vs. absolute refusal. If your loved-one is an adult and does not want to be part of this process and continues to live in destructive habits, then for the sake of everyone's emotional peace, begin to look for more appropriate housing opportunities. You don't want to "kick them out," that fuels more abandonment issues. You want to guide them to other healthy supportive living opportunities. Take the time to search them out in your area. Explain the other options and that there is always an open process to work together in the future. If they leave on their own volition, try to maintain ongoing communication without expectations. Just stay connected as best as possible. Use these tips discussed here to help set new tones within your communication.
Establishing your creative practical grace and pace.
We always encourage to stay focused on letting GRACE guide for more creative, practical, and workable solutions. Try to not let fear and guilt by the motivator.
1. Boundaries for a refuge built on NEEDS, not EXPECTATIONS.
Establishing a boundary is not so much about knowing where the "ultimatum line" is, as it is refocusing on the activity happening inside the boundaries (i.e., refuge). The boundary line is about establishing a refuge space and what happens within it. Thus, the boundaries are the agreement to give each other the space, grace, and freedom to grow. Then, everyone commits to protect the boundaries, not selfishly going beyond it.
Boundaries establish security, not fear and guilt. So instead of focusing on the tough love rules, focus on the grace needs, which can include:
Grace to find ... better professional care and support
Grace to find ... better schedule & routine
Grace to find ... manageable responsibilities
Grace to find ... healthy and respectful communication
Grace to find ... healthy relationships / community support and influences
Grace to find ... ???
This is to help find a new rhythm of life with rewards rather than giving a list of what behaviors you expect with hard consequences (fear and guilt). This will take some time and energy, however it will lend towards building a healthier environment ... refuge. Start with 1- 3 needs at the most, don't pick 10 needs and overwhelm everyone. With a simple process in place then you can add another need as you gain momentum and progress.
2. Empower Everyone.
You want to try working with your loved-one, empowering them with an opportunity of giving and cooperating to the process. You're both working with the question ...
"What's it going to take for us to have our home be a healthy refuge for all of us?"
You are looking to find the right grace and pace for your lives. Empowering is about letting others have ownership to give and receive. This will also benefit building love and trust freely, not demanding it.
Compromise and adapt the need to work for everyone. At first everyone wants "control" to feel peaceful, however work on creative ways to get around certain issues. How can you both compromise to find a healthy middle where everyone feels safe and agreeable? Be creative for each need.
DESTRUCTIVE ISSUES ARE NON-NEGOTIABLE. If there are drugs or unhealthy people involved, there can be no compromise on the issue because drugs will incur legal ramifications and will negatively interact with prescribed medication. As well, unhealthy people have no respect for your loved-one's growth, because they selfishly want them for their own brokenness issues. On the other side, the spouse, family, or family member ... you have to give up on any demeaning attitude or communication that condescends your loved-one. Remember it's creating a safe environment (refuge) for everyone.
EVERYONE HAS TO BE REALISTIC OF THE CONCERNS. A family member cannot suggest their loved-one have a full schedule and routine, all the while their depression is literally robbing them of their physical energy. Or a loved-one cannot ask to keep the debit card, all the while they may be having manic symptoms which can lead to impulsive spending. Be realistic to the challenges and concerns on both sides.
Simply address the need and what it can realistically look like from both ends. Then, when you have a good understanding then everyone willingly agrees to work on it. As life improves these agreements can be adjusted. However, this is more effective because the focus is on giving and receiving, not demanding expectations and rules.
3. To fail is to succeed ... adapt and evolve.
Change is always uncomfortable. Learning anything new always has it's frustrations of not seeing progress. Thus, don't expect this to work overnight or all in one week, in fact, expect failure. Some of the most successful companies are the ones who have evolved and adapted from their failures. This is not going to work all at once and your loved-one may not follow along quickly. However, with this new mindset and with this graceful attitude at home (family relationships) this can help defuse a lot of tension to adapt well. So, allow for mistakes and failing at the process, just restate what you both are aiming for and keep going.
Learn to adapt the need to work better for everyone, don't stay stuck in what's not working. You simply review ... 1. Is this working and 2. How can we make it more workable? Grace is beautiful in any willingness to try! You want willingness to grow, not perfection.
4. Celebrate progress ... even if minimal.
Find creative ways to celebrate the progress you make ... even if you failed more than succeeded. By doing this you are literally making new positive and cognitive associations. The gratitude and celebratory manner (reward) helps to cement it within the brain. A new habit is formed!
Discover ways to have a weekly celebration. Reward yourselves for trying! This may involve having a favorite meal, a fun outing to get ice cream or smoothies, rent or go see a new movie, or some other fun item or a special time together. Make it affordable, don't break the bank. Be creative.
Putting it to practice: a marriage refuge example.
*I've worked with many couples and families in the last five years and this example is not a specific couple or family, but a mixture of many situations I have consulted and have seen work. See how this may relate to your situation.
THE BATTLE ... the wife is frustrated with her husband dealing with depression and anxiety. She says something to the effect,
"Just get over it, you've been like this for far too long! Don't you remember our Pastor teaching to not be anxious or we won't find God's peace surpassing all of our problems. He said 'when life gets hard, you get hard against it' ... 'press onward.' So, come on! We have to take better care of the kids, our home, and our lives! You're on your third job this year and you're about to be fired again. I feel like you're not doing enough, you're suppose to be the provider and spiritual leader of our family. I feel like I'm doing everything for us. You've been through this for years and you got to get past this or I'm done with you."
This enrages him to attack back just to survive with any sense of personal dignity or sometimes he would shut down with no response. Then, he silently tries to beat back all the failure (fear and guilt) leading to suicidal thoughts, "They're better off without me."
THEY FOUND SUPPORT. He began his process of having healthy support and mental health recovery. He was able to regain more personal ground and found hope. Then, she began finding her own support where she learned about his depression and anxiety. She realized how it depleted his energy level and how it made him feel like a constant failure as a husband, father, and a Christian. Her eyes opened wide when she learned his anxiety made him emotionally sensitive and even explosive ... and how she made it worse with her harsh disappointment. She also realized she was focusing on herself, not his real need. She now saw she was fighting more against his depression and anxiety, not his real character. In addition, through their groups they began to discover better emotional and spiritual support and personal self-care.
BUILDING A REFUGE WITH BOUNDARIES. They both began to create a safe place to grow. They scaled back their expectations of life, family, and social life. They discovered their specific needs for a more manageable pace. Both agreed on certain things that needed to happen, however she understood his depression / anxiety created low energy, so she compromised to readjust her schedule to help a little more with the flow of their lives. They both protected themselves emotionally (boundaries) to not feel failure or guilt for missing church or other social events as the crowds would trigger him and make him more emotionally edgy. Most importantly, she stopped having a harsh attitude and the fights faded ... their home became a grace-filled environment ... the created the refuge they needed.
IMPERFECT GROWTH. Now, with all the added stress she at times would lose her patience and he found himself a little tense, too. They both knew they were in a new process and let each other off the hook, regrouped, and kept the process going. They changed and adapted their plan to make it easier for both of them. They worked together and found the right grace and pace for them to grow.
CELEBRATED THE PROCESS. At the end of the week she would go with him as he loved to drive through the countryside ... he thoroughly enjoyed nature and the peaceful drive. For her, he created a home date-night with fast-food take-out, popcorn, and a romantic comedy movie. They found things they could easily do to reassure they were celebrating their lives moving forward.
FOSTERING MENTAL HEALTH RECOVERY. The beautiful part of this is that the husband started having less issues with the "failing husband and dad" guilt and through his support he was regaining a stronger identity of his Christian faith. The husband ended up having a little more energy and even did more than what they agreed upon originally ... because he felt motivated to give, not a demand of him. He improved and recovered more emotional and mental health strength ... and they started attending church again.
Life is not perfect and it hurts sometimes, especially with mental illness. However, we just need to learn to navigate life and mental illness with grace. So, let these ideas help you brainstorm for your own situation.
How have you found similar principles work for you and your loved-one? Comment here or on our facebook page.
Need more help?
If there are no available Family Grace Groups in your area, you can purchase the Family Grace Group Participant workbook in our bookstore and use the workbook on your own for additional education, tools, and support.
Joe Padilla | Co-Founder / CEO
Mental Health Grace Alliance