Last week gifted me with a reminder that family members uprooted by mental illness are often traumatized by their loved one’s mental illness.  It is sometimes hard to remember the beginning, especially for those of us who have been experimenting with various coping strategies and rebuilding our lives as we replant and grow our families in this new soil.

Eight years ago, my daughter had a routine dental procedure that proved to be anything but.  She had her wisdom teeth removed.  One of her sites developed an infection.  At first, it was home treatment and managing pain and then, after several days, she agreed to meet the surgeon at her office.  We met E and her room-mates there.  As luck would have it, E required life-saving oral surgery at Boston Medical Center.  As it turned out, after about 5 days, the extractions unleashed a strep infection.  This from a person who had never had strep prior to the extractions.  E was hospitalized for 5 days, in a shared room, and in this environment for the first time in her life.  Needless to say, it was quite traumatic for all of us!

Upon discharge, she stayed with her Dad and me for a couple of night of extra care before going back to her place.  About 3 weeks later, her room-mate and best friend called to say that she was concerned because E was spending money like it was going out of style!  This is not at all typical behavior.  Later that summer, E was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 because she was in a full out manic episode.  While aware at that time, she shared, “Mama, I see myself saying really mean things to everyone and I can’t stop myself!  It is like I am an observer and not in charge of myself at all.  I am behaving horribly to everyone I care about!” 

Within six months, she was more stable however it was then that the narrative changed.  All of a sudden, she was a victim of childhood abuse and I was not there to keep her safe.  In spite of all of the evidence to the contrary, she stayed with this destructive rewrite of the family experience and estranged herself from us.  Especially poignant is that we were very close; she was a Velcro child and loved relaxing on weekends with us.  She and I would talk on the phone almost every day.  This was a most intensely felt pain to my heart and soul and like so many others like me, one that is difficult to share.

Two years ago, my sister had life-saving surgery and upon discharge, went into a full-blown manic episode, charged me with all kinds of thoughts and abuses, and estranged herself.  This after we were close for years and we were each other’s “go to” person!

Last week, my beloved dog had dental surgery.  Irrational as it is, I felt panicky!  Will I lose him, too?  I became fogged in my mind, unable to focus, nervous, overwhelmed, exhausted and too tired to sleep.  Flashbacks arrived in full fervor. 

Fortunately for me, I recognized the behavior and the trigger. 

I prayed.  I cried.  I allowed myself to feel my feelings and refuse the invitations to get stuck in them.  He is fine, and I am fine.

My message to you?  Do not underestimate the magnitude of your trauma since a loved one has been diagnosed with mental illness.  Know your triggers.  Be kind to yourself.