We are all seeing an increase in mental illness. There are more people who don't have a mental illness who are feeling distressed and grappling with difficult life challenges. It can be difficult to figure out how to help someone who is distressed. It can affect our well-being.
Contact with his daughter Averil has been very difficult for John. He sees and hears her struggle with anxiety and depression, which has come to a head in the last six months, and tells me how powerless he feels to help her. His support of Averil feels like a roller coaster. Ups, downs and arounds are followed by more ups, downs and arounds He is hit with strong and often conflicting emotions right in the middle of the ride.
Feelings of distress, sadness, worry, guilt and often, hopelessness are brought on by contact with Averil. On another strong emotion, anger. John wouldn't reply to calls or text messages because he was afraid of what Averil would say. John loves his daughter so why is he avoiding her. He tells me how sad it is.
The hardest parts are the feelings of helplessness and despair. I feel despair that this adult seems childish and at 30 years old is unable to build herself a stable and fulfilling life. She burns out relationships and doesn’t stick at any jobs. And I feel helpless because I’ve learned that handing over money is a mistake; giving advice is pointless; and doing things for her will be misconstrued. But at other times I see flashes of the happy girl she was. I’m her father and it’s hard not to wonder, ‘Is this somehow my fault?’
For any of us with a partner, child, friend or family member who is struggling, figuring out how to support them can feel like walking a tightrope. I'm sharing John's experience with permission. Our most important goal for him has been for him to show love and care for his daughter.
The model he has found helpful is called dialectical behavior therapy. Balance between opposites is encouraged by DBT. We find it hard to see the grey when we fall into a habit of "all or nothing" thinking when we are dealing with difficult experiences.
Sometimes John wants to help his daughter, and other times he wants to avoid her. Each of these dual realities are valid and true. One of the strategies that has helped John to get more comfortable with this dual perspective is holding the "And".
John and I have been talking about this for a long time. It's possible to find positives in her life and in his relationship with her, as well as experience distress, sadness or worry about her future. John is learning to acknowledge the dual states, sit with them, and then take steps to tackle what is in his control as an act of active acceptance.
Late-night calls are off limits as they interfere with his ability to sleep and make the next day difficult for him. He has given himself permission to take a day off from contact, sometimes a weekend or a longer period of time. He will let Averil know in advance that he won't be there and that he wants to take time out to care for himself.
Other steps that John has taken that are in his control and have been helpful for him are taking a course to learn more about mental health and joining a support group for parents. The hobby is something he has control over. He gets a time-out and a rejuvenation from these times.
John's relationship with Averil is not healed after many months of trying out these steps. John has been able to observe the ride with more compassion due to the fact that it is still there with its ups and downs. He has freed up emotional and cognitive space to support Averil in new ways by taking time for himself and embracing the opposite emotional states.
Being able to hold the "and" is a gentle way to find peace in the grey area of life.
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