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Living with a family member who has untreated mental illness is like going through a hurricane. Over and over again. Days in advance of the arrival of the bad weather, the pieces of the storm are being assembled. In the world of weather it takes cold fronts, warm fronts, circulation, warm water to feed the storm clouds.

In advance of the arrival of a bipolar storm, the signs are different but still readily identifiable. Overwhelming financial pressures are building from living in poverty– those who are disabled are required to do. Rising tensions alienate friends and family, destroying the network of support that might otherwise be in place. Employment may be lost, friendships abandoned. Living situations, worldly possessions, and even their very lives are at risk as they are no longer able to accurately assess dangerous situations and people. Criminals take advantage of them.

At the same time, the weather channel is turned off for the ill person. Lack of insight into ones own illness causes noncompliance with treatment, exacerbates every single problem. They don’t have any idea a storm is arriving and are woefully unprepared to deal with it.

The person with the illness is left standing alone trying desperately to stay out of the storm, not realizing the storm is within.

Meanwhile, dear family and friends have been pelted by unrelenting rain and hail. The ever increasing winds have buffeted and blown us around. We have been unable to go on with our normal lives because we are doing our best to remain standing. We are damaged and not at our best just at the time when we are needed most. We are exhausted.

This is a common story. The storms can last from hours, to days, to weeks or months. But they always end. What we don’t know is, why? What is the switch, and how can it be turned off for good? The meds help but few people are compliant enough to stay stable, and the side effects are intolerable for many. As a mother I struggle to see the storm for what it is, a medical illness that affects my son’s behavior. The world sees him as abusive, unruly, dangerous, druggie, a thief. I see the little boy I raised who is smart, funny, kind, helpful, motivated. I have to believe he’s in there somewhere. It’s my job. I’m his mom. I love all the parts of him.

I love my friends and depend on them to help me through the storms. They listen, commiserate, support without judgement and give advice when asked. Most important, they are available whether I need to talk or just unplug. They will cry with me or laugh with me.

Some friends who were unequal to the task have fallen away, and that’s okay. I hope they never have to deal with this in their families but the chances are good that they will.

If that day comes in your family, no matter where you are in this country, no matter whether it’s in 4 years or 40, there will be a NAMI affiliate somewhere nearby. Get in touch with them to build your own personal network of support; people with the lived experience of mental illness in the family. They have what you need: HELP. HOPE. SUPPORT.

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