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Grief & Mental Illness

Chapter 19 of “Talk to Me I’m Grieving” is called “Grieving the Living” it begins with this:

“Sometimes we grieve for a person who’s still here with us. They could have a terminal illness that drags on as you watch them slowly come to the end of their life.
There could be a debilitating disease that makes them frail and incapable of taking care of themselves. It could be Alzheimer’s, MS, ALS, or a mental illness that changes them. Or they could have substance use disorder.”

It's difficult to imagine how painful this type of grief is unless you've experienced it. Currently, I am experiencing it with a dear, precious friend. I’ll call her Jane. 

Jane is intelligent, warm, kind, beautiful, considerate, sweet and fun. Trying to describe Jane today, I'd say she's scared, confused, she can be violent, she yells and screams, she hears voices in her head, she's lonely, desperate, and lost...Jane has a debilitating mental illness.

It's not her fault. Some people don't understand that and think she can control it by taking her medicine consistently. Guess what? When your mind isn't under your control, it's hard to stay on top of your medications. So many things can be a trigger to stop taking them.

Its common for people with mental illness also have substance use disorder. From my years of witnessing this with countless people I’ve met or heard about, substance use comes as a result of mental illness. I’ll use my son, Keven, as an example.

From childhood, Keven suffered from depression and anxiety. When he first started taking meds they made him gain so much weight that kids started bullying him which caused worse depression and anxiety so he stopped taking him. Things went well for a couple of years but when he was 15 he discovered that drugs and/or alcohol made him feel GREAT. And when he was 17 he found his “true love”, heroin. Heroin was the answer to all his problems. He felt great, life was good as long as he could stay high. 

It didn't take long for his drug use to become all consuming. His daily goal was to obtain money to buy heroin (he switched to fentanyl the last 2 years of his life). He was in and out of jail, rehabs, prison, and life became a living hell for him.

In the rare times of sobriety he would take the right medications but nothing made him feel as good as the effect of the heroin and he always went back. Half an hour before he took his life he said to me, “Mom I will never be able to stop taking drugs, I hate living like this”. 

I don’t know what triggered Jane to stop taking her meds and possibly use drugs (not sure but likely). I can’t blame her because her mind is not her own. 

I grieve our friendship, I grieve for her and her family and friends who are devastated by what her life has become. She has periods of stability but they usually last for 6 months or less. It's been going on for years. I will visit her (she’s in a facility) and the conversations are slow and difficult, but she always hugs me several times during the visit and says, “I love you” which reminds me that she’s still in there fighting the literal demons in her mind. 

Please be sensitive to anyone you know that is grieving someone with mental illness. It's difficult for families to talk about, you may not even know what’s going on. The stigma against substance use disorder and mental illness continues today. We don’t judge someone with a physical disability because we know it wasn’t their choice - it's not a choice for our loved ones with SUD or mental illness either. 

Tears flow as I type this for several moms I know who are going through this with their children. They've lost the person their child once was. It’s heartbreaking for a parent to witness this in the child they love and had hopes for. In some cases, it makes the parent suffer daily because their child lives with them and the relationship is complicated or even abusive. It's so unfair, but it's a reality with very few solutions, if any. 

There isn’t enough of the right kind of help available for those with mental illness (homelessness is a vivid reminder of this). I think we’re doing a bit better than we were years ago, but it's still not enough. I wish I had the solution. 

So I share this today because I’m heartbroken for Jane, for my friends that live with this daily and for myself…because Jane was someone I spent time with weekly in person (that’s rare for me) and I MISS HER and worry about her and her future. She's still alive, but those that love her feel like they've lost her.

4 commenti

Thanks for this sensitive post Barbara. By the way, after having read through all the fine points and talking to my friend, who works with homeless in Orange County, I will be voting for proposition one on March 5. It's not perfect because it takes money from local municipalities, but my friend who works here in Orange County said, the big upside is that it will provide some housing for homeless. Perspective is that without this, it's nearly impossible to deal with homeless issues.

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Risposta a

I agree about that proposition. Its such a complex issue.

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Thanks for the reminder as lately I have wanted nothing to do with a family member who has a substance abuse problem and likely depression. Thanks Barbara for making the world a better place.

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LEE Varon
LEE Varon
17 feb

This is such a moving post! Thanks for your honesty! It is important for those grieving someone who is still living to know they are not alone!

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