This afternoon waiting at the dentist office I skimmed through a People magazine. An article about a family dealing with mental illness caught my curiosity. The story described how one sister supported her younger sister who has a mental illness. The two ultimately wrote a book and started a foundation to raise awareness for mental illness.
What about all the people struggling with mental illness who don't have such an outspoken sister? What about the patients who would rather disappear in a hole than being public about their mental struggles?
Mental illness is slippery. Mental illness is wiggly. It escapes through the cracks of the material world. If our first amendment ensures freedom of speech, our thoughts are definitely free. When do thought-patterns become an illness? Where does the diagnosis begin and individual, acceptable habits end? How big is that estuary where healthy and pathological thought-forms mingle and in which direction is the current running?
Growing up with a mother who has been dealt the card of mental illness, I have asked those questions as long as I have had a developed frontal lobe (late teens, early 20s). At the same time, my inherent survival mechanism has prevented me from asking these questions overtly.
Mental illness is volatile. There is no obvious pattern to understand and work with. You never know what and when the "story" switches from "kind of normal" to "out of control." Asking these questions in the presence of the person dealing with a mental illness feels very much like lighting a cigaret in a factory for explosives. One spark taking off in the wrong direction sets the whole construct, the whole gestalt, on fire and you blow up with it.
In order to reflect on our mental status and situation we need our mind, our reflective ability, which is exactly what is in question in the first place. As you can see, the circle is vicious. Mental illness as a trap, a room with no exit.
I have read about, studied, reflected and researched mental illness in order to better understand, in the hope to find a small thin life line that would allow me to better understand and ultimately support my mother and her inner struggles.
Since there is nothing "bad and threatening" showing up on an x -ray, MRI, PETscan, CTscan, Ultrasound, or palpation, the struggles are unreal and at the same time very real. Chasing ghosts seems like deer hunting compared to finding a meaningful connection to and a way to support a loved one with a mental illness.
Donating $$ to a foundation seems a bit like buying an insurance to protect myself from flipping to the "other side" of the scale of mental health. Raising awareness and organizing financially based activities also takes my mind off the painful reality of not knowing my mother now or ever. Don't get me wrong, this larger scale work is important. It's just one part of a bigger story. Doing something good FOR her "cause" to me is a very different direction of energy than connecting WITH her. The energy going into the "FOR" activity is directed outward, away from myself and my mother. The energy going into the "WITH" her activity is directed toward her and with this also back to myself. I have to muster the courage to stare into the deep dark hole and live with it.
Since we know ourselves first through our mothers (Victor Gallese's research and work with mirror neurons explains this in depth - fascinating work) I very early on found a way to "read" and "hear" my mother, the woman she was and is at the core, deep underneath the murkiness of mental illness. As infants we see ourselves reflected in our mother's faces who normally would look back at their infant in an animated and joyful way.
Through the experience of endlessly staring into a black hole I learned that you can find light (information) even in the darkest places. Experiencing the void, the emptiness often takes a disciplined and long meditation practice. I had the gift of having been born into this experience.
The non-doing, non-seeing, non-hearing allowed me to heighten my senses and ultimately learn to read the kinesthetic world and story of the person in front of me.
One way to access, connect and communicate with a person who is dealing with such mental volatility is by "reading" their body-language. The body always tells the truth. It holds our stories in each cell. There is no hiding even if we try really hard. Then the hiding becomes the story most visible.
It seems hard to rely on words coming from an unreliable mind. I remember days without words. When there are words, you don't know what part of the person they came from, the healthy loving part or the ill part. By practicing the art of listening with your eyes instead of your ears you learn to "read" the person underneath the surface of their mental volatility.
Even under "normal" circumstances with healthy minds communicating only 20% of communication is verbal, the rest is kinesthetic. When a picture says more than 1000 words, a movement, our body language, says more than 1000 pictures.
Movement and body-language is rich and direct. In the context of communicating with a person who has a mental illness it mostly is one-directional. In general our thoughts and intentions precede our actions. A person with mental illness often defies this logic. It seems that the body needs to compensate for the volatile mind. You might notice an armoring of the body that is more than the extra belly fat created by medication. There seems to be a stillness and muffled quality of the movement language which makes the listening and understanding even more difficult. This muffled removed quality forces you to heighten your kinesthetic listening skills even more. Reading between the lines and hearing the needle drop in the haystack is possible with much practice.
At the same time, this heightened awareness tends to make you, the listener also more vulnerable. The more we need to lean in to the stimulus, the more vulnerable we become. In the same moment the volatile mental state can punch you in the face any second. How is it then possible to lean into the communication and at the same time protect yourself against a sudden shift, a mental stumble, that causes the lashing out?
It's as possible as martial art. It requires mindfulness, a centered body, a strong core and light feet, all figuratively speaking. If any of these qualities is a bit off, boy you do fall on your face or rather in that deep black hole. Like any skilled martial artist, you can get up and recenter.