Lavender-Infused Bullshit: A Post on Supporting Loved Ones with Mental Illness
a post co-written with my family
Mental illness is shit.*
It’s cruel and squirrely and steals joy from people who suffer from it. It sneaks up on you in a class you’re so very excited about and tells you lies that you don’t belong. It claws you into the corner of your own birthday party. It pins you to your bed on the first sunny day in March.
And perhaps worst of all, we live in a culture that doesn’t well understand this category of illnesses. So while people suffer from these illnesses, culturally we have a hard time seeing their suffering and caring for one another well. Let me be clear: If a friend or loved one is hospitalized or receiving treatment for mental illness, it is a *real* illness. Behave accordingly. Send all the casseroles and cards and prayers and flowers you would with a physical illness.
With mental illnesses, people say some bafflingly foolish things. We’ve had folks say “try smiling more” to a loved one with treatment-resistant depression. Now, I believe in grace, but this is some lavender-infused bullshit. As for me and my house, we’re not clinical experts in mental illness, but we’ve had lots of experience in suffering and accompanying. If this guide can help you and people you love, then good. If not, feel free to toss it in the donation bin. Here’s some of what we’ve learned:
Gifts you receive when you’re a woman with mental illness:
- Adult coloring books (now, some are great and a good distraction, but you cannot color your way out of a brain chemical deficiencies any more than you can puzzle your way out of cancer. We’re also big fans of these “Paint By Sticker” books)
- Fuzzy Socks
- Essential oils
- Colored pencils
- Assorted teas, especially chamomile
- Knitting supplies
- Weighted blanket
- Stuffed animals (but legit, these sloths are great- nice weight, good plush)
- Inspirational stickers
- Gratitude journals
- Anything with #blessed
Please understand, it is wonderful to receive these gifts. We love getting a care package. It’s a sign that we are remembered. Sadly, I don’t know what men are gifted and fear that their mental illnesses go unseen. For us, some of the things that have been the most meaningful have been photo books that recount good times together, drawings, Spotify mixes, and a hand crocheted blanket. We keep a cancelled check on our fridge from some friends who supported us during a previous mental health crisis. They thought into our lives and made their best guess that we would need extra dog walking. When thinking about a gesture for someone who is sick, remember- this is someone you know and love. Gift them something that reflects that- if you all went to the Lilith Fair together in 1999 or Rock the Bells in 2004, then hunt down that vintage t-shirt, and maybe something useful from the list below.
Lob support in, share concerns out.
There’s a great essay and diagram from a few years back about responding in a crisis from Susan Silk and Barry Goldman with a “Ring Theory” of support that helps establish a “Kvetching Order.” Short form- know where you are in the ring and support the folks at the center.
It matters less if you get the precise resources right, the gesture matters. When things are really stressful for the person suffering and their inner ring, it’s often too much effort to pick your head up and suggest what needs to be purchased at the grocery store or coordinate who is delivering what, and when. So, just lob support in. In our experience, it’s more helpful to say “I’m going to bring you dinner on Tuesday at 6 and just leave it on your back stairs unless you tell me otherwise” rather than ask, “What night is best for you to have me bring you dinner?” or “Just tell me if I can bring you anything!” In truth, we can’t tell you what to bring. We’re toast. Just lob support in.
We’re also very big fans of Emily McDowell’s cards and her smart book with Dr. Kelsey Crowe “There’s No Good Card For This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love.” It’s a stellar book about empathy, about trying to support people we love, noticing when we haven’t gotten the support we’d hope for and how that might affect how we support people we love now. Highly recommend.
What to Give to Someone Suffering from a Metal Illness:
From our family experience, here are some things we’ve found helpful, particularly in supporting of folks in mental health crisis:
Cards: Send cards. Let folks know that they are not alone. Send folks cards multiple times, not just when you first hear of the crisis. Send a card two months from now. Write about why you love them. Write about what you value in them. Be honest in your hope for their well-being and healing, but like the Ring of Kvetching, don’t put your worries on the person suffering. Remind them of their worth beyond their labor, beyond their health, beyond their utility. See their struggle and affirm them. Send pictures of cute animals and flowers pushing through cracks of pavement.
Cash: Look. This is awkward and somewhat embarrassing, though it shouldn’t be, but one of the hard realities of illness is that employment is hard to maintain when you are sick. So money is helpful, especially if your mental illness makes full-time employment difficult. Also, if you have an hourly wage job and you’re out sick, you are out money. So financial support is helpful, because if you’re in a mental health crisis, going to work is nearly impossible. And a big worry after a mental health crisis is how to pay for the all medical bills, on top of lost wages. Give sick people money. One of the things that can happen with mental illness is that a lot of decisions get taken away from you, so support the people you love by giving them money without strings attached. Let them use it as best as they see fit, to pay rent, pay medical bills, pay for Netflix, or pay for a new sweatshirt because weight has changed after a new med.
Gift Cards: CVS gift cards: Meds are expensive and lots of things are not covered especially as medications are being switched to (hopefully) find the right combo. Pharmacy gift cards can be used to cover prescription co-pays. Gas cards are helpful for the stunning amount of driving back and forth to doctors’ appointments and for family members making visits back and forth to a family member.
Food: Send gift certificates to Grub Hub, Uber Eats, Door Dash, or nearby healthy restaurants. Honestly, when things are bad enough that someone’s in a mental illness crisis, sending groceries is too much. If you can’t get out of bed or have been hospitalized, you can’t chop potatoes. Send something prepared or drop off something you’ve prepared. (Be mindful that for some folks, food has a complicated relationship to their illnesses. New meds can cause weight gain or loss. Don’t force feed.)
Practical Resources: So it turns out, when you’ve got debilitating mental illness, forms of executive functioning are really hard! Give gifts of house cleaning services, dog walking, massage, and acupuncture. Do things like rake the yard, do their laundry, clean the fridge, baby sit, sort paperwork, help with taxes (c’mon, you know how hard it is to do taxes when you’re feeling good, imagine doing taxes when your feeling suicidal). Go with someone to the DMV. Take their car to get an oil change and washed. Think of your own life and the stuff that is annoying “adulting,” and just step in and do it.
Your time: Please visit. Even when they’re home from the hospital but at the hospital too. If you are visiting a psych unit, there are some good things to know: Check when visiting hours are. If it’s a locked unit, you will have your bags searched and you will likely need to leave some things (sharp objects, cords, phones with cameras, glass bottles anything that could cause personal harm or compromise patient safety ) either with staff or in a locker. If you are visiting at home, ask if there’s a time of day that’s best. But just go. Go and to watch a movie, sit, listen, just be with the person. You don’t need to stay long. You don’t need to know what to say. But you do need to show up.
Your presence: Text. Call. Pray. Send panda videos. Don’t expect a response, but just keep lobbing in gestures of acknowledgement.
Read up and Clean up: Do your homework and read up on the particular illness that someone experiences. If you love someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, learn about it so you can listen wisely. Work to end stigma around mental illness, first in your own speech. For example, vow to not use “bipolar” in your casual conversation to mean “OMG, I’m so bipolar, I like both Diet Coke and Diet Mountain Dew.” Just last week, I was in a seminary classroom where the professor (an ordained minister with a PhD) used “schizophrenic” as an adjective to describe feeling torn in two directions about using a particular hymn. Don’t be that guy.
In the end, we’d rather you send something, anything. Sending something is a gesture that helps the person suffering from mental illness know they are remembered, and their pain is seen, however imperfectly. Imperfection isn’t the problem, ignoring one another’s pain is. We’d rather receive another #blessed, lavender infused gratitude journal than be forgotten.
*so about that profanity- if it’s really offended you, I’m sorry you’re feeling that way. I aim to use profanity strategically. Here’s something to be really offended about: “The ratio of mental health beds in 2010 to the population of the United States was the same as it was in 1850.” The way the United States currently treats people suffering from mental illness is shit. When we do better, I vow to use less profanity. I welcome your advocacy for better care.