Misunderstood: Mental Illness & Autism

Mental illness, is such a hard thing for people to grasp who haven’t had any experience with it, whether by a family member or personally. You can’t see it, they don’t “look” sick, so are they just weird? Faking it? What’s wrong with them? Can’t they just “snap” out of it? Now, you’d never say that about someone dying of cancer in hospice, but you can see the cancer, you can see the amputee solider, or the child with whooping-cough and you would never blame them for being sick. But mental illness doesn’t manifest in that traditional way, you can’t touch and feel it, so it often gets dismissed as they’re “crazy”. It’s just not as tangible.

I’ve seen the firsthand effects of mental illness, because for about 18 years, that was my life–not my personal illness, but in my mother. Mental illness, from what I’ve seen or read, stems from a deep-seeded, childhood trauma or just a trauma in general. It is almost as if the body is trying to process something, that it wasn’t meant to deal with. It’s a coping mechanism, a defense, that the body and mind create, that manfiests into an illness–it’s trapped. This is what happened with my mother. I later learned about her horrible childhood experiences and her trauma that almost froze her in time. There were times where she’d speak in a little girl’s voice, not in a playful way, but a very “off” way, it was as if there was a little girl trapped within her, the last time she was probably truly well. Over time, things started to make sense, after I’d gained some perspective, distance, and education on the illness. But in the moment, the throngs of my own childhood, I resented her, and desperately wanted to feel safe and secure.

As a child, I knew nothing about mental illess, there was no way to pick a part what was going on with her behavoir. One minute she’d be very loving and affectionate, the next erratic and manic. So to try and gain stability, I tried to do the things that I thought might make her less “manic”, as if I could control it.  It made me really exahusted from trying to earn and stay in her “love” and good graces.  I become so tired, both physically and mentally. Later in life, it left me feeling as if I needed to keep everyone happy in my other relationships and it took time to unlearn this pattern.

I do have compassion for people with mental illness because I know it comes from a place of pain.

It wasn’t like my mother was trying to be evil, or to do wrong, the illness took over. And that’s not an excuse for bad behavior, but it is a reason. I wished she’d gotten help, but I don’t think she knew to get well, knew how to really get out of “herself”.

Those who have to live or “deal with” a family member or friend with mental illenss, it can be very challenging and draining. I had a hard time because I was in this state of being “on edge”, waiting for another manic episode from a family memeber or friend, not being able to be in large family gatherings, or social circles. I felt the need to control what was around me, to feel safe again… to be “normal”. But for those who walked alongside someone with mental illness, you have a road to recovery too, and you must walk it to be well.

I went to speak with a therapist. I decided I needed to process and work through the pain and confusion that my mother had caused. At the time I was working at a school for children with autisim and other neurological impairmennts. My therapist said something that stuck with me, “You work with kids’ with autism… so, when they have an episode or can’t handle a particular noise, you don’t get mad and frustrated with them, do you? You have patience and walk them through what they need until they are calm again…”. And it was true. They can’t control their impulses when they have an impluse or a tick, or when they can’t communicate properly. It is the same when we work through trauma. We can’t expect to get there overnight, to just be fixed from a problem that took 18 years to cause. But over time, little by little, just like the kids I worked with everyday, we can get better too.

It’s a road to recovery, not a short stroll. And being well again, the healing process, is so worth the pain of the recovery.

“For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7 [Emphasis mine].

Photo Credit: Huffington Post



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