Should You be Your Sibling’s Keeper? (4 Questions to Consider)

Thanks to everyone who responded to my last post. Your comments were really helpful! Based on what I learned, I’ve planned a series of posts geared toward siblings who care for brothers or sisters with mental illness. I’m calling it the Sib Series but I think there is something here for all of you.

When I decided to step into the role of caregiver for my sister, it was unquestionably my choice. I had tried to hold Jerri’s hand, long distance, through a number of crises, including more than one hospitalization to stabilize her meds. The last one had involved convincing her to check herself in, enlisting one of her friends to drive her to the facility, finding a kennel that would board Max with an open-ended reservation, tracking down Max’s vaccination records, and enlisting my father to transport him to the kennel. It was exhausting, impractical, and I felt like I was just sticking my finger in the dike.

I realized over a period of about 2 years that Jerri’s local mental health system was failing her. That she had virtually no local support network and it was extremely unlikely she could get better on her own. I’m a competent person and because I work in the pharmaceutical industry, I understand healthcare better than most. The mental health system where I live, while imperfect, is still light years ahead of the one she was dealing with and I have the drive and initiative to navigate it. Jerri needed help and I believed I could help her, but only if I committed fully to the task. So I made the choice and moved her here.

In essence I asked myself, “Should you be your sister’s keeper?” and I responded, “Yeah, I think I should.”

Many siblings in similar situations never actually consider this question. Why? Because they don’t realize or acknowledge there is, in fact, a choice. If you think caregiving for a sibling with mental illness is in your future, if your parents plan to pass the torch to you, or if you’ve already assumed that role, an important question to ask yourself is:

“What is my motivation for caregiving?”

At Sibnet on Facebook, someone recently asked, “How did you get to be the primary caregiver for your sib in your family?” (My paraphrase.) If you don’t know about Sibnet, it’s an online support and information community for adults with siblings who have special health, developmental or emotional needs such as serious mental illness, autism, cerebral palsy, and Down’s syndrome. The responses fell into the following categories:

  • “I’m the only sibling”
  • “I’m the eldest/nearest in age/closest relationally to the sibling”
  • “I’m the only female”
  • “I’m the one who lives the closest”
  • “I’m in the best financial position”
  • “I’m the responsible one” or “I’ve always been the co-parent”
  • “My other siblings didn’t want the responsibility” or “I’m the only one in the family who cares”
  • “My parents expected me to do it” or “There has always been an understanding that it would be me”

Reading the responses, it’s clear that many siblings didn’t choose the role so much as get nominated for it. The lot fell to them for a variety of reasons including geographic proximity, financial stability, compassion for the special needs sib, and position within the family. While all of these are valid factors to consider, only compassion and depth of relationship with the sib are motivators that will sustain you through the really hard parts of caregiving.

Compassion was a key driver for me. I’ve mentioned before that Jerri and I were estranged for well over a decade when we became involved in each others lives again. We were also not close as children. Jerri hated me and I was, at best, ambivalent toward her – so there really was no emotional attachment to speak of. Despite that, it was impossible for me to witness her circumstances and not feel compassion. She was alone, lonely, being preyed on by neighbors and so-called friends, in and out of sanity, delusional, and often paranoid. This is someone I’d shared my childhood with. If our situations had been reversed, I’d have wanted her to intervene for me.

On Sibnet, several responders indicated they’d always known they would be their sibling’s caregiver. Their parents expected them to do it and had prepared them for the responsibility most of their lives. The desire to please your parents is not a sustainable motivator when it comes to caring for a sibling with mental illness. Trust me on this. I’m the Trophydaughter, Queen of the Parent-Pleasers. In this case, “desire to please your parents” is a breeding ground for resentment that will set you against your other family members, damage the psyche of your special needs sibling, and destroy all your personal dreams. That is, if you’re human. There aren’t a lot of people who will tell you this, and in particular, your family members. Fortunately, you have me 🙂

The second question to ask yourself is:

“Am I really the person best-equipped for my sibling’s caregiving?”

Let’s face it. Even the best parents planning for the future of a child with mental illness ask the wrong question. They ask, “What’s going to happen to Sissy?” They are mostly focused on the basics – they want to know Sissy isn’t going to wind up homeless or incarcerated or worse, that she will take her meds, get proper nutrition, and not get into trouble. It makes sense, from their perspective, that one of their other children step in. But these are just the basics.

The goals of caring for a sibling with mental illness go far beyond that. The right question to ask is “What is the best possible life scenario for Sissy?” The answer to that is always recovery and independence. In the case of mental illness, the caregiver’s goal is to help the family member achieve the highest level of functioning possible, despite the self-defeating decisions, choices, and behaviors that result from the family member’s disorder.

You have to be a friend, You have to be a coach. You have to be a care coordinator, a researcher of community services, a health and social system navigator. You need the entrepreneurial spirit required to explore, learn, fail, and try again. You have to be an advocate. You will encounter stigma and prejudice even within the medical community and you’ll have to demand equal treatment and quality of care. You may have to be obnoxiously persistent. This is not a job for the meek or faint-hearted. You may need to overcome your own deeply ingrained perceptions of mental illness or political opinions about those who utilize social services. This is the job description. So be honest with yourself. Are you the best person for the job? Shouldn’t your sibling have the best?

“But Trophydaughter, you don’t get it. There is no one else – I have to do it. I’m the only sibling.” Fair enough. This leads to my third question.

“What would happen if my sibling with mental illness was an only child?”

If your sibling lives with your parents, this is actually a great question to ask them. And it’s a valid one. There is no guarantee you or your other “normal” siblings will outlive them.

Your parent’s may picture a future for your special needs sibling where she moves in with you and you care for her like a mother. But what if you weren’t in the picture? Would they ask another relative or family friend to provide care? Would they establish a Special Needs Trust to provide ongoing financial support? Would they be more proactive about helping your sibling obtain disability and Medicare benefits? You see, the truth is, you are not the only option for your sibling’s care. You are just the most convenient.

Many parents subconsciously foster their adult child’s dependence on them. There are a multitude of reasons why. They may feel guilty or somehow responsible for the mental illness. They may feel protective or embarrassed. They may truly believe the adult child can’t function independently. They may not want to live alone themselves and enjoy the sibling’s company.

I believe our ability to take care of ourselves is core to our emotional well-being. There have been times on this journey when Jerri really wanted to be dependent. She would have moved in with me in a skinny minute. But I never offered because it’s not best for her or for me. Now, she would tell you she doesn’t want to live with anyone. She values her freedom. She wants to live her own life. It’s a gift.

Which brings me to the last question:

“What am I UNWILLING to forfeit to care for my sibling?”

This is a boundary setting question. I, for example, am not willing to forfeit my marriage. That comes first for me. Stan and I discuss potential changes in Jerri’s care that impact us and we make decisions together. Forcing him to be involved in ways he doesn’t want to or making decisions independently that will affect him would damage our marriage.

There are siblings at Sibnet who are contemplating dropping out of college to help care for their sib. And parents who are encouraging them to do so. This is wrong on so many levels. How can you take care of a sibling with mental illness if can’t even take care of yourself? Unless Mom and Dad are leaving you a huge inheritance and you plan to live with them until they are gone, you need a job, a good job, so DON’T give up college.

Other siblings decide not to have children because it just seems too hard to raise a family AND care for their brother or sibling. Don’t give up your dreams. If you want a family, have one, and put that desire first.

You CAN be a caregiver without giving up your life. There are ways to be involved in your sibling’s care to a more manageable degree – without being the live-in, full-time, primary caregiver. You don’t have to go it alone. There are group homes and assisted living. There are social supports like Assertive Community Treatment Teams.

As a last resort and depending on your situation, if your sibling is truly unable to take care of herself or is a danger to herself or others, you can pursue a competency hearing. This can be extremely traumatic for everyone involved. Your sibling will likely feel betrayed. No one wants to be stripped of their independence. But if the court determines your sibling is incompetent and you don’t want guardianship, in many states, a social service agency will assume the role. To me this is a drastic measure but there are situations when it needs to be considered. If your sibling is physically abusive, for example.

As a sibling who has already taken the caregiving plunge, you can tell I’ve put some thought into this. Whether or not you choose to care for your adult sibling is exactly that – a CHOICE. Your choice and no one else’s. You choose. No matter what your parents tell you, you are not the only option your sibling has. You may not even be the BEST option your sibling has. Caregiving is not a job anyone should assume lightly.


Second Chance for Non-Violent Offenders

When my sister, Jerri, was 29, she broke into Mom and Dad’s house and stole a TV which, as the story goes, she sold for drugs. Mom reported the theft. Jerri was arrested for larceny, convicted, and received a suspended sentence and probation. The felony conviction can be verified as the state of North Carolina considers this a matter of public record and anyone can Google it for free. Which, BTW, I have because this being my family, one can never be too sure where the facts end and the fiction begins.

Jerri’s the one who says it was a TV. I find that hard to believe. The crime for which she was convicted was “larceny, amount in excess of $200.” Were 14″ TVs even worth $200 twenty years ago?  Because I sure don’t see her hauling the 27″ family job with built-in cabinet out of the house by herself. We’re talking pre-flat screen. That baby weighed about as much as a baby elephant. Even Jerri admits the details are a bit murky. A head injury, ECT treatments, drugs, and mental illness have all taken a toll on her memory. Rest in peace, little brain cells. The truth has likely died with you.

The episode happened during a time when the folks were in denial about Jerri’s mental illness. Jerri wasn’t getting treatment and was self-medicating. It’s likely that had she been effectively treated, she’d never have committed this crime. The same can be said for so many offenders, many in our prisons instead of hospitals where they might actually get help. Some of you have also shared your stories of felony convictions directly related to mental illness here at the blog.


So I’m hoping what I’m about to share is really good, potentially life-changing news. North Carolina, and a handful of other states, have just passed a new law, effective December 1, 2012, that allows for expunction of first-time nonviolent misdemeanors and low-level felonies 15 years after completion of an individual’s sentence. Expunction means your record would be cleared. Background checks will reveal nothing about your crime. It’s a clean slate, a second chance. Thanks to Lynn at The Good Will Hunting Paralegal for bringing this to Jerri’s attention.

There is a form that must be completed and submitted to the court of clerk in the county in which the offense originally occurred. There is also a $175 fee but those who are indigent can get the fee waived by filing a separate petition. The details and forms can be found in the basic guide provided at the NC Second Chance Alliance site. The NC Second Chance Alliance is a statewide alliance of advocacy organizations, service providers, faith-based organizations, community leaders and interested citizens that have come together to achieve the safe and successful reintegration of adults and juveniles with criminal records by promoting policies that remove barriers to productive citizenship.

At the time my parents filed charges against Jerri, I was actually supportive of the action. The theft wasn’t Jerri’s first time breaking the law but she’d never been charged before because my parents had worked diligently to keep things out of the system. This drove me nuts as a teenager. I did not understand Jerri was ill. I thought she was choosing to make our lives hell. Mom said Jerri was hanging out with the wrong crowd. They were a bad influence. She was acting out to get even with Mom. And I thought my parents sucked at parenting. I mean, how was Jerri supposed to learn right from wrong if Mom and Dad were always bailing her out? If she never got to experience the consequences of her actions? Knowing mental illness was at play has completely changed my perspective.

People dealing with mental illness sometimes do things they would never do in their right minds. I understand that now. I also understand how a felony haunts you for the rest of your life. In North Carolina, 92% of employers conduct criminal background checks and applicants with criminal records are 50% less likely to receive a call back. Jerri hasn’t worked in over 15 years. And as much as I’ve encouraged her to apply, there’s a part of me that acknowledges how unlikely she is to be hired. Most applications ask if you’ve ever committed a felony. And as I’ve mentioned, its a quick and easy Internet search to find out. Even housing applications ask. Jerri was recently denied housing in a safer community because of a felony she committed OVER 20 YEARS AGO. For stealing from her parents. Okay, so that doesn’t make it any less wrong, but its not like she held up a bank. Or a 7-Eleven. There are also more than 900 state and federal laws that deny North Carolinians a wide range of privileges and rights based on a criminal record. For example, the right to vote.

I’m very excited about this opportunity for Jerri to potentially clear her record. We’re about to initiate the process. I’ll keep you posted . . .

Photo credit: anjan58 / / CC BY-NC-ND

Now Playing @ a TrophyDaughter Near You

Sometimes I wish I could lose my mind. Seriously, like unscrew the top of my head, take out my mind and put it somewhere, the back of my closet or maybe the bottom of the laundry hamper, some place where it would never occur to me to look for it. Just so I could have a few blessed hours of peace from the incessant chatter going on inside it. I don’t know if this is normal. I suspect that it is – that everyone has these ongoing conversations with their Self. But as I’ve mentioned before, my Self is not a very nice person, in fact, she can be somewhat of a bully, always slathering on the guilt and beating up on me. Frankly, I’m sick of it.

Here’s what’s currently playing inside my head.

[Me] I’m disappointed about Jerri’s decision not to enter Caramore’s program.No, it’s more than that. I’m disappointed in Jerri. I can’t figure out if she really isn’t physically/mentally able to work, just doesn’t believe in herself, or is flat-out lazy. No one is going to hand her a better life on a platter. She’s going to have to work for it. If she’s not willing to work for it, then nothing will ever change for her.

    (If you’re behind on the Caramore saga, here’s Part 1 and Part 2).

[Self] Stop judging her! She doesn’t believe she can do the physical labor of janitorial work for 30 hours a week or she doesn’t want to. What does it matter? It’s her life.

[Me] Yeah, it’s her life but how can she stand it? How can she bear to live like she does? In a tiny efficiency apartment, in a dangerous section of town, in a building whose occupants are all way more incapacitated by their mental illness than she is. No transportation. Eating 2 meals a day at the local shelter. Few friends. No purpose. Daily routine comprised of sleeping, watching TV, and healthcare visits. Ugh!

[Self] Give the girl a break! She’s improved a lot but she’s still not cured. She said she’d look into vocational rehabilitation and also into Threshold (clubhouse concept). Threshold also helps people recovering from mental illness get part time work. And they have options that are less physically taxing. You could be a little more supportive.

[Me] Jerri SAID she would look into those but so far nothing. It’s been 6 weeks. She’s not serious about it. She’s bored, yeah, but she’s getting by. She really doesn’t have any incentive to change.

[Self] So make her. Give her some incentive.

[Me] Get real. I can’t control my own hair, let alone my sister. Besides I shouldn’t have to bribe her to take the next step. It has to come from inside her. She has to want that for herself.

[Self] Well, you sure don’t have a problem giving her incentives NOT to change. I mean, look at you. Every time she needs transportation, you rework your schedule and put on your chauffeur hat. Wish I had someone to drive me everywhere I want to go. You take her out to eat every time you see her and pay for it. Wish I had someone giving me free meals. You should make yourself less available. Let her experience the inconvenience of her current lifestyle. You’re just enabling her.

[Me] Wait. Didn’t you just say I needed to be more supportive?

    No comment from Self. She plays with her iPad.

[Me] Fine. Be that way. But A) You do have someone who drives you and feeds you. That would be me. And B) don’t start with the “enabling” BS. You can’t “enable” mental illness. Besides, you know I don’t drop everything when Jerri needs help. I don’t rearrange stuff. I offer up time that works for me and if it doesn’t work for her, she finds another solution.

[Self] Yeah, but you resent it, don’t you? Every time you do something for her, you resent it. And I know it pisses you off when you order a 99 cent burger and she orders a $5.49 one.

[Me] I don’t resent it every time.

[Self] Me thinks thou dost protest too much.

[Me] Seriously? You’re quoting Shakespeare at me?

[Self] You say you want a better life for her. But what you really want, is a better life for you. You don’t want to be bothered with her. You want to do whatever you want, whenever you want. Well, welcome to adulthood, baby. You aren’t the center of the solar system – you can’t even see it from where you’re standing. There are others in this world who need help.

[Me] Yeah, and I’m ONE OF THEM. Jerri is not a bother. She’s my sister. And if I didn’t work 60 hours a week, travel several times a month, have 3 dogs with various health and behavioral issues, have 2 houses to maintain, and a mother-in-law with cancer, I’d feel a lot more charitable with my time and my money.

[Self] So you say.

[Me] Whatever.

Caramore, Part 2

Those of you following the blog may recall Jerri’s interview at Caramore Community back in October –the one cut short when she confessed she’d smoked crack the day before. Yep. Not one of her more stellar moments. If you’re new to the blog, you can catch up here.

I’m sort of crushing on Caramore. I know, I know. It can’t possibly be ALL THAT but what I’ve read and observed is truly impressive. Caramore is a structured, residential support program for adults with mental illness that uses a step-up approach to empower independence and community employment. Not sure why this is such a novel approach–but trust me, it is– no one else seems to be doing it. Caramore puts brain disorders in their place; chronic conditions to be managed as you get on with the business of living your life.

At first, participants establish a daily work regimen, 30 hours a week, as employees on Caramore’s janitorial or landscaping work crews which provide services to the community. The janitorial crew, for example, cleans churches, businesses, and homes. Participants live in Caramore apartments where Residential Advisors supervise and help them establish personal goals like sticking to a budget or improving social skills. There are 4 participants to an apartment. Everyone has his/her own bedroom, shares a bath with one other person, and shares the kitchen and den with all housemates. Chores are assigned and everyone contributes to maintaining the living space.

Participants earn minimum wage which is applied to their housing. Disability income goes into a savings account which after several months is enough for a deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment outside the program.

As you progress in the program, there’s gradual lessening of supervision and Caramore helps you secure employment in the community at sponsoring businesses. A HUGE shout out to Lowes, Target, Whole Foods, and UNC for being Caramore employers.

After 3 or more months of steady employment, participants move into community apartments. Many split the cost with housemates they met at Caramore. Slowly, Caramore’s services are reduced and eventually phased out. Eventually, participants “graduate” but can continue to network and get support from other alumnae.

Did I mention Caramore has a 90% success rate?

At first glance, it might appear Jerri doesn’t need this kind of program. After all, she’s already able to live fairly independently. She takes her medicine on her own, does her own shopping, pays bills, and has her own apartment. Still Caramore has a lot to offer. Jerri’s not great with money and spends it all within days of getting payed. Probably as a technique to remain clean (if she doesn’t have any money, she can’t buy drugs) and perhaps as a post-traumatic stress response (if she doesn’t have any money, no one can steal from her.) Caramore could help her work through money issues. Jerri is also ready to get a job but fears losing disability and the possibly of getting sick again. Caramore has experts in disability law and can help navigate this. On her own, she lacks the discipline to get up every morning and go to work. Plus she has a felony on her record and that makes it difficult to even find employment. Lastly, her social skills aren’t great. These are all challenges, Caramore can help address.

After the botched interview back in October, Jacob, the Admissions Director, said typically new admissions have to be clean and sober for 6 months prior, however, he would cut that to 3 months for Jerri and scheduled another interview for January 8th. Jacob has since had a promotion and on the 8th, Jerri met with Blake, the new director. The interview went well – no drama this time – and Blake scheduled a trial visit for Jerri to test drive the program.

That was this past week. Trial visits are supposed to be 5 days but with Martin Luther King day on Monday and the ice storm on Friday, Jerri’s visit lasted only 3. She worked on the janitorial crew mostly vacuuming and complained of backaches daily. She described the other participants as “heavily medicated” and likened the experience to “being in a mental hospital” because Caramore dispenses all medications and you have to take them while they watch. When I pressed for one positive thing about the experience, she said “everyone is really nice to me.” She also felt better about the visit after talking to her Residential Advisor for the week.

Yesterday morning, we sat down with Blake and discussed the visit. He said the 3 days really hadn’t been enough time for Caramore or for Jerri to fully assess whether the program was a good fit. Jerri is concerned she might not be physically able to vacuum for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. (Ha! Who among us is?) So Blake asked her to do another trial visit, for a full week, starting Monday.

For my part, I’m trying my best to remain objective. To me, Caramore seems like a life-saver. On the other hand, what could possibly be worse than ending the relationship with Telecare (her current mental health provider), letting her apartment go (for which there was a waiting list to get in), and moving all her stuff to Caramore only to receive a call 2 weeks later saying it’s not going to work out? Jerri has said as much. “I want to be sure I can physically do the work before I commit.” She was seriously doubting herself when I picked her up yesterday.

“What will you do, Jerri, if you decide you can’t manage the Caramore program? Just go back to watching TV all day?”

“No. Catherina will take me to Vocational Rehabilitation and I’ll try to get back into work that way.”

She’s got good intentions – I’m just concerned about follow-through. And likelihood of success without more structured support than what Telecare can provide. I know, it’s out of my hands. God, grant me the serenity . . .

Taking a Minute (OK, Ten) to Refocus

Jerri once said, “You look at me and see a problem. I’m not a problem—I’m a person!” Ouch. Granted, she wasn’t well at the time and she was really, REALLY angry about me refusing to drop everything and wrap my life around her current crisis. Still. If I’m honest with myself (and most of the time I try to be, unless I’m hormonal, and then I tend to listen to that small but obnoxiously loud inner voice that hollers “You can’t handle the truth!”), she was right. My entire family has treated Jerri as a problem that needs fixing since she was about 14 years old.

But it’s not just Jerri. I have this uncanny ability to spot problems everywhere. It’s as if I’m viewing the entire world through a cracked lens. No matter where I look, there is stuff that needs to be fixed. My mind seems to hone in on that which is broken. I don’t know how I got to be this way, whether it’s innately who I am or a way of thinking learned from my parents. But I do know this. No one wants to hear about problems unless you’re offering solutions. And you need to make sure your conversations are sprinkled with positives or people will avoid you like a friendly raccoon in broad daylight. (Rabies for you city peeps scratching your heads.)

My boss recently reminded me of this. Not about raccoons (although that does sound like a conversation we might have) but about refocusing on the positives.

I’m currently working on the-project-from-hell (literally, that’s what I named the folder where all my project docs get filed) which appears to be totally jinxed, I mean, if anything can go wrong on this project, it will and it has. It’s as if the whole universe is conspiring against me. I’ve known for quite some time my life is harder than everybody else’s :-). But, really? I’ve brought issue after issue, challenge after challenge to my boss’s attention so he reminded me during my semi-annual professional development discussion that what I’m working on is, in fact, STILL an awesome project. It is STILL very worthwhile and something we should be doing as a company. We have made a tremendous amount of progress and it’s important to remember and to celebrate what we’ve accomplished. And we need to make sure upper management hears about the good stuff and not just about what sucks.

The same is true with Jerri. Not that she’s a “project” but like all of us, she is a work in progress. We have both come a long way since she moved here in 2010. It’s been hard. It’s been challenging. It’s been bang-your-head-against-the-wall frustrating. There have been times I thought I’d hyperventilate. Or get in my car, keep on driving, and never look back. But in a weird almost twisted way, its also been rewarding. Like Glinda (Wicked), who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But I have grown. And I have been changed for good. (Don’t hate me for identifying with Glinda here—remember, Elphaba turns out to be the hero.)

I’m limited. Just look at me – I’m limited
And just look at you. You can do all I couldn’t do, Glinda
So now it’s up to you. For both of us – now it’s up to you…

I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn.
And we are led to those who help us most to grow If we let them
And we help them in return.
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today because I knew you…

20120714-143822.jpgI completely understand why many siblings, maybe even most siblings, want nothing to do with brothers and sisters with brain disorders, particularly those who are dual diagnosis. It’s like marriage and growing old. It isn’t for wimps. However, for those of us who have chosen to engage, what we gain personally and spiritually is priceless. All of us who care for people with brain disorders need to refocus every now and then and celebrate even the small stuff.

In the spirit of that, Jerri, Stan, and I are off to see Brave (Groupon) and then dinner at Ruby Tuesday’s. Here’s what I’m celebrating today:

  • Jerri’s been consistently stable for about 2 months.
  • I’ve managed to vanquish the evil Adderall Rx at least for now.
  • She has more energy, is keeping her apartment clean, and doing her laundry.
  • She has a renewed interest in making her place “homey” and used her own money to buy a new comforter set and shower curtain. She also rescued a rug from the dumpster (ew!) but it does look nice.
  • She’s making some tough, responsible decisions. She worked with her telecom provider on a plan to catch up on payments and she’s faithfully made the last 3 installments. She has told a friend who has been crashing regularly at her apartment and who has been asked by property management to stay off the premises that he can no longer stay with her.
  • She is starting to care about her appearance and health again. She’s talking about making appointments to see both a dentist and an ophthalmologist.
  • She’s had some substance abuse relapses but she tells me now when she uses instead of making up some outrageous story about the magical disappearance of appliances—stuff that’s only truly believable if you happen to live at Hogwarts. She has told the source not to come around any more and identified some local Narcotics Anonymous meetings within walking distance.
  • She’s thinking about others more. On our last grocery day, she brought a list of items to pick up for Bronwyn, a friend in her building who’s struggling with depression. She’s also clipping coupons for restaurants to help subsidize our outings.
  • I’m having some success with boundaries. Just yesterday, when Jerri called asking for a $3.00 loan, I reminded her of my policy on that—she needs to manage her money in such a way that she has at least $5.00 left at the end of each pay period to cover unplanned needs. So I said no and told her she was really pushing my boundaries. She agreed, and, can you believe it, LET IT GO. Just like that.
  • Jerri is starting to dream again and to set goals. When we finally sell her car, she plans to buy a scooter with the money. This is a GREAT solution to her mobility issues. It doesn’t require a license and hers has been suspended indefinitely since she can’t afford to pay the fines. It also keeps her off the highways which, trust me, is just better for everyone all the way around. Gas for a scooter is also way more affordable than for a car. Her other dream is to move to the beach and she talks about setting money aside on a regular basis as soon as she’s paid off some debts.
  • Oh, and probably the best thing—Jerri’s youngest daughter, “A”, called her. This is incredible, really. They’ve had practically no contact for years. “A” lives with our parents and like everyone else in that household, does not understand mental illness and the link to addiction. She lived with Jerri until she was around 8 years old, I believe. There is a LOT of baggage. “A” is applying for financial aid for college and needs Jerri’s signature on some forms. She called me first, soliciting my help, and I encouraged her to talk to Jerri. And she did!
  • A great theologian :-), Albus Dumbledore, once said:

    Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.

    Hope you all join me in turning on the light, whatever the circumstances in which you find yourself today.

    Practicing Detachment

    Here’s an excerpt from entitled How Can I Help an Alcoholic or Drug Addict? I found it timely given that Jerri is starting to acknowledge she still has substance abuse issues. But I also think this is applicable to all of us who love someone with a brain disorder. It’s about practicing detachment.

    One of the key principles that will help you in dealing with a struggling alcoholic or drug addict is detachment. The idea behind it is to separate yourself emotionally from the damaging effects of your relationship with the addict or alcoholic. It is not the same as complete disassociation or abandoning the relationship. The idea is to care for them while detaching emotionally. You can care for them but not feel like you are responsible for them. In other words, you are specifically trying to not get all wrapped up emotionally by an addict’s destructive behaviors.

    This is difficult.

    Practicing detachment should make it easier over time. Here are some things that you can do in order to practice detachment with the struggling addict in your life:

  • Don’t do things that they should be doing themselves.
  • Don’t bend over backwards to rescue them or save them from natural consequences.
  • Don’t cover up for their mistakes or embarrassing situations.
  • Don’t rescue them from crisis or financial situations.
  • Don’t try to fix them.
  • Let go of any guilt you may have about them.
  • Detachment is not about denying your emotions. If someone close to you dies, for example, you will probably feel sad. You can’t choose this feeling. It simply is. But we do have the power to affect the intensity of this feeling, by focusing on the positive aspects of the situation. We can also change our thinking in an attempt to eradicate irrational beliefs that might be contributing to our emotional turmoil.

    The goal is not to go without emotions, the goal is to achieve some level of emotional stability. We are detaching from the negative, irrational thoughts that stir up our emotions, like the guilt we might have if we think someone’s addiction is our fault.

    For me, I have to work hard at not doing things for Jerri that she can do herself. One technique I’m learning to apply is what I call “delayed response.” Jerri’s first instinct when she needs help is to call me with directions on what I can do to fix her problem. As if. I’m learning that if I don’t respond immediately, she can usually come up with some creative solution that doesn’t involve me. Yay! Take this week for example. Her refrigerator died the day after we’d made a grocery run. She called me and left a frantic voice message around 12:30 pm.

    “I need you to bring a cooler over and some ice. I’m going to lose all my groceries. Help! I can’t afford to do that–I don’t have any money left to buy more!!”

    It was Sunday and I’d turned my ringer off. I’d told Jerri on Saturday when we were at Walmart that I intended to stay in and do nothing the next day. I intended to take the whole day of rest thing literally. When I checked my phone at 7 pm, I saw four messages from Jerri all within a half hour of each other. Uh oh. The last one was at 2:30 pm – I listened to it first.

    “OK. I don’t need you to do anything now. Bronwyn let me put some stuff in her refrigerator and Mike took the rest of it. He doesn’t have hardly any food in his. I just hope they replace my refrigerator quickly. I don’t know if I can trust them not to eat my food.”

    I immediately called and congratulated her on her quick-thinking and problem-solving skills. This, BTW, is call “positive reinforcement” and I learned it at Puppy Kindergarten 🙂 (Hey, you gotta pick up life skills wherever you can find them!) I also told her how sorry I was that this had happened which is sometimes what we want more than actual help when we’re in a jam–someone to commiserate.

    Anyone else out there practicing detachment?


    This Week Brought to You by the Letter “R”

    On Tuesday, I sent my boss an email that read, “I’m taking off the rest of the week to rebuild resiliency.” This is code for “If I have to come into work even one more day, I can’t be held accountable for my own actions.” Which is code for “Coworkers are driving me crazy and I may have to kill them.”

    I knew I’d reached that point where it’s just better for everyone concerned if I stopped showing up when I melted down over the new multi-function copier device a.k.a. copier on steroids. It requires a graduate degree to operate. I’m not kidding. After about 15 minutes in an infinite loop where it would not let me copy and it would not let me exit copy and go to scan, I found myself screaming at the top of my lungs, “Really? Can we not go one freakin’ day at this company without drastically changing something?”

    This, of course, was after I discovered my trashcan was missing and was informed that housekeeping was no longer emptying the trash in our offices so all in-office trashcans had been confiscated. You can’t make this stuff up. Instead, I was given a shoebox-sized plastic basket and instructed to empty it in the closest public trashcan as needed. There is nothing more disgusting than an apple core and a boogery kleenex sitting in a plastic basket on your desk waiting to be emptied.

    Note that “resiliency” starts with an “R”. Just a little help for those of you who never watched Sesame Street and are still puzzled by the title of this post.

    I’ve also completely lost my ability to filter what comes out of my mouth. So like when somebody asks me, “How’s your day going?” I actually tell them and that’s never a good thing. Most of my conversations end with, “and that’s why I’m spending the rest of the afternoon working on my resume.” Resume, another word that begins with “R”.

    So Tuesday night, we packed up our three dogs and headed to North Topsail Beach. Three dogs? Yes, that’s correct. On Sunday, we rescued a corgi from a broken home. He was being used as a weapon in a divorce. I mean, metaphorically. It’s not like they were hitting each other over the head with him.

    Tucker was the wife’s dog. He’d been purchased without the husband’s consent and then abandoned when the wife moved out. The wife said, “Well if you get the house, you get the damn dog too.” Really? Because I would have been, “You can have the damn house but I get the dog.” Sort of speaks to the character of a person, don’t you think? Anyway, rescue is another R-word, and is probably not something one should do when their resiliency needs rebuilding.

    On Wednesday, the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on Topsail Island released 14 recovered turtles back into the ocean and we were there for both the opening ceremony and the actual release. Jean Beasley, who heads up the organization, gave a stirring Scarlett O’Hara as-God-as-my-witness-I’ll-never-go-hungry-again speech about how nothing, not turtle hospital overcrowding, not delays in building the new hospital, not lazy-good-for-nothing-contractors-that-promise-they’ll-see-you-tomorrow-and-don’t-show-up-again-for-two-weeks could keep them from fulfilling their promise to these turtles to send them back home.

    And this made me think of Jerri and her recovery. I haven’t seen much of her since she confided she’d used cocaine, yet again, and due to low resiliency, I just haven’t had the energy to engage. Jean’s speech reminded me of the promise I gave Jerri when she moved here. I promised I would not abandon her the way our parents had. And here I am, not abandoning really, but certainly distancing. Hmmm.

    Bear, one of the turtles that was released, had been with the hospital since 2009. They really didn’t know what was wrong with her, possibly something viral. Again, this reminds me of Jerri because I’ve never been truly convinced that we have the right diagnosis. But Bear did recover. I like to think this is God’s way of telling me there is hope.

    It also reminded me of a story in the current issue (28, Summer 2012) of the NAMI Voice, called Loving a Sibling with a Chronic Illness by Trudelle Thomas. In it, she talks about changing the way she related to her brother with schizophrenia. She encountered a concept called “unconditional positive regard“–the idea that all people need and deserve unconditional acceptance. She realized she’d been treating her brother as a problem not a person deserving unconditional acceptance. So she stopped acting like a second mother and started becoming a friend. She didn’t give advice unless he asked for it. She stopped focusing on his illness and instead began sharing more about her own life with him and even asking for his advice on occasion. Trudelle also shared wisdom from The Dance of Anger, a book by Harriet Goldhor Lerner which I’ve also read and recommend. Harriet writes that a person who is an over-functioner (who, me?) can cause others to remain under-functioners and actually block them from becoming more capable. In a sense, you need to release the under-functioner to live their own life.

    So I’m ending this week with reflection on resiliency, rescuing, releasing, recovery and relationships. And also an apology for the seemingly random nature of this post. It’s totally “R’s” fault.