Mental illness doesn't just happen to a person. It happens to a family.
This is a story birthed out of 20 years of experience: both good times and bad. It's a window inside the lives of two people who love each other madly and have made their fair share of mistakes but also some pretty amazing decisions too. The end goal of this story is understanding. If that's where you want to go with me, please come along.
Also, I want you to know that this is shared with the enthusiastic support and permission of Josh. I'm the writer in the family, but this narrative is both of ours and we want to share it with you. This is the story of our family's journey with depression and anxiety.
There's a dragon that lives in my house.
It's not my dragon actually. It belongs to my husband, Josh.
He didn't ask for it. He didn't want it. It arrived in his later years of high school before we started dating. It was so small it was easy for Josh to dismiss and pretend it wasn't there. I was totally unaware of its presence as we went along in the early days of our romance. Being all goo-goo eyed over someone will do that to you.
We married, Josh started his career, we started having kids, and the dragon grew larger. We could no longer attribute "dragon sightings" to being part of a personality that is more quiet, introverted, serious, and sometimes indecisive. Lack of sleep wasn't the problem either. We had a dragon as an unwanted houseguest and that was clearly a problem. This needed to be taken care of - so the dragon and Josh began fighting.
Fighting looked a lot like retreat, for him. Disengaging from life. Always sick. Not taking care of himself. Emotionally Paralyzed. Overwhelmed. But it was fighting nonetheless. He had to protect himself and his family, because the dragon kept growing. The dragon wasn't just here for Josh, it was here to keep the whole family from living if it could.
With each passing year it seemed like the dragon was winning; taking up more space in our home, requiring more attention, wounding Josh's spirit and our souls . By the time our third child was born, he was a wreck. So were the rest of us, really. The dragon was moving beyond our home and into our social life. It was starting to follow him to work too.
Having a dragon that you are always, always trying to beat back is exhausting. It's not that there are never happy times together when you have a dragon, there are. But every moment with a dragon is lived on edge, in a constant tension of waiting and wondering: when, where and how the dragon is going to show up.
Once you admit to yourselves that a dragon lives in your house, you go through what is probably a typical pattern of grief and coping.
At first you are in total disbelief. You see things you've done and decisions you've made that in hindsight were tell-tale signs of a life lived with a dragon. Denial and decision-making are odd bedfellows.
One way of controlling the dragon for us in the early days was through forcing change upon our family. The dragon always seemed to disappear if the changes were big enough. I think, in part, it's why we moved so frequently when we were first married. Dragon sightings would become too frequent and I would start looking for things I could do to make something better. For us that looked like moving around a lot. Maybe a better kitchen, more storage, more daylight: anything, everything, maybe something different enough would let us outrun the dragon.
We'd move and for many weeks, even months it would seem like we had finally shaken it. We'd start to relax and live like what we thought normal people lived like.
Then it would happen. Josh would appear one day singed and weary, altogether more wounded than in the weeks and months before. The dragon had clawed its way back into our lives.
The noise of the kids was too much- again. The to-do list was too much- again. Again, all focus was going to keeping the A-game for his professional life. All energy went to keeping that from falling apart. It was shockingly all he could do, until one day he couldn't even do that.
Wherever we went the dragon followed. It always found our forwarding address and it always made us pay for trying to run away.
Sometimes, when a dragon lives in your home, you forget that it's the dragon you're fighting. It's not because you want to and it's not that it's right - it's just the constant claw marks and lingering smell of burning sulphur and charred ruins makes you want to find someone else to blame.
"Why won't you kids be quiet, stop being so silly! You're going to hurt yourself! Don't you know there's a dragon that lives here? Just calm down! Someone is going to get killed - I'm serious!"
"That thing never leaves - Why can't you make it leave? It's your dragon - make it go away!"
"Are you kidding me? You think I want this? Can't you see my wounds? My scars? They're from fighting. I'm not just sitting here doing nothing - I'm fighting a DRAGON with every breath and all I've got!
Apologize. Hug. Cry. Pray. Apologize some more. Do better, try an old thing harder, do whatever you can to get some control back. Try trying something new: another battle technique, a new weapon, something - anything, we've got to find a way to beat this dragon. The human cost is too much.
The dragon has no rhyme or reason as to when or why it shows up. It just does. For us, the dragon was always worse around other people, or preparing to be around other people. Probably because in those moments we were trying so hard to act like we didn't own a dragon.
For example, it might show up when we were trying to do something completely bland and ordinary - like gathering our kids to head out the door. I mean, for the love, all you need to do is round them up, put on their shoes and buckle them in. It shouldn't be hard, and yet - this dragon keeps getting in the way. It threatens to eat you alive. It breathes fire and scorches the very hairs on the back of your neck. So you yell and fight and scream or run and hide and cower but the dragon will NOT leave you alone. It's just waiting.
Always waiting for you to attempt to have a life.
It might not be kids, it might be other social engagements, deadlines, events and situations that people without dragons don't even think twice about - but you must think about it always when you are a dragon warrior.
The dragon has convinced you it will never, ever, leave. It tells you that you must manage and control your life to the nth degree. The dragon convinces you that anyone or anything around you that doesn't go as planned will cause your destruction and demise.
Anything. Anything at all.
You start living your life convinced that everything that happens or might potentially happen will be the end of you or someone you love. And it will be all your fault because you tried to live instead of listening to the dragon.
Sometimes you try anyway. You work up your courage and say yes to the outing, to the social gathering, to mowing the lawn, organizing the garage, cleaning your office - pick your poison- it ALL feels like poison. The thing is: you see other people doing it and they're living and they're fine so you have to try. You want to live so you have to try.
You so badly want someone to understand.
It can be disheartening when you try and bring up what your struggles are. You tend to get an odd look followed by "It's only this..." , "All you need to do it that...", "It's not a big deal, it's just..." .
"Why am I so broken?" You ask yourself.
Even at that- you DO need to keep trying . It's easy, though, to feel like you are unworthy of a life because something always happens, and the dragon roars. It tears into you nostrils flaring, fire breathing, voice screeching because how DARE you try and live when you have a dragon.
Dragon damage can takes days, even weeks to recover from. It doesn't seem to matter how much you apologize, blame yourself, blame others, try harder, try less, hate yourself, love yourself, pray, confess, repent, twist yourselves in knots, nothing appeases the beast.
Time is no respecter of persons, dragon warriors included. It marches on even when it feels like time standing still is the only thing that would help. You end up with incident piled upon incident so you can't ever really seem to get out of recovery mode and each infraction sends you a little further into hopelessness.
The dragon affects the people closest to you as well. They all need to put on a brave face and keep trying; giving reasons that probably sound like excuses but hopefully somehow sound better and more believable than "a dragon is trying to kill us."
I've noticed that those of us who love someone with a dragon usually become dragon managers.
We will try and control things to keep the dragon quiet. Because if the dragon is quiet - we get to see the one we love and they might see us, too. They might show a spark of life, though not too much, because dragon. But there's always that hope that you, as the dragon manager, will finally manage things well enough that you might almost have a life. Trying to create a life without any ripples becomes your highest goal. Almost living is better than not living at all. So you manage and feel alone and feel like crying a lot. Probably almost as much as your warrior does.
Dragon managers become adept at PR. You become spin doctors trying to put a happy face on the tragedy you find yourself in. "He/She couldn't make it today, sorry, just not feeling well...again." Which sometimes feels like saying: "Hi, we're the Faily McFailersons, sorry to let you down...again."
Failure is the soup-de-jour for dragon managers because obviously trying to control situations and people never works. So defeat and hopelessness become your sidekicks, and you just try and soldier on because at least you don't have a dragon to fight. You just have to pick up the pieces and hope it doesn't take the one you love.
We've all seen that the dragon wins sometimes. We all know it can be an incredibly powerful beast. It's an exceedingly difficult curse to shake. You've got to give it everything you've got to keep the warrior fighting.
If they lose...
No. They can't. They just can't lose. You CAN NOT become a dragon statistic, Warrior - you are far too loved, too precious, too wonderful. So you control. You manage. The warrior and you fight the dragon. You will both do whatever you can to keep the dragon locked up. The warrior's life depends on it.
Managers will take on more than their share of work and effort because they just want the dragon to leave. Then the dragon warrior can live and we can all feel good again. It will look to the outside world that we are doing all the things and the dragon warrior is doing nothing. Even dragon managers feel like that's true sometimes. However, we also know this truth: that oftentimes fighting a dragon is the hardest, bravest, and most exhausting thing a dragon warrior can do. So we fight for our warriors and we protect them by picking up their slack. Sometimes it's the only thing we can do.
We're not saints, just exhausted sojourners who love someone with a dragon.
I have wondered if being completely real and sharing the extreme difficulty and brokenness we were going through would have served us better. Except that for so many years we were in denial ourselves. Years ago we wouldn't have had the words or space to make sense of it. That's only come in recent years, months even. We might not have even thought life could be different years ago. It just was. If we could have broken through the shame our answer probably would have sounded like: "I don't know what's wrong aside from everything."
Maybe that would have been enough. Maybe we would have found ourselves striving less and trying to be good enough for other people at lot less, and that might have helped us out of our dragon years faster. That's the discomforting part we just have to live with.
You live life, you make your best decisions and some of them turn out not to be the best ones.
Dragon warriors and dragon managers have been told by society that nowadays it's fine to say you have a dragon, or to talk about it like it was a growth that you had removed.
However, if you actually talk about all the ways it affects your life, if you actually discuss your battles, well, obviously there's something wrong with you. You are probably not trying hard enough. Usually your battles will only make sense to someone with a dragon like yours. So instead you stick to polite conversation and speak about things that other people find acceptable to struggle with- because you have those too.
We spend our energy trying to look normal like everyone else. But the dragon comes along with us. Sometimes it means the ugly spills out and we might not even see it because all our mental energy is going to trying keeping that dragon quiet and trying to act normal. But normal for us is trying to prevent a battle. We assume it's what you are doing too . We think that's normal. It certainly doesn't excuse things, but it does maybe give a little context and understanding.
Dragons and their battles don't come instead of whatever you want to call "normal". It's just a wretched added bonus.
I remember the day 12 years ago when Josh finally went to the doctor and asked for help. The doctor talked with him and looked at this broken shell of a man and he saw- HE SAW!- the scars and bloody mess that the dreaded dragon had left behind. We felt such relief. We weren't going crazy. There was in fact a real invisible thing that was preventing us from living fully.
Dragon, thy name is Depression, Anxiety, Mental illness.
It was an incredible relief and yet only the beginning of a very long journey towards recovery.
We tried from the outset to be open and honest about Josh's struggle with depression. We told people when Josh was first prescribed antidepressants. We didn't want them to feel awkward and we were desperate for support and understanding.
We've seen that while it's acceptable to have a mental illness there is really so much people don't know or maybe don't even want to know about it. It is difficult to communicate how depression affects your life, especially when you're neck deep in it. We thought people would connect the dots.
We were living it, so most things seemed obvious to us. We assumed it was evident to everyone and that was a mistake.
I wish we had found a way to explain what it was like to live with a dragon we never asked for. Grace and acceptance are harder for people to give when they don't understand what's going on. I wish we had done better with that. I wish we had handled ourselves with more grace too.
Here's a side benefit to growing older: you see and understand things that you just absolutely couldn't when the journey was new. Many times early on we thought we were being judged and help was being refused. In most cases our perception was incorrect.
When you are fighting a dragon, or going through any hidden struggle, I suppose, it's very easy to receive comments and reactions as unkind or judgemental. You are so tired and wounded from fighting the dreaded beast that you can't really see straight. It's hard to address because you're already so ashamed that this dragon is something you can't seem to conquer, even with the help of medication. The truth is sometimes people think and say and do really insensitive things. The other probable truth is- so do you. I think it's important to remember that when you're trying to filter painful experiences
We can't go back in time, but we can share what we've learned. We can share what we know now - 20 years in as dragon warriors and managers and more than halfway through the year into treatment option 397. This option appears to be working better and bringing more freedom and transformation than any of the other 396 things we tried before. The size and scope of the dragon's influence is shrinking daily, but we still have a dragon, and maybe we always will, or maybe we won't. We are sharing this story now because we have the mental space to do it. It's only because we believe we've finally found the other side of the shore after a long, painful journey with our arms flailing and our heads barely above water for years and years that we can see ourselves a little more clearly and share these things.
The Truth About Dragon Taming
1) Taking medication to treat depression doesn't always "get rid" of the depression. It helps you fight it- but you've still got to fight it. Medication can be like armour for Dragon warriors. It doesn't get rid of the dragon, it just helps you tie him up and get him to behave a little faster with hopefully a little less wounding. Sometimes medication is the answer. Sometimes it's not.
2) It is very hard to explain your struggle and ask for help when so much of your energy is going to fighting, or trying to manage your life to help the one fighting the dragon. If you knew what would help, you would do it, therefore not having the problem anymore, so you can end up feeling kind of stuck. You are chronically exhausted in those early years of discovery, treatment, trial and error. So, so, exhausted. For us we were in the already fatiguing baby phase of life while we were trying to navigate this new world of constant dragon battling. Have I mentioned the exhaustion yet? Ex. Haus. Ted.
3) Mental illness, for most people, is a long-haul. "Having a night off" won't fix it. In fact - nothing the Dragon warrior is trying seems to "fix it". They are already trying a billion and six things to fix it. If you are going to offer help to someone who is suffering with mental illness the goal of the help has to be something other than fixing the person who is suffering. This is a big one and probably the most misunderstood. It's the difference between trying to be a savior and suffering alongside someone. BY ALL MEANS: Take them a meal, babysit kids, help with yardwork - All the yeses and amens to helping!
Your help would lift such a burden to a family that deals with mental illness. And do offer - because you probably won't be asked. Just remember your help won't fix it, and you as the helper need to be ok with that. It will be somewhat dissatisfying because it will only lift someone who feels like they're constantly treading water for a few moments- but it won't save them. Warriors have to save themselves in the end. They'll probably still be tired, overwhelmed, emotional, or withdrawn next week but they might feel a little less hopeless because they didn't suffer alone.
4) Warriors want people to know that they are always trying to figure out if the symptoms of this beast: chronic exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed at small things, over-reacting to seemingly small things, avoiding "normal" activities, for instances, are in fact - part of the disease, part of one's upbringing, or part of his or her personality. This is part of the hard work that a family dealing with mental illness has to do. It takes much trial and error and maybe even some counselling to figure that out. But remember they are working on it as best as they can.
5) Shame is a central feature of mental illness. Shame silences. Shame teaches you that you should not ask for help. Shame instructs you that you should try and hide and compartmentalize your life to be acceptable. Try as best as you can not to give in to shame. We lived under this burden for years and can attest that it only leads to further destruction. If you love someone who owns or manages a dragon, try and understand the massive weight of shame that they are likely living under. They need boatloads, legions even, of gentleness, grace and kindness to help them break through the weight of it all.
6) It would be better to "own it" and be honest about what feels like unfixable and stupid complications of the disease and let people decide if they can handle it or not. Not everyone can. People have their own stuff to deal with. To continue to try and be good enough for people who won't extend grace to you when your life is messy in different ways than theirs will be more hurtful in the end. Don't try and compartmentalize your life. The truth of your brokenness will seep out in uglier ways if you try that. Own the truth of your life. Admit to having a dragon. Continue to try and be the best version of yourself. Let the people that want to love you, love you - but don't try and be good enough for anyone, because it will never happen.
7)There ARE people who will meet you where you bleed. There are people who will love you as you move towards healing. There are people who won't cross to the other side of the street so as to not soil themselves with your wounds. They exist. But they are harder to find if you are trying to hide your dragon and compartmentalize your life.
8) To the dragon warrior and managers: You will have blind spots. There will be things you are doing and saying that are not at all good and you won't see them because you are too busy fighting other fires the dragon has set. Own them when they are exposed. Make things as right as you can. Actually - this is true of everyone - fighting mental illness or not.
9) Talk it out. There are potentially a lot of things a person dealing with mental illness might do that bother you, or you don't understand. This is also true of any relationship, though it seems there might be a higher opportunity for frustration when dealing with dragon warriors and their families. If trying to overlook behaviours as a weird quirk or odd reaction isn't helping you get "unfrustrated" with that person - talk TO them.
It's true that a conversation may or may not go well. You can't control that. But you can control you, and if you have a problem you should talk with the person and assume they aren't trying to hurt or offend you. Believe they are doing their best and that they will try and make it right.
Seeking to understand first is always healthier for everyone in the end, rather than assuming motive and passing judgment. Love them enough to have a difficult conversation.
Not sure how to start that conversation? Here's one of many possible openers: "Is everything okay? Because I think you are great and there's this area of your life that just doesn't jive with the rest of who you are. Can you help me understand what's going on? Because I care about you. I want you to live in wholeness. Is there anything I can help with?
10) When people appear to be struggling, and they are pulling back and disengaging, it's probably a good sign that they need help. But again - they don't need a savior, they need a sojourner. Offer your presence, you can't control what they do with that offer, but if it's in you to walk alongside someone who is suffering with mental illness it is one of the greatest gifts you can give.
Every journey with a dragon looks different. There are a lot of high functioning people who own big dragons. You can't always tell a dragon warrior at first glance. If you ever want to tell us about your Dragon, we promise to listen, and create space for a "me too" moment.
To all of the dragon people out there: I hope you feel a little less alone knowing there are other people fighting the same fight. We believe in you. We see you and we are cheering you on. These battles you fight day after day are so exhausting and disheartening. Some days it really feels like nothing will ever get better. Please don't give up hope. Keep trying the next thing. Keep asking for help. Keep looking for those kind and gracious people who will lift your head and remind you that you are worthy of a life, even if you have to fight for it.