The buzz for the Grammy Awards has faded, but I’m still thinking about Brandi Carlile, who won a few awards and brought the house down with her performance. I learned about her from a loved one several years ago, before she sold millions of records and earned the respect of her musical peers. On the day of the Grammys, I wished I could pick up the phone to talk to my loved one about this and about how much I love Carlile’s new album. I listened to the album again and cried. Grief hits you hard at unexpected times.
This is the part where you might wonder how I lost lost my loved one, or why I am using “my loved one” instead of a name or a more specific identifier.
The short answer: my loved one has untreated mental illness and won’t speak with me.
When a loved one passes away, we grieve and slowly accept the reality of living without the person in our daily lives. They say time heals our wounds and, while we don’t believe this at the time, we learn it is true. When a loved one is living with a mental health condition that is not being treated, we also grieve — but it’s different.
When someone we love dies, we have no choice but to eventually accept the person’s absence. But when we have a loved one with a mental illness, what we must accept is that things won’t be as we hoped or expected. While they are alive, they might not be able to communicate with us, or they might lash out at us and shut us out. It can feel like we’ve lost them.
This explains the grief I’ve been experiencing for my loved one. They have an untreated mental health condition and they’re refusing any contact with me. I use “loved one” and “they/them” because my loved one has had paranoid thoughts. They’ve said that they don’t like people talking about them. They insist that I mind my own business and leave them alone and stop invading their privacy. It’s heartbreaking.
Because far too many consider mental illness to be a taboo subject, we can be tricked into believing we shouldn’t talk about it. Sometimes it might seem better to keep it to ourselves. It’s not. Mental illness might not be easy to talk about, but I’ve learned it’s even harder to stay silent.
At NAMI support groups, I have connected with other family members and friends of people with mental health conditions. Hearing their stories and sharing my own helps me feel less alone. We talk about the sadness we feel for our loved one’s pain, and about how we can sometimes feel frightened, guilty, angry, frustrated, powerless, and exhausted. We talk about finding ourselves in situations that seem impossible. We learn to let go without losing hope for the possibility that things could be better. We express our feelings of loss and recognize it as a safe place to grieve.
I talk about wanting to be there for my loved one, even as they shut me out. The reason I couldn’t call my loved one to talk about the Grammys and Brandi Carlile is because they threatened to call the police to say I was stalking them after I sent birthday and Christmas cards and called to wish them a happy new year. I share this knowing it is painful for both of us, but that they are not currently able to find relief from that pain.
I am grateful to have the support of peers who understand what I’m going through and who remind me that I am not alone in feeling an overwhelming sense of loss at times like these. It helps me to have the courage to talk about this outside of those closed doors. I do so because I believe that is necessary to help end mental health stigma and create hope for those affected by mental illness.
Yes, hope. We hold onto hope that our loved ones will be treated and experience relief, even happiness. We hope that we might someday talk on the phone again, sit down to listen to music together, and maybe even get tickets to see a favorite artist like Brandi Carlile perform in concert.