Confidently out of my Depth.
There are times in life when I live, eat and breath confidence.
When my wife asks me “Do you want to grab some bacon and cook your pancakes with maple syrup and banana in the morning?”, my confidence levels are peaking pretty close to 100% in favour of the purchase of bacon.
When the Under-14 Football team that I coach turns up to play a game, their impeccable record allows me to make the bold assumption that they are more than likely going to make their presence known on the field, and I will probably go home a happy coach.
When I lived in England in 2007, I was exceedingly confident that the All Blacks would rightfully hold the Rugby World Cup aloft that year… We were consistently ranked the best team in the world, and we hadn’t lost in ages… I guess that it pays to recognise that maybe sometimes, what we place our confidence in, may turn around and bite you in the posterior.
This one time, I was lucky enough to be working in a dream role as a Chaplain at a School on the outskirts of London. A crazy kiwi Youth Worker had somehow convinced a bunch of British people that he might be a good fit for the role… So there I was… Passionate about young people, enthusiastic about modelling a relevant and authentic faith story, but completely and comprehensively out of my depth when it came to being a carer for someone with a mental illness.
I think to some degree, identifying my limitations as a carer was quite likely what enabled me to perform this role adequately.
I have been asked to provide a list of things to consider when supporting someone with a mental illness… Once again – completely out of my depth, but hopefully that proves to be useful!
Number One: Love the person underneath the problem.
I had an inherent respect for individuality and an underlying ethos that people are individuals with their own story. I have never been frightfully good at fitting in people’s tidy boxes, so I tend to be ok with individual differences in others. This enabled me to seperate the “problems” that were presenting themselves, from the person in which they were being presented. This is kind of important – the person you are trying to help may be anxious because their situation doesn’t exactly enable them to fit in the “normal” box.
Number Two: Create a safe space.
I had a space at the school I worked out that was affectionately known as “The Holy Hut”. This space was where students were free to come and chat, hang, pretend to study, basically be themselves and know that who they were was valued with no strings attached. Within the school environment, students were stressed about grades, assessments and the social pressures that are attached to being a teenager. They bring with them the arguments at home, the despair at situations outside of their control and then we expect them to push themselves in the classroom… It is critical that those students that are struggling, are able to find sanctuary – a space where they are “known” and loved all the same! Where they can breathe and then face the world again. I think Bible Scholars would mutter something about Kairos time in here somewhere – if you see a greek Scholar lying around, please send them here to find meaning again… In the absence of a Greek Scholar – google Kairos – if you can find the time. Our space was popular and well used by senior students in particular, although in hindsight, ensuring that some of your filing cabinet doors are OPEN so your OCD friend is able to be gainfully occupied whilst hanging in your “Safe Space” might not be regarded as a strategy worth copying on a mass scale…
Number Three: Don’t set unrealistic expectations.
I don’t think it is reasonable that we ignore the situation that has presented. I think a big part of why I was able to be supportive, was that I never shied away from the fact that there was something going on… there was no elephant in my room – things were open and honest and I was able to be frank and ernest (although I preferred being Frank, cos it was a manlier kind of name). I was able to be consistent, supportive and honest with my advice.
Number Four: You are not alone.
A big part of how I was able to support someone, was the understanding that I was only one cog in a bigger machine that was involved in supporting someone. I never saw it as my exclusive role to be the person that “fixed” my friend. I was someone that was able to support them through the process of being supported. When things were awful in the “system”, I was someone that treated them as special – as valuable, and hopefully not as a problem waiting to be fixed. I was also supported through being a supporter by a structure of accountability that recognised that I was important, but also that I was entirely out of my depth with regard to specific treatment goals and strategies.
Number Five: Be a purveyor of Hope.
I think the most powerful strategy in my arsenal actually had nothing to do with me. I am wary of suggesting that you apply cookie-cutter strategies to a complex world – but if someone that is struggling with a mental illness is able to focus on just a smidgin of hope, it could actually be something that starts them on a journey of recovery. With my friend, I was able to continually remind them that they were actually just a little bit amazing. They were talented in so many areas, they had a heart as big as an elephant and they had a picture of God that was as big as I would ever hope it to be. Here lies the catch-22. Too MUCH hope, and I risked pointing out the fact that the present reality was grossly mismatched from the life they could be enjoying. Not enough hope, and the whole point of being a support person was rendered pointless. I think I got the balance right – although there were many times where the look in my friend’s eyes seemed to say: “I can see what your saying, and that sounds nice and all… but don’t be surprised if there is no air in your tires when you try to drive home this evening…” I think the balance is found in what I would like to call “Honest Hope”. We need to be honest about the situation, the disconnect between present experience and future dreams. We need to make sure that we are able to sow a believable picture of a time when mental illness is not the defining story in our loved-one’s life.
Well there you go… an ill-equipped but well intended few thoughts on mental illness and how to try your best at not being a doofus to those you care about who walk the torrid journey.
About Al: Al Ronberg is a teacher of Christian Education and Science in a large private Secondary School in Auckland, New Zealand. He is a dad to a couple of little princesses and an undisclosed almost-here new arrival… He likes to meet new people and hopes that in some way he can be a part of changing the world! Al has spent a career investing in young people in New Zealand and in the UK as a Pastor and Chaplain…All is not known for his ability to sit still and loves sports, playing music, taking photos and walking in New Zealand’s “Mean-as” native bush… It is a little known fact that World Coffee markets would simultaneously collapse if Al stopped drinking coffee. You can get to know him a little bit more at http://www.about.me/alronberg