Testimony – Rebecca Duke

Family to Family
by Rebecca Duke

I recently completed the NAMI Family to Family class and found it to be a valuable learning experience. The course is intended for family members, partners, significant others, and friends of individuals living with mental illness. It’s an educational program, offered at no charge, designed to help caregivers better understand and support their loved one through the challenges and struggles of mental illness, and learn ways to advocate for treatment and services. In addition, the class stresses the importance of self-care and maintaining one’s own well-being while helping their loved one.

Topics covered include:

  • The normative stages of emotional reactions to the trauma of mental illness.
  • The characteristics of psychotic illnesses.
  • Information on various mental illnesses like Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, PTSD, OCD and Anxiety Disorders.
  • Basics about the brain, how genetics plays a role & the biology behind mental illness.
  • Early warning signs, reacting to crisis, problem solving & communication skills.
  • Medications, treatment & recovery.
  • Battling stigma & advocating for the mentally ill.
  • Handling the negative feelings of anger, entrapment, guilt & grief.
  • Learning how to care for oneself & achieve balance in one’s own life while caring for another.

In the class I attended there were approximately 20 students and 3 teachers/facilitators. We met once a week for 12 sessions. One of the facilitators, Denise, has been teaching the Family to Family class for 9 years and shared with me that over time, she’s noticed a shift in her students. They now arrive with less anger, more understanding, and more knowledge about mental illness. Denise has also noticed a change in the number of men who are taking the class. Her Family to Family classes used to be filled with women… as she put it, “the NAMI Mommies,” but in the last couple of years, she’s encouraged that more and more men joining the class.

The motivation to seek out and participate in the Family to Family class remains the same. We join in order to learn how best to help a loved one and cope with the grief and despair. We discover NAMI because we are desperate for help. We feel exhausted, depleted and at our wits end. We want so much to assist our loved one, but all our endeavors and attempts seem to fail. As Denise expressed, we are “the walking wounded.”

Our first class involved introductions. We shared about ourselves and also about our loved one who suffers with mental illness. There were many tear-filled testimonials. Some couldn’t speak about the trials of their situation without crying. We were given the option to pass, and during this first class, many of the attendees had to take it. As the course continued, we learned new and factual information, knowledge of various diagnosis, a basic understanding of the chemistry involved in these devastating brain disorders, communication and problem solving skills, and ways to advocate for our loved one.

The Family to Family class, as with all NAMI programs, regards the lived experience of the caregiver and the individual living with mental illness as invaluable. With each class, as we reviewed the curriculum, participants shared regarding their own knowledge, experience and feelings regarding the various topics.

Throughout the twelve sessions, we developed into a network of support, a group of knowing and compassionate people, all of whom get what it’s like to have a loved one who’s mentally ill. We came to realize that our classmates could support us in a way that no others can… without judgment, and with empathy and a greater understanding of our struggles and the weighty burden of caring for an individual who’s suffering. Personally, I felt less laden and less alone.

We were also given suggestions and encouragement regarding self-care. Our lives can’t only be about our sick loved one. It’s not just about how to best care for them. It’s also about how to care for ourselves, while trying to do the best for them. Our quality of life matters and we deserve peace of mind and happiness.

Over time, as we became a cohesive group, a transformation took place. The atmosphere and mood became noticeably lighter. With each week, the faces of my classmates, once sullen, drawn and tense, started to relax. At the start of each class, we greeted one another with smiles. Our eyes, once filled with sadness and despair, came back to life. Their were still tears, but there was also laughter, healing and the beginnings of hope.

The last class was perhaps the most touching and telling. Our facilitators asked us to share our “ah ha” moments… those moments that something really spoke to us. For instance, a piece of information that opened our mind and bettered our understanding, a dialogue that moved us and changed our perception, a tip or technique that had a positive outcome or effect.

Here is what was shared by our Family to Family class participants:

  • I used the “I” statement, and, it worked! For the first time in many years, my sister and I spoke from the heart… we had a real conversation.
  • I felt empathy from the group.
  • I’ve learned how to better advocate for my loved one.
  • It’s easier to talk to my son about his drinking.
  • I found the contacts provided to assist us in advocating for our loved one most useful.
  • The class has helped me to let go… I’m not wanting or trying to control my loved one. It’s helped me to realize his thought processes and given me tools.
  • I don’t feel the victim anymore.
  • I had a lot of guilt that it was all my fault… that I didn’t bring him up right. I don’t have that guilt anymore. It’s not my fault.

If you would like more information on this life-changing program, or other programs offered free of charge by NAMI Valley of the Sun, please contact the Education Coordinator, at (602) 759-8177 or by email: education@namivalleyofthesun.org

Rebecca Duke pic