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What Is A Life Coach And How Does One Help Family Members of A Mentally Ill Loved One?

Dec 22, 2021

Craig Byrne and Jo Tonnesen


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If you are a parent, spouse or friend to someone who suffers from a mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or any other mental health disorder, you are probably feeling lost, overwhelmed and hopeless on how to cope with this shift in your world. The dynamics of this complex relationship is a real struggle and can leave you exhausted and uncertain about what to do next. You may be experiencing several challenges associated with navigating communication and interactions with your loved one and you are wondering if the complications you face in your everyday life will ever return to the way they used to be. 

Do you find yourself feeling alone and wondering if there is anyone who understands who you could talk to that can relate about what seems like a hopeless situation? The good news is, there IS help. A life coach who has experience with this complex situation can certainly support you in finding solid ground even within the tangled roots of a Mental Illness diagnosis.

What is a life coach, you might be wondering, and how do they really help? According to best selling author and motivational speaker, Tony Robbins, “A life coach encourages and counsels clients on a range of professional and personal issues. Life coaching is distinct from giving advice, consulting, counseling, mentoring and administering therapy. You hire a coach to help you with specific professional projects, personal goals and transitions.” Furthermore, he goes on to explain that life coaches counsel clients on a variety of issues they are faced with. They help you progress and grow by creating a plan of action designed to assist you in achieving “specific outcomes in your life.” 

Jo Manan is an experienced and certified health care professional, certified and trained in navigating relationships with those diagnosed with a Mental Illness. Her personal experiences and education in Mental Health and Social Services can guide you to pilot the day to day overwhelm and confusion of a mental illness diagnosis and the chaos that can rule your relationship with a diagnosed loved one. Jo can guide you in getting your life back on solid ground after being uprooted since she knows the difficult challenges each day can bring. 

Jo shares a familiar story that you can most likely identify with if you also love someone with a mental illness diagnosis.

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The story goes like this: 

Jackie’s alarm goes off just in time for her to open her eyes and see the sun start to rise above the fence line into her bedroom window. She feels good this morning and says to herself “Rise and shine! Today is going to be a great day!” It’s Wednesday and she’s finally completed that project for work. She even finished with it a little early. She is feeling quite proud of herself as she starts to get ready for her day.

As she prepares to jump in the shower, her thoughts shift to her son, Taylor. Jackie remembers he has a doctor’s appointment today. She wonders if Taylor has planned for transportation, and she starts to feel irritated when she wonders, “Is it that same girlfriend he keeps getting into trouble with driving him? I’ve never liked that girl. She always distracts Taylor and makes him forget important events. She probably doesn’t even know about his diagnosis.”

As Jackie makes her coffee for the morning, her thoughts begin to spiral. She calls Taylor to check in. When he doesn’t answer, she texts him and reminds him of his appointment. She knows it’s probably too early, but she doesn’t want him to sleep in and miss his appointment like he always does. When Taylor doesn’t respond to the text, Jackie has all sorts of thoughts and worries running through her mind. “I wonder if the new meds are working…Did he drink last night? The medications never work right when Taylor’s been drinking. I bet he went out with that girl and she bought him alcohol again. Maybe he is hungover. He knows meds and alcohol don’t mix well. He’s always angry when he has been drinking… 

Last time he was hung over, he got angry when I woke him up with a text checking up on him. 

We got in a huge fight and he came over irate, yelling profanities. 

I had to call the police.

 If I make one more call about him to the police they said they will bring him to jail and not to the hospital. 

The hospital doesn’t seem to help, anyway.

He hates it at the hospital

 I get so sad and confused when he gets anxious about going to the hospital, but then again, it’s better than jail.”

Oh GREAT, Jackie is late for work (again). She grabs her keys and heads out the door. When she arrives at work she still hasn’t heard from Taylor. She is very worried by all the scenarios she has played out in her mind on the way to work but really doesn’t see any way that this day is going to turn out OK. After all, Taylor is erratic. Jackie never knows what to expect from him. 

Upon arrival at the office Jackie tries to sneak in the back door but bumps right into her boss. Just her luck! Looks like this day is already getting worse, and she still hasn’t heard back from Taylor. There’s no need for an excuse for her boss. No one understands mental illness, anyway, she thinks. It’s so hard to be the parent of a “sick” child when he “looks” so normal. Besides, everyone is so judgmental. 

The fighting and the trips to the hospital only for him to refuse help and refuse medication cause Jackie a great of anguish. “Doesn’t he know they wouldn’t have to restrain him if only he would cooperate?

As Jackie settles into work, her phone rings. It’s Taylor. “Hi Mom! You called?”

WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? I’ve been worried sick. Are you hung over or just irresponsible? I always knew that new girlfriend of yours couldn’t be trusted. Now I am late to work, my boss is mad and you’re going to miss your appointment! I just can’t do this anymore, Taylor. I love you, but you have got to start taking your meds on time and getting yourself together.”

Fortunately, Taylor doesn’t respond. He simply hangs up (and doesn’t say all the horrible, hurtful things he is thinking.)

Jackie goes the rest of the day at work with thoughts buzzing in her head. From: “Oh God, please watch over him. I’m sorry I yelled” and considering sending a text, “Do you want to come over for your favorite dinner?” to “Why are you so selfish, answer me! I’m worried sick and you don’t even care.”

Jackie simply can’t help but believe that if Taylor was “normal,” life would be so easy. This belief causes her a great amount of guilt and shame.

At the end of the workday, Jackie gets a text from Taylor. “I got a new job Mom. My girlfriend drove me to pick up my uniform and sign papers. That’s where I was when you called this morning. BTW, my doctor appointment is tomorrow.”

Jackie feels awful and cries the whole way home…. 

So, there it is, another miserable day all because of what? A girlfriend? A mental illness? Can’t anyone help me to stop all this anxiety, guilt, and frustration?

This scenario plays out in families day after day. Well-meaning, worrying, shame-filled family members of a mentally ill person assume they can somehow control their loved one’s behavior. They seek to shelter and protect their loved one, but things rarely go smoothly by incessant worry, guilt, or shame. Of course, these measures are meant as “acts of love”, because the uncertainty of their family member’s behavior is often more than families can bear. The great news is, THERE IS HOPE!  

 In reality, these “acts of love” can be the very actions perpetuating the escalation of behaviors for the diagnosed persons and stigmatizing them even more as time passes.

Families know they cannot continue the way things are, but they have no idea what or how to react differently. Furthermore, they are in desperate need of support and direction from someone who has been in the trenches and truly understands. 

As a health care professional, a person with a diagnosis and Life Coach, Jo has a proven set of tools and practices that have helped people navigate these relationships and bring peace back into the lives of those are willing to try new ideas for moving forward. “In essence, I want to empower you and your family with new perspectives that open the door to the true possibility of being happy again,” Jo says.

After all, isn’t that the goal? A peace filled, happy life, free from the constant worry? This is what we all crave, and this can be a difficult goal to aspire to when faced with the challenge of having a mentally ill loved one. 

If you are overwhelmed, confused and filled with guilt and even shame over your relationship with your loved one, Thistle Coaching offers a life-line when people encountering the everyday obstacles of a mental illness disorder feel as though they are drowning.

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