Dealing with the pain of a loved one’s mental illness

Susan Dovell, left, one of the co-teachers of a 12-week Family-to-Family Education Program being offered in Harrison Sept. 9 by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine, poses with her sister, right, and her mother taken the year before her sister’s death. “She was happy and healthy at this point — a very good memory,” said Dovell.

Susan Dovell, left, one of the co-teachers of a 12-week Family-to-Family Education Program being offered in Harrison Sept. 9 by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine, poses with her sister, right, and her mother taken the year before her sister’s death. “She was happy and healthy at this point — a very good memory,” said Dovell.

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Two women from the Lake Region have made it their mission to help families cope with the pain, guilt and horrible helplessness that comes when a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness.

Deborah Buffington of Bridgton and Susan Dovell of Harrison didn’t know each other when they went to Augusta this spring to train to become trained instructors for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine. Independent of one another, they reached out to volunteer, because both of them share the wish to give back for all the good that NAMI has done for them.

Together they will teach an intensive 12-week Family-to-Family Education Program in Harrison that they both only wish they’d taken when they were trying to help their siblings (see sidebar on NAMI course, page __).

“If they’re anything like I was, when I was in the throes of being responsible for my sister, it can be completely consuming. And you feel helpless,” Dovell said. The training provides knowledge, resources and tools that transforms helplessness into empowerment, and also helps families understand what they simply cannot do, she said.

Dovell’s sister suffered for decades with her bipolar disorder before it was diagnosed 20 years ago. And her parents, brothers and sister suffered with her. They watched her self-medicate with drugs and alcohol during cyclical rounds of deep depression. They bore the brunt of her tremendous anger and unhappiness during her manic phases.

COLLAGE OF MEMORY — For his brother’s funeral, Deborah Buffington’s family chose photos that “caught him best, always smiling.” NAMI to offer in-depth course  HARRISON — For the first time ever in Northern Cumberland County, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine, known as NAMI, is sponsoring its free 12-week Family-to-Family Education Program for families of people diagnosed with mental illness.  The free series of classes from the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization will be offered in Harrison beginning on Wednesday, Sept. 9, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Those who sign up will be given the location details once they have contacted Susan Dovell at 583-8054. The program is also being offered in Westbrook beginning Tuesday, Sept. 3, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. (Call Karen, 653-6269, or Jack at 653-7600), and in Brunswick beginning Monday, Sept. 14, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. (Call Valerie, 319-7956). The course is an evaluated, national best practice program, and will cover information about schizophrenia, the mood disorders (bipolar disorder and major depression), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other major mental health challenges. In addition, coping skills such as handling crisis and relapse; basic information about medications; listening and communication techniques; problem-solving skills; recovery and rehabilitation; and self-care around worry and stress will be included. The course is designed specifically for parents, siblings, spouses, teenage and adult children and significant others of persons with severe and persistent mental illness. The curriculum has been written by an experienced family member mental health professional, and the course will be taught by NAMI family member volunteers who have taken intensive training as course instructors.  Both of the co-teachers for the Harrison course are local; Dovell is from Harrison and the other instructor, Debbie Buffington, is from Bridgton. Both also have had family members who were mentally ill. "This course is a wonderful experience!” says Christine Canty Brooks, Director of Peer and Family Programs at NAMI Maine. “It balances basic psycho-education and skill-training with emotional support, self-care and empowerment. We hope families with relatives who have mental health challenges will take advantage of this unique opportunity." For more information, contact Christine at the NAMI Maine office at 1-800-464-5767, ext. 2305 or e-mail ccantybrooks@namimaine.org

COLLAGE OF MEMORY — For his brother’s funeral, Deborah Buffington’s family chose photos that “caught him best, always smiling."                                              
NAMI to offer in-depth course
HARRISON — For the first time ever in Northern Cumberland County, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine, known as NAMI, is sponsoring its free 12-week Family-to-Family Education Program for families of people diagnosed with mental illness.
The free series of classes from the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization will be offered in Harrison beginning on Wednesday, Sept. 9, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Those who sign up will be given the location details once they have contacted Susan Dovell at 583-8054. The program is also being offered in Westbrook beginning Tuesday, Sept. 3, from 6 to 8:30 p.m. (Call Karen, 653-6269, or Jack at 653-7600), and in Brunswick beginning Monday, Sept. 14, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. (Call Valerie, 319-7956).
The course is an evaluated, national best practice program, and will cover information about schizophrenia, the mood disorders (bipolar disorder and major depression), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other major mental health challenges. In addition, coping skills such as handling crisis and relapse; basic information about medications; listening and communication techniques; problem-solving skills; recovery and rehabilitation; and self-care around worry and stress will be included.
The course is designed specifically for parents, siblings, spouses, teenage and adult children and significant others of persons with severe and persistent mental illness. The curriculum has been written by an experienced family member mental health professional, and the course will be taught by NAMI family member volunteers who have taken intensive training as course instructors.
Both of the co-teachers for the Harrison course are local; Dovell is from Harrison and the other instructor, Debbie Buffington, is from Bridgton. Both also have had family members who were mentally ill.
"This course is a wonderful experience!” says Christine Canty Brooks, Director of Peer and Family Programs at NAMI Maine. “It balances basic psycho-education and skill-training with emotional support, self-care and empowerment. We hope families with relatives who have mental health challenges will take advantage of this unique opportunity."
For more information, contact Christine at the NAMI Maine office at 1-800-464-5767, ext. 2305 or e-mail ccantybrooks@namimaine.org

Her brothers finally “kind of gave up” while her parents “were just simply overwhelmed,” Dovell said. “And they felt tremendously guilty for not having spotted it earlier.”

Dovell tried to be the responsible family member, but it was hard to help long-distance when her sister moved to the West Coast and she was in Virginia. Finally Dovell turned to NAMI and took the Family-to-Family Education Program. She learned from her peers how to listen and communicate with her sister, and just as important, how to talk intelligently with her sister’s doctors and therapists about her symptoms and side effects from medications.

“It is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever taken,” said Dovell. “They give you a four-inch thick notebook full of information — these classes often become support groups of their own.”

For the last five years of her sister’s life, Dovell said she felt she could be truly helpful. Then, tragically, after her sister had stabilized, gone back to school and had a boyfriend, she got cancer, and died within a year.

Right after Dovell finished her training, another family member was diagnosed with mental illness. Only this time, she said, she had the tools she needed to feel she was really helping.

“Some days it’s all you think about, but it wasn’t that long ago, when all of a sudden you’re not worried. You realize how effective you are,” Dovell said. She was thrilled to learn, after recently moving to Harrison, that NAMI has such a strong organization in Maine. The former president of NAMI Maine is now the president of the national organization, she said.

Debbie’s story

When Buffington’s brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the early 1980s, NAMI was only a few years old, and families had little or no resources to turn to.

“There was so little public knowledge back then,” Buffington said. “It was such a heavy burden for the family.” His sudden and total break with reality, coming at age 23 during his last semester of a college forestry class, devastated her family.

“We found him in a homeless shelter in Manchester, New Hampshire,” said Buffington. Up until then he was very intelligent and studious, with a kind, sweet disposition and always smiling, she said. “He had a wonderful fiancée.”

Only later did she learn that an undiagnosed case of diabetes had likely triggered her brother’s genetic predisposition for schizophrenia, which typically manifests in a person once they are in their 20s.

After the family found him, he ran away several times until he finally found a doctor he trusted, and was put on Depacote, a powerful anti-psychotic medication. Over time, her brother was able to develop natural supports living with his parents in Lovell, taking long walks with his Labrador retriever, and attending church every Sunday.

She attributes his stabilization to a conviction in her family of “always having hope and never giving up on them, because when you stop having hope, you lose the connection.”

Buffington said she and her brother shared a strong bond, and while working and raising her own family she visited him often over the years, and even though she wasn’t involved with NAMI, she tried to advocate for him as best as she could. Then five years ago, at age 53 and 30 years after his break with reality, he suddenly collapsed with a brain tumor.

Buffington said he wouldn’t leave for the hospital until she got there, so she could help him get ready to go.

“He depended on me to cut his beard,” she said. “We had this connection.”

Her brother had surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain, and he only lived for another two weeks, she said. But during those two weeks, as grace would have it, “He had this time of clarity, the most he’d had since he had the break,” said Buffington.

“He told every person why they were special to him, and how much he loved them,” she said. “Even people with mental illness have this capacity to show compassion and empathy to others, so we should show the same to them.”

It wasn’t until after he died that Buffington got involved with NAMI. Now she said she wants to teach the Family-to-Family classes “to inform as many family members that I can the valuable information that I only wish was there when my brother got diagnosed. If I can make a difference for members of just one family, it will help me give back a little portion of what the information has done for me.”

 

Please follow and like us: