When the Casseroles Don’t Come

If you’ve been following the blog for a little while, you know that Humanistic Jew, Jr., was hospitalized last year. (If you didn’t know this, now you do. I’ve been open about it. April 30 was the one-year anniversary of the start of the first of two hospitalizations.) He was in a behavioral health (that’s the nice way of saying, “suicides, overdoses, and other acute psychiatric problems”) facility twice over the course of a month.

I haven’t mentioned that while there were people who were there for us, there were people we thought would be there for us but who were decidedly not.

It was isolating. That was made worse by what treament was like.

Many times, even the pediatric versions of behavioral health units are not places where guests can come and go, where families are welcome to stay and be with their loved ones. There aren’t visitors’ chairs, snack bars, and TVs. You get an hour to visit on visiting days.

Take that in: our child, then not quite ten years old and a constant presence in our lives, was out of our home, and we got to see him for an hour–on the days that we were permitted to see him.

(We could debate whether that’s the best way of doing things, and I’m sure there are such debates within the medical community. It was what it was, and it was that way at two different facilities in different hospital networks, with different physicians, levels of care, and specializations.)

And so, I was happy to see this article today at Kveller about what to do when you know someone whose child suffers from mental illness.

The answer: do what you would do if there were a physical illness. Get up and go visit. Bring something to eat. Even a casserole or some fruit will do.

This seems so easy to say, and it’s something you think you would do, right? Let me tell you something: it’s quite possible that you wouldn’t.

There are many ways that mental health issues are rendered problematic. The sheer uneasiness with which we relate to such issues is one of them. It’s hard enough to respond when someone is physically ill, but we kind of know what to say: we have a sense for the range of answers, and often view as heroic those struggling through physical difficulties. We can see those difficulties, we don’t question their authenticity, and we think of them as having end points.

Non-physical stuff? That’s much harder to understand. So I understand that it’s much harder to ask about and to react to.

The number of times Mrs. HJ or I said about our son, “I just want him back”…we can’t even count them. We couldn’t see him. We couldn’t be with him. And when we were with him he was violent, or volatile, or distressed, or distracted, or just “not him.”

And then, when the hour was over, we were back at an empty house. None of that is made better, by the way, when you worry that it’s somehow your fault as a parent.

So bring a casserole, just like you would for someone whose spouse or child is in the hospital with a physical ailment. (Also, I actually really like casseroles. Just saying.) It’s very likely that the person you know whose child or partner is experiencing a mental health crisis–whose loved one is not there and cannot be seen–is really, truly mourning. Everyone in the family may need help.

(I want to be clear–HJ, Jr., is fine now. He’s autistic, but that’s not something I consider an illness in itself; to understand why I say that, please do a bit of reading about neurodiversity. But there was a period when he wasn’t fine, and that’s what I’m talking about here.)

Read that Kveller article. And the next time it happens to someone you know, and that person seems open to it, try to get over there. Just be there if you’re needed. Because even if there are ten people around, that person’s house may feel as empty as if there were no one. You may be needed.

If you like, consider this part of bikkur cholim, visiting those who are ill.

And, you know, maybe bring a casserole.

5 thoughts on “When the Casseroles Don’t Come

  1. Thank you for this, and for the link to the Kveller article. My experience is similar to yours, that having a child with a mental illness can be horribly isolating. My kid was 25 when he first told me about his hallucinations, but the feelings and experiences you describe as a parent are very much like mine. We need to do much, much better by folks with mental illnesses and their families.

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