Phone calls from the group home

by Sue B.

Every evening about 6:00 p.m., an incoming call lights up my phone. The area code is upstate New York. It’s my brother.

Fred is in his 50s and has a mental illness. After years of living with family members and going in and out of hospitals, he was placed in a group home for those with brain diseases like mental illness. We are enormously grateful that such homes exist, and aware how fortunate we are that we found a good one for him.

For reasons neither his therapist nor psychiatrist have been able to figure out, Fred has panic attacks every evening. This is why he calls nightly at 6:00 p.m.  Sometimes he wants reassurance that his medication will indeed kick in to relax him (it always does, eventually). Sometimes he feels proud of himself that he is not as afraid of the attack. And often, he wants a loving reminder about how to get through it.

Fred’s panic attacks are a symptom of his anxiety disorder — a diagnosis he has in addition to his primary diagnosis of schizophrenia. He has been taught deep breathing skills to use when the attacks hit. He’s been told to always alert a staff member so they can breathe with him. His therapist suggested that he try to call my sister and me less – not because we’ve requested it, but because she’s teaching him to  use the resources he has right there in the group home.

But still, he calls.

Sometimes I can’t take his calls. But often, I can.

I have learned, over a period of time, how important my own groundedness is when it comes to offering Fred help. My deep, abiding faith in a God who is Love, and the strength that comes from it, almost always allows me to offer him calm assurance. Though Fred has challenges that are unique to what is called mental illness, I know that he is intelligent, thoughtful, responsible, and is a beloved as a child of the Omnipotent One.

After many years of learning to eradicate my own myths and misunderstandings about mental illness – and learning (through resources available in NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness) what it is, what it isn’t, and how we can provide practical, loving support to those who live with it, I now know how to help him feel more secure when he’s having a panic attack.

“Can you feel your feet on the floor?” I ask him.

He says yes.

“Remember that the ground underneath your feet represents support that is all around you – from people who love you, from God and the whole universe. You’re not alone. You are safe right where you are. Feel your feet on the floor to remind you.”

And then we breathe together.

Slow breaths in through the nose, from the belly, and slowly out through the mouth. Sometimes it helps him to hum on the outbreath. And it helps him to be reminded that he is never outside of God’s care.

We all have different names for God and ways of tapping into the Source we call divine. We may have different words that come to us when we want to express spiritual support to others. For me, sometimes I’m prone to say more, and sometimes I’m prone to say less. I know from my work as a chaplain that presence combined with silent support is very healing at times when people are struggling. Fortunately, it’s a gift we can always give when we don’t know what to do, especially when someone is struggling with depression, anxiety, confusion, or panic.

For my brother, the presence of someone who cares, tender words that he will be OK, the simple practice of feeling his feet on the floor, deep breathing, and a reminder that he can never be separated from God – these are all life-giving aids at times of his panic attacks.

No doubt I will continue to use them every night when he calls.

Sue B.

Interfaith Chaplain

INMI Board member

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.