Blended families have a lot of challenges to overcome. One of them can be mental illness. I’ve personally dealt with the latter but do not have a blended family. Never have. So I reached out to my friend Sally Odekirk for some insight on her blended-family experience, parenting with a spouse who struggles with mental illness. Over 16 years ago, Sally and I were coworkers at the Ensign magazine. I watched her navigate the challenges of raising a blended family. It was tricky. It was tough. But years later, somehow they’ve made it. And I admire her and them for all that they’ve done to come together. So without telling you more, I’m going to step aside and let her tell you their story–along with 17 helpful tips to help blended families who also struggle with mental illness.
This article is PART 2 in a series talking about “Why Does Your Family Matter.” Click here to visit the first article.
A few weeks ago we had a family party with most of our family there. Such gatherings only happen a few times a year because of busy schedules and distance, so our get-togethers are highlights for us. We delighted in seeing our house and yard filled with children and grandchildren. We enjoyed watching them laugh and talk and play together. Afterward, my husband, David, and I marveled at where we are in this journey we started on 32 years ago.
Let me explain: David and I each had three children from previous marriages: Jonathan, Ben, Brian, Lara, Brittany, and Shannon. At the time, they ranged in age between four and ten years old. We were fortunate that their ages and personalities worked well together. Within a few years, we added another son, Jeffrey, and a daughter, Katie. Later we began including David’s ex-wife, Bette, and her youngest daughter, Krista, in our family activities. Along the way we have laughed and cried, worked and played, and we now have 24 grandchildren who add to our joy.
There were times when the days were long and filled with worry and uncertainty. We had to learn how to work with strong-willed, high-spirited, energetic personalities (as my sister once observed, “There isn’t a shrinking violet in the bunch”), to deal with broken and blended family issues, and to cooperate with former spouses. In addition to these and other challenges that come to most families, David struggled with mental illness that was undiagnosed while the children were growing up. We wondered on more than one occasion if and how we were going to make our complex family work.
Tips to Help Blended Families Mesh
Our family is not “perfect,” and we don’t have all the answers. All families face circumstances that are unique to them and their family members, but these are some of the things that worked for us:
- Avoid using the terms step and half. Right away, we wanted to build unity. “You are all brothers and sisters now,” we told our children. When people ask me how many children we have, I automatically say that we have a blended family of nine children. Occasionally when someone asks me how many biological children I have, it seems like an odd question because they are all my children!
- Have fun outings together. We used camping trips and other activities as ways to have fun and to strengthen relationships with each other. We still like to go on family camping trips with those who can come, and the grandchildren add to the fun. They are treasured experiences filled with laughter and shared memories.
- Include spirituality. We made a point of going to church regularly, and attempted to have prayers, family home evening and discussions. It was not always idyllic and peaceful! We frequently told them that we are all works in progress and that we were learning from our mistakes along with them.
- Prayer and faith has been a lifeline. I know that Heavenly Father knows and loves these children and grandchildren even more than we do, and that they are in his care. Ulisses Soares, a general authority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gave some great counsel that also applies to raising children: “The best we can do … is just to love and embrace them, pray for their well-being, and seek for the Lord’s help to know what to do and say. Sincerely rejoice with them in their successes; be their friends and look for the good in them. We should never give up on them but preserve our relationships. Never reject or misjudge them. Just love them!” (“How Can I Understand?” April 2019 general conference).
- Co-Discipline. As a couple, we tried to be on the same page when disciplining our kids. It wasn’t always easy to do because of differences between us in personalities, backgrounds, and David’s illness. One thing that we did when they misbehaved was to make them write us papers about what had happened and what they learned from the experience. It was not their favorite thing to do. I came across some of their writings a few years ago, had a good laugh, and marveled at how much they have grown.
- Ask for help as needed. We learned to ask for and accept help from others. In our case, grandparents, family members, neighbors, friends, bishops, young men leaders, young women leaders, and parents of our children’s friends were an important part of our support network. Truthfully, they were absolutely necessary for our survival as a family. We needed to know that we were not alone in our concern and love for our children. They have been angels we could rely on.
Insights from the Children about Our Blended Family
A few years ago I asked our now-grown children to share some of their thoughts about growing up in a blended family with the New Era magazine readers (“Overcoming Family Challenges,” New Era, December 2012). Here are a few of their suggestions:
- We realized that we were all in this together, and we learned to accept each other as brothers and sisters. We try not to use the terms “step” or “half.” —Brian
- Spend quality time together to build unity. We have a lot of fun hanging out together. —Brittany
- Learn to accept and appreciate each other, and try not to criticize. Talk about how you feel and forgive each other. —Lara
- Let go of anger. Forgiving others will give you peace, clarity of thought, and understanding. If you don’t like some things about your family, make a plan to do things differently for your future family. —Ben
- My grandparents were always there for me. I knew I could go to their home when I needed to get away for awhile. —Jonathan
- Talk to your parents, a leader, a friend, or an older sibling about how you feel. —Shannon
- At a family reunion with all my parents and brothers and sisters, I realized that they were a team, they loved us all, and that we would be OK. Regardless of the shape, size, or way our family came about, our hearts know one another and we are a family. —Brittany
Help and Hope for a Partner with Mental Illness
Without question, the hardest part of building our family was dealing with David’s unexplained, sudden shifts of mood–the mania, the depression, and on occasion, the erratic behavior. At the time, mental illness was not openly talked about and there was little accessible information on what it was, how to work with it, and how to help those afflicted with it.
David did his best to control his behavior, but there were difficult days when I wondered if I could carry on. Every time I felt like throwing in the towel, I received the strong impression that I needed to stay, to keep working, to not give up.
About the time that our youngest was in high school, David recognized that he needed help. My brother was a mental health case worker who saw David struggling and took the time to explain it to him in a way that David could understand. We also found the right doctor at the right time who gave him the right diagnosis: bipolar 1 with schizoaffective disorder, and who worked with him to get the medicine he needs to be stable. It took several months of trial and error, questions and concerns, but eventually David was able to get better control over his moods.
Most important of all, David wanted to be “normal” as he puts it, and has been willing to do everything he can to make it happen. David turned to heaven for help and has been strengthened beyond our wildest hopes. A few years ago our stake president was inspired to call him to serve in a small congregation with members who have serious health issues. He has blossomed there as he reaches out to others.
Please understand that there are times when it is absolutely necessary to leave a relationship with someone who has a mental illness. In our case, though, the answer was to stay. Here are a few things we learned:
- The one with the illness must put forth the effort to be healthy. This is the most important thing in our relationship success. David takes responsibility for attending his doctor visits, taking his medicine, and being aware of his moods. My role is to support, encourage, and cheerlead for him. When I see something I’m concerned about, I let his doctor know.
- Prayer, patience, and perseverance. You need all three to work through the moods and all that accompanies them. Sometimes David wants and needs a lot of attention, and other times he just wants to be left alone.
- Be flexible. Sometimes David has a lot of energy and at other times, not so much. For example, when we go on road trips we plan on doing a lot of sight-seeing, but if he feels overwhelmed we have learned to scale back expectations and change plans.
- Stay calm. It took me a long time to learn that my spouse often reflects my attitude. When I raise my voice, he becomes more and more agitated. This is one thing I wish I had known a long time ago…
- Self-care is priority. Fortunately there are now websites, information, and forums where needed answers and support can be found. There are people who understand! I like the Facebook page Bring Change to Mind. My go-to site on the Internet is MDJunction; it has discussion groups for a wide variety of issues.
Thinking back on our journey, I realize that we have been guided all along the way, even in the dark times when we felt alone. I am so grateful that we didn’t give up!
Sally Johnson Odekirk worked for 37 years with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints magazines as typesetter, admin. assistant, editor and writer. Recently retired, she now delights in spending time with David and their large family. She is also happily adjusting to this latest change in life. You can read more about her and her experiences at: Our Adventure in Bipolarland, www.sallyosmusings.blogspotcom.
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