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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Injugu

Reconnecting and Rebuilding

I had an interesting conversation with someone I met recently. We talked for an hour and if I were to sum up our conversation, it was about reconnecting. Reconnecting with family and friends. But why would this be a big deal, can’t you just pick up your phone and call/ text? Even better, can’t you just go meet them and bam, you’re reconnected!

This is a conversation that has featured in some of my therapy sessions quite often. A client will ask how they can re-engage with significant people whom they have not talked to for a while. At this point they will explain that during a period of mental illness , several people reached out to check on them or to let them know that they were thinking of them. But because my clients were in a situation where they could not or did not know how to respond, these texts and calls went unchecked or unanswered. 

In the present, as they sit across from me, my clients want to come back to these relationships but something keeps holding them back- Guilt. They feel guilty for not responding, for not having the energy to check in on family, for missing out on birthdays, deaths and the general ups and downs of their friends’ lives.

What if while my life was on pause, they moved on and left me behind? Will they want to hear from me, have I missed too much, what will they say? This is only a fraction of the questions that run through my clients’ minds.

Another question we consider is the outcome of reaching out. What will happen? What will they say? What if they don’t respond? When we attempt to re-establish our connection with family and friends, there are always multiple possibilities. 

One, we may be received with arms open wide and full acceptance of our apologies and explanations. The relationship proceeds and we continue to grow and learn more about each other.

Two, a partial reception- the receiver might accept our explanations and reasons but they no longer want to continue our friendship. 

Finally, rejection- they don’t want to accept our reasons for absence and they cut us off.

For all of us, we ruminate on the possible outcomes of any actions we are about to take. We decide what step to take based on if the outcome is worth the risk. I imagine that for my clients who are already so emotionally vulnerable, the risk seems bigger. 

The truth is, mental illness takes away a person’s agency to care for themselves as they should. The things we take for granted like basic personal hygiene such as brushing your teeth, combing your hair or making the bed; and the more complex tasks of maintaining social relationships, fall lower on the priority list. 

My job is to empathise. I try to imagine the fear and hesitation of my clients so that I can help them summon the courage to take the step of reaching out, send a text or show up for the hangout everyone will be going to. Practically, we identify the actions they can take. 

In some cases we practice what they will say- ‘hi, thank you for reaching out when I wasn’t feeling well. I’m still not at 100% but I know you are thinking about me.’ 

Sometimes I encourage my clients to write a letter and give it to their friend if they might be open to it. The letter takes off the emotional intensity of having to explain themselves in person. It is also an invitation to the receiver to share their own perspective and experience of their friend’s absence. 

I have also sat across from family members and friends who equally take the risk to love and to continue desiring a healthy relationship with their loved ones who are experiencing a mental health breakdown.

When dealing with family members who have to work through mental illness, sometimes all we can have is compassion. This is what leads us to text and call even when they do not respond back. We do what people actually need even if it is not easy for them. Compassion allows us to continue caring even when we cannot put ourselves in the shoes of others.

Turning the Lens on You

  • Create a priority list of family and friends who are more likely to receive you and embrace where you are in the process of healing. This sends a positive message back to you and reinforces the effort you are making.

  • Decide what you are comfortable communicating. Have you had the experience of withdrawing from family and friends due to mental illness? What would you like to say about your time away that doesn't leave you feeling too exposed to questions you are not ready to answer.

  • As you reconnect with loved ones, what are your strategies for taking care of yourself when you feel overwhelmed or when conversations do not go as planned?

Remember: The people who love you don't tire to worry about you and love you.

By Catherine Karega- Injugu, MA Clinical Psychology

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