Inspired by her experience supporting her son through borderline personality disorder, Cindy Gerdes is redefining the family’s role in mental health care.
Featured in the Embracing Recovery section of the MHF 2017-2018 Annual Report.
The skills taught through Family Connections can be hard for family members to wrap their head around.
For some, family life has been a war zone as they maneuver a loved one’s mental illness. Learning to respond appropriately to loved ones is difficult when the most immediate emotion is anger or fear.
“It’s like a rose bush,” says Cindy Gerdes, Program Coordinator for ACCESS Open Minds. “A rose bush is full of thorns. If you push through it, you’ll get cut up by the thorns. If you want to get to the other side without getting hurt, you need to jump over the bush.”
Cindy knows this well. She’s had to learn to jump over her own personal rosebush: her son has traits of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
When Cindy’s son first began struggling with mental illness, their family couldn’t find a way to navigate the system, despite Cindy being a nurse for 30 years. Like many parents, she wondered: “Where do I start?”
Ryan’s story took many turns, but eventually led the family to McLean Hospital in Boston. In addition to finally finding effective treatment for her son and support for her family, Cindy was added to the waiting list for Family Connections.
Once home, with no workshops on the horizon in Edmonton—or anywhere nearby in Canada, Cindy jumped at the chance to take part in an intensive weekend of Family Connections in New Haven.
The initial experience of the program was like a “punch in the head.”
“I knew Ryan was suffering,” she says, “and it was embarrassing to have been in the health sector for so long, and not know how to help my child.”
The training highlighted how a home environment that is not well suited to the temperament of an emotionally sensitive child, can contribute to their mental illness.
“I thought, oh wow, I think I’m a good parent but I’m actually making him sick. That was very hard, the weight of feeling like a bad mother, bad nurse, and because of the stress, bad wife.”
“It really rocked me.”
The facilitator of the weekend told the parents they may have been part of the problem, but now had the opportunity to be part of the solution.
It was a huge learning curve for Cindy as she rethought the “right” way to parent. “It’s hard to change. I’m old,” she jokes.
In addition to other skills, Cindy learned to communicate with Ryan in a less emotionally charged way and to limit her judgments.
“When you’re not screaming at each other, it’s much easier to follow the plan for regulating emotion. How can you stay mad when someone’s genuinely trying to understand your experience?”
At the end of her course, inspired by her success, Cindy quickly signed up to become a facilitator. But she wanted to do more: bring it to other parents like her back home. “I just thought: this is crazy that we don’t have this in Alberta.”
Through her connections at Alberta Health Services, she advocated for the program.
Thanks to the RBC Foundation, in partnership with the Royal Alexandra Foundation and the Mental Health Foundation, her wish was granted. Family Connections, through a generous donation, provided the missing piece of family engagement at ACCESS Open Minds.
“I was stunned when I received a call back, asking ‘would $50,000 help?’”
With funding taken care of, the weekends quickly materialized. The first workshop was offered in October 2017. By January, Cindy was fully certified.
Cindy was struck by the many parents reporting the difference the program made in their families.
To see and hear the growth in people in a very short period of time—our weekend intensives are only 4 days—is remarkable,” says Cindy. “These families are slowing down, making different choices in how they respond, and seeing their whole world differently.
Just as promising, seven new family members put up their hands to continue the momentum and become facilitators.
Cindy grew, too. Participants are asked to embrace the process. As a facilitator, this meant continuing her learning and considering skills in ways that hadn’t formerly been apparent.
One skill stood out to Cindy. “It’s called radical acceptance, acknowledging things for what they are rather than what you feel they should be. I never realized how much I was suffering over the “loss” of the life I had envisioned for my son.” Learning to radically accept the situation took away that weight. It provided a sense of peace, allowed Cindy to enjoy the wonderful person Ryan is and to help him use his strengths to recover and live well with his illness.
When one of the Family Connections families lost their son to suicide, this concept shone in a new light. Part of radical acceptance is learning how to grieve the loss of what we expected or hoped for in a healthy way. Cindy realized that learning this skill provided loved ones with a means to honor their deep sadness, let go of anger and judgment and to keep from getting “stuck” in their grief; pulling away from the people and things in their lives that provide support and meaning.
The possibility of suicide looms over every family that attends the workshops; it’s what brings them to the group, says Cindy.
But before this incident, Cindy had never thought about how the program was giving parents the gift of being prepared for the worst case scenario. It teaches how to move forward the best way you can.
The two parents are still active facilitators. While their loss was painful, they say the two months they had with their son after finding Family Connections was the best time they’d had together in years. Helping other parents now drives them.
Family Connections is an opportunity to change people’s minds about what care looks like, to empower our community to support itself.
“It’s so cheap for what it is and it’s so likely to be sustainable because it runs on parent power,” says Cindy. “They love and provide for these people, and they’re willing to learn and do more for them than any service provider because of their relationship.”
Parents who are educated about mental illness are better equipped to care for their loved ones can take some of the pressure off the system, which means more people can access care.
“If we can harness their energy, imagine the impact we could have,” says Cindy.
That’s her hope for Family Connections. With 7 facilitators in training to deliver workshops in 3 cities—Edmonton, Calgary, and Red Deer—she is well on her way.
“All a parent ever hopes for their child is that they’ll be happy and find something to do that they love. Once you figure out what helps your child, you want other parents to know it. It’s incredibly rewarding. And for the first time in a while I really have that hope for the future.”
So do other parents. At the end of one session earlier this year, a man who had been struggling through the workshop told Cindy: “You know, I think I’m finally learning to jump over the bush.”
If you are a parent, friend, or caregiver that supports a loved one with emotional challenges, Family Connections might be right for you. Check the schedule for upcoming workshops offered in your area.
Meet 3 families whose lives were touched by the program.
The Family Connections™ Program
Family Connections™ is a 12-week course that meets weekly to provide education, skills training, and support for people who are in a relationship with someone who has BPD. Focusing on issues that are specific to BPD, it is hosted in a community setting and led by trained group leaders who are usually family members of relatives with BPD. Dr. Alan Fruzzetti and Dr. Perry Hoffman developed the course based on their research as well as their significant professional expertise in counseling people with BPD and their loved ones. Family Connections provides: current information and research on BPD and on family functioning; individual coping skills based on Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT); family skills; and group support that builds an ongoing network for family members.
Family Connections™ is coordinated by the National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder (NEABPD) and is based on research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. It reflects a decade of professionally led Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) family groups that are community based and led by trained family members. Survey data from previous courses show that after completing the course, family members experience decreased feelings of depression, burden, and grief, and more feelings of empowerment.