Do you know 20 people?
If you do, the National Alliance for Mental Illness says you know someone who is suffering from a serious mental illness. And their use of the word “serious” excludes more common, but no less difficult, anxiety and depression struggles, so the actual amount of people you know suffering from mental illness is probably much higher.
So, it stands to reason that there are a lot more than one in twenty of us who are trying to figure out how to love and care for them.
How do we do that? I bet I can take a guess at your answer: do things for them they can’t do for themselves, talk with and listen to them, give them lots of hugs, make extra allowances for them and their behavior, and check in on them A LOT.
Makes sense, right? They have a harder time with things, so we should do more for them. It’s what we’ve been taught. We’re good, caring, kind people, so that’s what we do. Right?
It’s important for us to take a moment to acknowledge the way that fiction and movies teach us to love someone who is hurting. We see things like Perks of Being A Wallflower, Silver Linings Playbook, or A Beautiful Mind and we come to believe that if we can just be totally there for someone who is suffering, we can be that knight in shining armor that carries them back to health. We learn that love conquers all.
I am here to tell you, in no uncertain terms, that love cannot conquer a mental illness.
There has never been a person who has been loved out of Bi-polar Disorder, or been saved by someone else from their anxiety. No matter how selflessly we can care for someone and support them through the process, their struggles are their own, and we cannot slay our loved ones’ demons for them.
I want to take another guess at what’s going through your head. This person is a therapist?! And she wants me to stop caring for my father/mother/sister/brother/friend/partner/aunt/neighbor!? Well, whatever, therapist lady, I cannot abandon my person. They need me.
Sure, this might be setting off some alarm bells for you. If you’ve been caring for and loving someone with mental illness for a while, the habit of “saving” them is probably pretty strong.
But I have a tough secret to share with you. That loving care can turn sour very quickly when we forgo our own boundaries and continuously prioritize someone else’s needs over our own. There is a big difference between caring about and caring for. We suffer from something called compassion fatigue when we reach the end of our emotional resources. And now we’re suffering right along with our person, with no clue how to help them anymore.
But there’s hope! With intention and therapy, of course!
Recognize That Your Scope of Care Has Limits
Sometimes, what your person needs may be beyond what you can offer, and that is in no way a reflection of how much you care for them. We clinicians spent a lot of time and money learning how to do what we do effectively, and it isn’t easy. Be gentle with yourself and remember that no matter how much you love your person, there is no way for you to offer them the professional support they may need.
This is something I hear from a lot of people who have had a friend in a traumatic situation, like having been sexually assaulted. “How do I help?” They ask. “Listen, validate whatever they are experiencing, and then contact a professional immediately,” I answer. For both of you.
Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries
There is no white horse. You are not a knight in shining armor. Your person may have many crises in their life, or come to intense moments of despair and hopelessness. It’s important for us to support and love those we care about, and riding to their rescue in each crisis can prevent them from learning how to manage their own life. And can affect your life negatively.
I know it feels kind of backward. Think about it this way. Often times, I think about my clients between sessions, and sometimes I want to call and check in. Sounds pretty nice and caring, right? A very wise peer once pointed out to me that if I did that when it was unsolicited, I was sending a pretty clear message that my clients can’t handle their lives without me. I have more respect for my clients than that. And I bet you have more respect for your person than to teach them that they cannot live without you.
Swapping But For And
This helps with the boundaries thing. The word “but” links two different pieces of a sentence together to form a whole thought that has two contradicting parts. I love cookies, but I’m allergic to them. Part B of that sentence tells us that Part A cannot exist. So when we say to someone “I love you, but I can’t keep dropping everything in my life like this,” there’s a subtle message that we will discontinue loving our person if we have to keep rescuing them.
Try out the “and” trick. “I love you AND I can’t keep rescuing you,” feels a lot better, doesn’t it? Knowing that we cannot save our people does not in any way negate the fact that we love them.
Get Your Own Support
Just as your person is worthy of care, compassion and support, so are you. In fact, getting your own needs met will help you continue to support someone you love. Find a therapist to work with (Hey, I know some!) and come to the realization that your needs are just as valid and important.
I’ll say it again, and I will never stop saying it: There is no white horse, and you are not a knight in shining armor. You don’t have to go it alone. If your resources are tapped, you’re barely treading water, and you don’t know how to save your loved one, give us a call, and let us help you.
If you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders, bring it to us and let us prop you up so you can rest. The closest that any of us can come to saving someone we love, is to model how to do it by saving ourselves.
I send you love and hugs now and always, for you and your loved ones with mental illness. No one of us has to go it alone. We’re here for you.