So you love a person with mental illness. Maybe they have depression, social anxiety, or even schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder. I can’t help you help them with a specific disorder, but that’s okay. You shouldn’t try to help them with their specific disorder either. You are not a therapist.
That is to say, you shouldn’t be a therapist. Maybe you’ve found yourself falling into that role: You try to help them figure out ways of beating their disorder, you try to ask them just the right questions so that they’ll feel better, or you look up therapeutic techniques and see if they’ll play along. As a long-time sufferer of all sorts of crazy shit, allow me to kindly say: Cut it out.
I know you just want to help. In fact, you may have had some successes along the way, and now you feel like you should press forward and help even more. That’s nice, but you need to stop before it’s too late.
Love and Therapy
Why? Because you’re muddying the waters. You’re putting yourself into a dual relationship with your loved one where you’re both a friend and a trainer.
Let’s say that you have a boyfriend with schizophrenia. His name is Jimbly (I’m no good at coming up with fake names), and he’s growing increasingly depressed, he’s agitated all the time, and he’s full of weird ideas. You, trying to be a good girlfriend, are constantly asking him probing questions about why he thinks the way he does and what his depression is all about. You try to guide him into positive activities, and talk to his friends to get their help, and all sorts of well-intentioned manipulation.
Over the course of months, you eventually stop being his girlfriend and start being his nurse. You start finding more effective ways of short-circuiting his brooding, but your relationship is getting… weird. Maybe he’s growing a little submissive, or maybe he lashes out at you sometimes and spends more time away from home.
You are training him. You’re training him to deal with his problems, but you’re also training him to resent you a bit. This is not healthy for a loving relationship, and it’s certainly not what you signed up for when you met him at that Waffle House three years ago. God, he was so dashing in his cargo shorts and Tapout t-shirt.
In acting as both friend and trainer, you may have found yourself growing detached from him. You have formed a bit of clinical distance so that you can help more, and so that you’re not swept away by his daily crying bouts. You no longer default to caring.
You cannot be both father and shrink; friend and social worker; or lover and therapist. You’re putting yourself in a position where you’re compromising your primary role (loving, supporting, accepting) for one that you’re not qualified for (deciding, depriving, judging).
I’m not great at the relationship thing, but I do know one rule: Don’t fix. When we set out to fix someone we love, they change from person to project.
So What Can You Do?
First, you can take care of yourself. If your loved one is depressed, it’s taking a huge toll on you. Yeah, I know they’re suffering directly, but your life is growing increasingly chaotic and painful. You probably feel a bit helpless. Take that urge to fix and use it for your own wellness and happiness.
Read books. Go on walks when you need to. See your friends, even if your loved one sees it as a betrayal. Mentally ill people can be dicks. They don’t own you, and you can’t just cloister yourself in your house and suffer along with them. How the hell is that helping?
Second, you can suggest psychiatric care (see my post “Feel Depressed A Lot? Please Go Get Medicated, You Jerk“). If someone is mentally ill, they can probably benefit from a medication regimen. And by “probably” I mean that “science has proven that medication has a high probability of helping to some extent.” There are very few exceptions, such as in the case of certain personality disorders.
Their psychiatrist can refer them to a counselor, who can do all that fiddly fixing stuff that you’d desperately like to do. They’ll suggest daily habits, coping skills, journaling, meditation, all that crap that you’ve read about online but can’t make them do. It’s better when it comes from a professional. These people are paid to be detached, they’re trained to tease out the little parts of the depression that you’ve never been able to reach, and they’re supposed to make clinical judgments.
Oh, and if you’re having trouble coping, go see a counselor yourself. It’ll help, and they might help you find positive ways of dealing with your loved one.
Quick note: Psychiatrists and counselors are not all created equal. Try to get a referral from your general practitioner rather than playing yellow pages roulette. If you can't afford any of this stuff, there may be programs set up in your area that can help.
Third, you can listen. We’ll talk about that in a second. First…
What Not To Say
I might sound a little harsh in this section, but it’s only because I’ve been on the receiving end of all of these and… they sting. Please realize that these are all natural things to say, and I totally get it. Just don’t be a dumbass.
“We all feel sad sometimes.” Off to a bad start! You have failed the empathy test, please turn in your test booklet and answer sheet.
Sure, we all feel sad sometimes, but you know what this sounds like to your loved one? “Why are you being such a baby?” You’re trying to let them know that you understand, that they’re not alone. What you’re really doing is revealing your complete lack of insight into their problem. Their “sadness” might be your abject fucking despair.
“You’ve got so much going for you!” or “You’ve got such a great life!” Indeed. That’s why it’s called a disorder.
By saying this, your loved one will hear that you don’t consider their suffering valid, as if they don’t deserve to feel pain. Damn right they don’t deserve it. That’s kind of the whole problem.
“At least you’re not [undergoing some example of true suffering].” Some kids are dying in a ditch right now. Your friend has cancer. Soldiers are being tortured. A fifth of the population of Sudan lives in what we’d consider a sewer.
Okay great. Now what? Is your loved one supposed to leap out of bed like Charlie’s grandpa in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory? Getting some perspective might help, but leave that to the therapist to draw out over the course of a few sessions. When you say it, again, you invalidate their genuine suffering.
“Shake it off!” Eat shit.
“Have you prayed about it?” This one, out of all of the above, hurt me the most. It let me know just how completely my friend or loved one misapprehended the nature of my torment.
When religious folks have a mental illness, they pray. You feel helpless, you realize that you’re not acting how your god or gods want you to act, and you find yourself slipping further and further from a feeling of rectitude, of Christ-likeness, Buddha nature, the Rede, or what have you. Of course they have prayed.
If you’re of a religious bent, feel free to offer to pray with someone (if you’ve got that kind of relationship). Just don’t insult them by, in essence, questioning their faith and devotion.
All of that said, don’t feel like you have to walk on eggshells. I know I just got a little spooky, but I don’t want you tiptoeing around the house, afraid that you’ll slip up and ask something offensive. You certainly don’t need to pretend that there isn’t a problem. Just try not to assume, try not to minimize, and realize that there is no perfect thing to say.
Hell, sometimes there’s not even a right thing to say. Every little word will get you in trouble, and every innocent comment is received like a pot roast at VeganCon (I am not sure if this is a real thing).
So, let’s have a talk about listening. You see, there are different kinds of listening.
- Not Listening. They’re gabbing, you’re thinking about how your left pinky toe has a really weird nail.
- Competitive Listening. Oh man, stop talking so I can finally talk! My story is way sadder!
- Problem-Solving. That’s really sad. Here’s what you should do…
- The Inquisition. What was that like? What did you do next? Do you think this is really about your parents? Have you tried this or this or this?
Notice how that last one didn’t have any, like, stuff after it.
Truly listening is a skill, and it doesn’t necessarily come naturally. It means not getting your turn to tell a story. It means withholding judgment for the whole time they talk. You don’t think about what they should do next, and you won’t have any recommendations for them. You don’t even have a follow-up question ready by the time they’re talked out.
You allow their words to wash over you. You pay attention to the feelings behind their words, and the many layers of meaning poured into them. You consider this person, this injured creature in front of you, and you allow them to tell the story of their pain. Sometimes they may even search for a word (depression is hell on memory), and you don’t supply it, you just wait.
Once they’re done (truly done, not just collecting their thoughts), then you can process. Then you can think about what you might like to offer (a question, a caring touch, even a suggestion). Maybe nothing needs to be said at all.
Imagine that. Someone listening to you and, instead of trying to fix you or say just the right thing or ask the right question, they just pay attention. How refreshing would that be? How much of a burden would that remove from your shoulders as the speaker, to not have to perform, to not “feel better” at the end? To just be heard.
Nothing’s Ever Easy
This won’t fix them, but it can be pretty great. It takes some of the weight off of your shoulders as well. You don’t need to fix, or to be on your game, or to say just the right thing. You can just be there. You can have the one relationship rather than trying to play therapist. You can connect despite mental illness trying to drive a wedge between you.
I want to repeat this before you go: Take care of yourself. You deserve good things, you deserve relief and sunshine and time with your friends. You can help your loved one in certain ways (listening, helping them into therapy), but you can’t take their pain away by being in pain yourself.
Have you found any of this to be true, from either side of the situation? Have you fallen into the dual relationship trap? I’d like to hear your stories.
Featured image credit: Brandon Warren