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Self Preservation? Or Just Being a Jerk?

I had a close encounter with mental illness today.

Last night, an extended family member asked me to contact another family member who is in the middle of a full-blown meltdown. These meltdowns are a fairly regular occurrence, and I’m sometimes tangentially involved. But this time she was specifically asking to talk to me, and I agreed to give her a call today. I do care about this person, and I would like to see her reach a point of healing and wholeness.

But I wasn’t surprised to find that this phone call was a big mistake. It was a hysterical, circular conversation on her part, unproductive for her and certainly unpleasant for me. I couldn’t be of any help. To be honest, at this point I don’t think anyone can help. Sometimes people reach a point where there’s nothing anyone else can do to make things better. That’s where this relative has been for a very long time. Encouragement, positive suggestions, expressions of concern, physical and emotional support…all meaningless. The naked truth – that the only way out of the place she’s in is to get professional help and follow a course of treatment – falls on deaf ears. Conversations inevitably become abusive and irrational.

It’s all so hopeless, so ugly, I’ve deliberately distanced myself from her over the years, with only occasional contact. After this phone conversation today, I’m coming to the decision that this is the end of communication for the foreseeable future. My plate is very full at this point in my life, both from a very mundane schedule perspective and from an emotional overload perspective. I simply have no more to give.

So now I’m left reflecting on myself and my actions. If it were someone else, I would say that they were erecting healthy boundaries and doing what they needed to do to in a very difficult situation. I would say that no one can “save” another person who doesn’t want to be saved – and usually not even someone who does want to be saved.

But because it’s me, I question my own motives. Is self-preservation a legitimate excuse for estrangement? Or am I just a selfish jerk? My inner critic and my inner nurturer are playing a nasty game of tug-of-war. And the game could go either way.
-Amy

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5 Responses

  1. It is really really hard to be told by someone that there is nothing they can do for you and want to be distanced from you. I’ve been on the receiving end of that aentent twice that I can remember and those were very sad mtimes for me. But this relative of yours sounds not very much like me (I am quite good at maintaining a sense of fairness and good will towards people even when I am in my darkest hours). I hope that you are able to feel settled about your decision in the matter.

    • I appreciate your perspective. It’s so hard that this is a very long-term (lifetime, actually) situation, with every attempt at assistance ending badly. And as difficult as it is for me, it’s exponentially worse for her parents. I think sometimes the collateral damage of long-term mental illness can be much more wounding than terminal physical illness.

  2. I understand the difficulty and the feelings involved here. If it was me distancing myself, and trying to work out my own feelings I would probably try to work through it like this:

    Can I cope with being there for this person?
    Is being there for this person doing harm to me personally?
    Is being there for this person actually helping them in the long run?
    Is it even helping them in the short run?
    Has my previous advice been taken on board/ had any effect?
    If not, have I any new advice to give or aproaches to try?

    If I still can’t persuade myself that I need to cut loose (a likely result, sadly) then I’ll move on to:
    Is there any way I can give help or support that doesn’t involve direct contact? (Letters, cards, occassional pick-me-up gifts can help without putting you on the recieving end of the abuse)
    Can I help by being there for those who care for her, rather than being there for her herself? (If they’re having trouble coping too then perhaps helping out by calming them down/cheering them up in a meltdown situation will help her by knock-on effect without you needing to deal with her directly.

    Basically, if you feel you need to pull back then you should, but persuading yourself that it’s necessary is really bloody hard!

    • Wow, thanks for these suggestions. They really are helpful. Your series of questions helps me sort through the whole thing. Also, I definitely can support the main caregivers, and written communication with the person herself is a distinct possibility. I appreciate your thoughts!

  3. […] emotional health, to cut off contact for the time being. (Here’s the post I wrote at the time: https://depressionscollateraldamage.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/self-preservation-or-just-being-a-jerk/) To no one’s surprise, my decision to suspend communication was not clean and neat; it led to my […]

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