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Boundaries and burnout involving mentally ill family members…we’ve discussed this topic before on Depression’s Collateral Damage. But events in my life over the past week have made me return to the issue and I’ve come away with some new (to me) insights.

I have a fairly close family member who struggles with borderline personality disorder. It’s obvious that life is hell for her, and I’m truly sad for what she has to deal with. I’ve had to pull away from her, however, simply out of self-defense. The sobbing, weeping phone calls, the manipulation, the accusations and verbal nastiness, the constant crises and emergencies…it’s too much for me. Yet I felt a huge burden of guilt over my disengagement. After all, I have a good, stable life. A job I love, wonderful kids, a loving husband, friends, hobbies, etc. So many things she would love to have – but which her illness prevents her from having. So I should be generous. Reach out, spend time with her, help her find a healthy place. I’m tough and strong, right? I should be paying it forward.

Twice last weekend she ended up coming to our house. I tried very hard to enjoy her company. She behaved, to the untrained eye, pretty normally. But in the wake of those visits, I was more than drained. I was depressed, anxious, angry, and confused.

It took several days of soul-searching, but in the end I had an epiphany.

**Warning** I am about to use a word that I would never use to describe anyone else’s experiences with mental illness. But I feel it’s the word I want to use in the context of my own experiences and the way I feel about them. Please forgive me if you find the use of this word offensive.

I have had to live with crazy for my whole life. My mother, my father, my grandparents, my husband – all have contributed significant amounts of different kinds of crazy. I’m not just talking about the typical “family stress” pretty much everyone deals with. I mean seriously, diagnosably ill. In forms that have affected my life in extremely real and painful ways.

So back to my epiphany…the only way I’ve managed to live a joyful, peaceful life is to create large bubbles of safety between me and the crazy of my family members. That bubble is pretty small for my husband – I’m invested in his recovery and his quality of life and I want our life together to be good. But with everyone else, the safety bubbles have to be significant. Again, I’ve long felt a ton of guilt for keeping my distance from so many family members, but no more. I know it’s a matter of survival. And In the case of my close family member with BPD, the safety bubble has to provide complete isolation. I’ve reached my lifetime limit of crazy. I simply can’t go there and still have peace.

I spelled all this out for my husband earlier this week – he’s in such a good place now that I was able to say it all to him. And he understands and supports my need for those safety bubbles 100%, including facilitating my complete isolation, as needed.

It’s an incredible relief to allow myself permission to do what I need to do and be who I need to be. Not to mention to have the support of my husband in this effort. And just in time for the holidays…



6 Responses

  1. I can totally relate to this Amy and have been in a similar situation myself. I am mentally ill, but not ‘crazy’…and I agree it is a stigmatizing word – it is also appropriate in the correct context.

    People with Borderline Personality Disorder tend to be ‘crazy-making’ ie. argue with you in circles, be manipulative, lie and just generally create drama. I’m not saying it is their fault or that they don’t deserve empathy/understanding. But it is also draining for everyone they have relationships with and sometimes it is just too much.

    I also take exception because as a sufferer of Bipolar Disorder, I have a chemical condition which can only be managed with medication, in conjunction with lifestyle choices and therapy. I will never be cured, only managed. However, people with borderline personality disorder often recover with therapy – particularly Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.

    I am glad you have set your boundaries and protected yourself from the ‘crazy’. You have already given so much of yourself to others and you need to remember you are not a bottomless pit.

    Michelle xx

    • Thank you so much for your kind words of support, Michelle. They mean a great deal to me.

      I can tell by your wording that you know exactly what it’s like to deal with a person with BPD. I try to hang onto the hope that my family member will one day choose to seek appropriate therapy and find a path to health (as you point out, it is possible). But at this point it doesn’t seem likely. Perhaps, in part, that’s why I have so much respect for people who have other diagnoses (such as depression, bipolar, etc), which, as you say, can be managed but rarely fully cured. Seeking and following a course of treatment – and, as always happens, trying new treatments repeatedly – takes incredible determination and courage.

      Again, many thanks for your thoughts. -Amy

  2. Thank you for this. My family is also dotted with BPD across the generations, with at least one sufferer in each. Many family get-togethers were punctuated by a big eruption and someone leaving with their kids in tow while the others of us watched terrified. When one aunt died several years ago, one of the cousin’s wives who never grew up with someone with BPD in her family could not fathom why all us now-adult cousins were terrified of the woman. “She was all of 5’3″ inches tall. What was there to be scared of?” But the emotional scars were real. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I really learned how to set limits with some of my other BPD family members. Sometimes the limit setting can work. Other times, it is important to have “the bubble.” Good for you for taking care of yourself. – Angie

    • Thank you for sharing this, Angie. I can’t imagine how hard it must be having more than one family member with this particular illness. I really appreciate your thoughts. -Amy

  3. I couldn’t agree with this post more. I’ve created a safety bubble between one family member and myself. It took a long time and lots of guilty feelings, but I finally realized that my relationship with this person certainly wasn’t doing me any good, and it really wasn’t doing her any good, either. She used our interactions to get worked up and angry, not for companionship or honest communication. In many ways, it felt like talking to her was feeding into the manipulation.

    I don’t think we have an obligation to deal with someone who is emotionally abusive or toxic in some way, just because we happen to be related to them.

    • Bethwinder – I really appreciate your reading and commenting. Actually, your words came at a perfect time – last night this person initiated contact again, and it led to a downward spiral of phone calls and texts with my husband. I was on the periphery, but it still affected me. So reading your words of support first thing this morning was a real help to me. Peace – Amy

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