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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.


Depression and Other Mental Illnesses: Sometimes There’s No “Happily Ever After”

I’ve had conversations recently with several people about how/whether they’ll be able to continue being in relationship with someone they truly care about, but whose mental illness is making life extremely uncomfortable.

One person has a sister-in-law with multiple diagnoses who was phoning and texting constantly, spouting abuse with each contact. This woman and her husband made the difficult decision to cut off all communication with their relative, until she could converse politely and appropriately.

Another woman I know is questioning how long she can remain married to her husband of 10 years.  His bipolar disorder has caused her great distress, and though he’s trying medication he refuses to enter into therapy.  He doesn’t communicate with her, and her requests to be included in his treatment decisions fall on deaf ears.  But she truly loves her husband and is at a loss about what to do next.

Yet another woman I know has been married to a man suffering from severe, debilitating depression for many years.  He repeatedly fails to follow through with treatment strategies.  He’s been basically nocturnal for many years, and resists any doctor’s attempt to help him get onto a more normal sleep schedule.  He’s grouchy, self-centered, and narcissistic – all symptoms of his illness.  My friend wonders whether she’ll have any interest in continuing to deal with her husband’s issues once their children are grown and moved away.

I, too, have dealt with the issue of estrangement from a mentally ill relative.  Someone in my extended family has been struggling for years with diagnoses the rest of us aren’t informed about.  Her erratic and self-defeating behaviors would be difficult enough for us to deal with; her verbal and emotional abuse of her close family members and her incessant, irrational phone calling when she’s in a particularly bad patch make everything much worse.  My choice, for my own emotional well-being, is to severely limit contact.

In our second book, “Dancing in the Dark: How to Take Care of Yourself When Someone You Love is Depressed,” Bernadette and I discuss the various ways depression (and other mental illnesses) can end.  Sometimes healing occurs and relationships are restored – sometimes even improved.  Sometimes suicide is the tragic end result.  Sometimes divorce happens.  Sometimes relatives and friends end up estranged. Our take on this issue is that all of these possible results are simply a fact – no judgment or blame should be attached.

When mental illness affects a relationship, we do the best we can to deal with the consequences.  Bottom line, we all need to act in our own best interests of safety, emotional health, and physical health. We may regret some of the actions or non-actions we take, but in the end there’s no use beating ourselves up for whatever may happen.  The most important thing is that we reflect, learn, move on, and grow.