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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.