While doing research for the book I’ve been working on for forever, I asked friends to share questions they’ve had about mental illness that they may have been too scared to ask someone who is suffers from it/them. I thought I’d take some time to answer some of those here. Eventually, I’d like to get around to all of them and make this a series, but I’m not promising anything long-term. Let’s just start small.
These are real questions I’ve been asked, but, obviously, I plan to keep the names of those involved to myself.
Q: My loved one has been suffering from depression. I want to help, but she doesn’t respond to my calls and won’t let me in to offer even an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on. I feel powerless and my feelings are hurt. Frankly, I’m getting tired of being pushed away. What should I do?
My Answer: Alright, you wouldn’t have your feelings hurt if someone you loved had two broken legs and couldn’t get up to give you a hug, would you? Mental illness is exactly the same. The mind is sick and is working to destroy the person carrying it around (just like any other illness), so the person suffering is acting out in ways that would allow him or her to justify his/her feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. By pushing everyone I loved away by acting out, I was able to later justify the underlying belief that I was a burden who only made others’ lives miserable. A person who is depressed feels alone in the world, even if he or she is surrounded by loved ones, and the best way for a sick mind to reinforce those beliefs is to keep that person isolated by any means necessary. While the actions or attacks a person suffering from depression displays toward you may seem personal, they are not; they are this person’s unhealthy thoughts driving his or her behavior to create self-destructive behaviors.
If you want to help this person, you cannot give up on him or her by cutting this person out of your life. While you can’t assist this person by giving him/her an easy lifestyle to get away with a substance abuse problem, nor should you enable a person with mental illness to get away with physical or emotional abuse. A person suffering from mental demons may attempt to abuse you as long as necessary to fulfill the belief that he/she will inevitably be abandoned. But even if need to make arrangements for this person to live away from you, you must stay in contact with him/her if you want to have any impact on the outcome of the problem. You must show unconditional love and support, no matter how horribly the person has treated you and attempt to remember that a person’s aggressive actions are not indicative of you or anything other than the fact that a person is ill.
However, obviously, if you are in physical danger or if you are unable to take the mental abuse without taking it personally, you should definitely remove yourself from the situation. Letting a self-destructive person destroy you too still won’t help the problem.
For now, it sounds like this loved one is just isolating his/herself because of the fear that people she/he loves will reject her/him should you get a chance to socialize. Showing consistent interest and encouragement to share emotions is the best way to support this person, no matter how long it takes. Obviously, you shouldn’t nag or put pressure on him/her to act a certain way, but small gestures to let him/her know she/he is in your thoughts go a long, long way.
Q: I live with someone who has expressed suicidal thoughts and/or intentions. Should I hide all the knives?
A: Look, we may be crazy, but we aren’t stupid. Someone who is legitimately hell-bent on self-destruction will find ways to continue doing so. There are dozens of ways people can kill themselves that don’t involve wrist-slashing. In mental hospitals, patients are stripped of razors, drawstring clothing, shoelaces and access to medication, but there are definitely still ways to end it all if someone is desperate enough. (One classy nurse told me upon entry to inpatient treatment, “And please don’t kill yourself; we don’t want to upset the other patients.” Nice work on that sensitivity, lady.)
You can’t live your life making huge changes for someone with a problem. For example, someone with a drinking problem may get angry that other people can drink in front of him/her, but ultimately, there will always be alcohol in the world, and it isn’t up to everyone who can enjoy it to cater to those who are unable to. Obviously, not all circumstances call for booze, which is why we have bars and social areas where drinking is restricted (like behind the wheel of a car or in a nursery/hospital/public school), but expecting everyone in the world to curb their drinking is not only impossible, but not helpful in combating an individual’s personal problem.
The same goes for self-mutilation, suicide, other substance abuse, sex addiction (if you believe in that), anorexia, binge eating, or any other self-destructive habits borne of mental issues. Besides it being hopeless, it also reinforces a mentally ill person’s fear that she/he is being stigmatized for being “crazy”, which nobody wants to believe, simply because the term “crazy” has often meant “not treated as a real person” in society (we were some of the ones Hitler tried to get rid of, incidentally, and still are often left by family members to be a “burden of the state” or to rot away in asylums when loved ones have had enough. These sorts of things don’t happen to people with say, diabetes or asthma. It’s scary.) Additionally, you can’t babysit him/her other than checking in from time-to-time. Again, if a person really wants to destroy him/herself, she/he will find a way to. The only person who can stop a mentally ill person is him/herself and that person’s desire to survive. Again, the best support you can give is to just be there when you can.
Q: Why did you try to kill yourself? Your life is practically perfect! Didn’t you think about how it would affect everyone you know? It’s so selfish to inflict that sort of pain on everyone else.
A: Again, a person’s mental illness is the mind trying to destroy a person by any means necessary, despite the circumstances. Delusions will plague a person into believing that he/she is totally justified in his or her choice to end his or her life when it happens. For me, I had seen the pain I’d caused my family in the years since I first started having symptoms of my depression. Couple that with my family’s hesitation to get me help or acknowledge that I was, in fact, losing my mind, and I felt like a hopeless burden. My inability to get treatment for so long lead to my self-medicating with other means (alcohol made the terrible feelings go away for a little bit, as did ecstacy and pot. Not so much with the coke because that tapped into my manic tendencies and my brain ached from being unable to shut up.) and the behaviors and impulses that substance abuse caused me to act out were visibly destructive to everyone and caused me to spiral in a self-affirming pit of despair and loneliness. When I attempted suicide in 2003, I genuinely believed I would be doing my family a favor by no longer being around to make their lives miserable. I could see that I was wasting their resources and energy by being away at college and having too much anxiety to make it to class/bathe/get out of bed, and I wasn’t living up to the excited hopes we had all had when I left home. Besides that, my borderline personality disorder kept me in a toxic, codependent relationship and I was constantly engaging in impulses I didn’t fully understand (shoplifting – ew , extravagant overspending, binge -eating/exercising/drinking) as a means to distract myself and give myself immediate “highs” or stimulation because being bored/quiet/alone for too long was terrifying and hurt so badly. I knew I was encouraging a chaotic lifestyle, but I had no idea why, and I knew I was pushing the people I loved away. I was tired of fighting it. There seemed to be no hope as I’d been this way for almost half my life at that point. People in my family had already shown signs of rejection in their ignorance, and I wanted to rid everyone of the problem, which I believed was me and not my illness.
This is absolutely identical to a person who is terminally ill opting to be euthanized to spare him/her and the family involved any further pain or financial burden.
So yes, actually, I was thinking of nothing other than the people I loved when I set out to end my life. I wrote them a letter apologizing profusely for having been so taxing on their otherwise perfect lives. But I believed the relief of no longer having to deal with me would outweigh the agony of losing a loved one eventually.
On that note, I do definitely understand that a family may feel relieved that the chaos has finally ended; however, those people have no right to assume that they were the ones who were hurting or in the most distress/pain. Seeing other families show relief after the death of someone who is abusive, chemically dependent, or generally mentally disturbed in the years since has sickened me and made me realize that, not only was I not entirely misguided in my belief, but that society has to change if we expect suicidal people to believe something different. An acquaintance who lost a loved one to a heroin overdose showed me the home he/she remodeled with the money she/he had inherited, saying, “Losing _____ definitely had its perks.” I was disgusted and hearing that made me realize that poor _____ might not have been so misguided in his beliefs that his life was a mistake and a hopeless burden on everyone around him.