Saint, Martyr Or Enabler: How Do You Know When It's Time To Cut Off A Loved One With Mental Illness?
“Can I tell you something, but you can’t say anything to anyone about it?”
I am the holder of secrets. I sometimes comment that friends should pray for my continued mental health, because if I were ever to develop Alzheimers, I could bring down governments.
There is something about my personality that causes people to open up to me. My friend Katie and I were talking about it and she jealously noted that it always seemed like I was everyone’s confidant. I explained that really wasn’t the case -- I am a classic meddler and nudgenik, I am always available, and that causes people to share things.
I believe my talent lies less in being able to keep a secret than in knowing when to keep the secret. I’ve found people often disclaim statements when they’re really looking for a backchannel solution. I am a prolific backchanneler.
Because in the end I am a problem solver. It's one of the reasons people ask me for advice, because I am inherently bad at coddling and good at giving people straight talk. It's got a backslap in that it's taken a long time to learn when people just want to be heard, instead of advised.
Part of it is rooted in my deeply held belief that humans have an understated, often unused ability to deeply affect each others’ lives. I believe that if I have the ability to help someone in a way that fundamentally affects their life, I am morally obligated to do so. At least to try. I am a fixer, professionally and personally. No man left behind. I like telling friends that they can call day or night, it's not just that I’ll answer, I’ll answer enthusiastically so they don’t feel bad about calling.
But I am beginning to suffer from a questioning of faith. Empathetic obligation versus self preservation.
I met my college boyfriend between his first and second breakdown -- he was honest about it, but at 20 I didn’t understand what that meant. When the depression started to pull him under we were well into our relationship and I let it soften the edges of the things he did to hurt me.
It was crystal clear to me: a good person does not leave someone when they are sick. So I saw him through it, shuttling him to doctors and therapists. By the time we saw the other side, my adult hindsight knows that we were no longer on a level playing field.
It was post graduation, my first major job, I owned suits and was excited to start my life in a place I was paying for myself outside of Boston with him while he continued school for the 5th year. I’d be there only three months -- by December I’d worn out HR and myself on the routine needs he pulled me away for. The final straw was when he called me at work one afternoon and said, “I’m holding a knife and I don’t know what I’m going to do. You need to come home.”
What I remember about the day clearly is running to South Station in kitten heels over the bridge in winter, and then having to wait 50 minutes for the next train in the bar there, drinking a $14 gin and tonic to calm my nerves and pass the time, petrified of what I’d find when I got home.
The next morning, he checked into a hospital for a short term stay. But I still wasn’t done. I moved us to my hometown, away from influences around him. We did therapy, for him, for us. We tried drug cocktails, meetings. It was all encompassing, and then one evening my best friend called and said she had exciting news and I said, “You’re engaged” and quietly sobbed while she told me all about it.
I still had Martha Stewart Weddings open to an article on bouquets when the instant reality that we had no future was so comfortable that it was like I had always known it. That night, it ended. Two weeks later his parents sent him a plane ticket back to Boston and I never saw him again.
We talked about a reconciliation if he could get his shit together, and at first, it was promising -- he got a job, a new doctor. Then his aunt called to report he was missing, had I seen him? A friend asked me what was wrong and feeling like a zombie, I said, “He’s dead.” He reappeared 10 days later, married to someone he’d just met.
I met C when I moved to PDX in my mid thirties. When I met him he was a hair-fuzzy ball of weirdness. We’d occasionally hang out because he would call me and say, “Beer?” He is hysterical and smart and creative, and shortly after we met he stopped the sporadic jobs and consistent broke artist schtick which always caused us to feel as if we were on uneven ground, got a job at a great company and over the next few years became a real boy.
The hair fuzz kept getting shorter, the beard met the same fate, the clothes got less hobbit-esque and he began to shine as people knew his work and respected him and he could live like an adult -- traveling, an apartment instead of a basement room, acquiring things because we wanted to, health insurance. We became close friends.
His slide wasn’t severe -- it started as “a year of self improvement.” Getting back into music -- spending sprees on instruments and drum sets and tools. He went on a diet and workout regime to lose weight, but didn’t ease into it. He immediately went from super sedentary to walking 20 miles a day, eating micro portions, MMA 6 days a week, he considered a temporary move out of town because he’d "lose more weight in a hot climate.”
It was hard to argue since he was so happy that friends and I would joke, “Remember when he was depressed? A middle ground wouldn’t be a bad thing.” It wasn’t us, but his work that finally put the word “manic” to it. Like a frog in a pot of boiling water, we didn’t notice how severe it became. But then it was right in front of us. Writing poetry, songs, painting for days on end without sleep. Drinking jags. He announced he was bi. He was quitting his job. He was gay. He’s an alcoholic but can handle it himself. He was going to start a groundbreaking company. He was a drag queen. He was going to become a priest because he’d found Gd. He was keeping his job but getting a second job as a bartender so he could see drunk people in action.
It's my job as his friend to be there. To be on call, to listen. To be the friend that he needs. I've taught him to put on makeup, and talked him through asking work for leave, and finding a doctor, navigating insurance, helping find resources. I see him most days, we talk often.
He knows there’s something wrong, but what that is changes daily. In fact, everything changes daily on a rapidly declining scale. His manicness has made him horribly self centered, where C’s life, his thoughts, his opinions, his emotions are all encompassing, take over all conversations, and suck the air out of the atmosphere wherever we are. Asks to come for dinner then criticizes what’s made. Asks for help, but it isn't fast enough, or right enough or thoughtful enough. Everything offered is ammunition.
Around him, friends talk about interventions, and how to maintain an open line of communication with at least one of us as he becomes angry at another, keeping him safe until an upcoming doctors appointment.
If you google “how to help bipolar loved ones,” articles frequently reference understanding that manic behavior is the fault of the illness, not the bearer. Its something I’m trying to keep in my mind every day in the face of the repeated hurtful things being thrown my way and relationship that’s become horribly one sided.
Dinner earlier this week -- which I was asked to take him to and then asked to pay for -- became a rundown of the most recent developments in C’s realizations about the world. In the silent spaces in between, I mentioned various points of my life to utter silence.
After asking to crash at my home to avoid the bars in his area, he lays on my couch in front of me complaining about the heater, farting incessantly for an hour, loudly, without so much as an acknowledgement or apology (and we don’t have that kind of relationship, in case you’re wondering; this is literally the first time I have ever written or said the F word in my life, it is so profane to me).
I am so invisible to him that when I appear to pick him up in head to toe green makeup and costume for Halloween he doesn't acknowledge it. I’m almost certain he doesn’t notice. He ransacks the house after I go to sleep, going between the tv and the back door to smoke, waking up the dog and me every time before leaving at 3:30 without a word, leaving the front door open, dishes about the house and the bed stripped, recreated as a nest my couch.
This morning I ask how he is and where he is, he explains he’s being being guided by people that have known him much longer than I. As well as churches full of alcoholics that truly understand what he is going through.
It's just an issue of time -- his quickly changing outlooks also reflect an ongoing softening to treatment; he’s not mentally ill, it's his body’s chemical reaction to extreme lifestyle change, he will never take medication, he’ll go to the hospital for hydration. He won’t see a therapist, he doesn’t trust them. He’ll see a psychologist, but not a psychiatrist. He will treat his alcoholism himself, he’ll go to an AA meeting, he’ll consider rehab, I have to be there with him if he checks in, he can’t do it himself.
With each new request, I feel this extreme conflict internally. How petty to resent him wanting to stay over when he says he feels “unsafe” at his home. How ridiculous to be offended by his rudeness when he’s going through so much or to resent cutting a rare night out short when he calls and says he needs me? The power that I wield in his life is both oppressive and self-aggrandizing.
C says the person I knew these past few years is not him. He is just becoming the person he always was again, before I met him, telling me he’s been living with this illness his whole life. He’ll come through this, I suspect, even if I have to drag him over the finish line kicking and screaming, something I am intellectually aware I cannot actually do. But when he does, I have this sad, blue knowledge in the back of my head that we won’t continue being … us. I didn’t become friends with this person. We won’t ever be on even ground again and perhaps that is the cruelest part of mental illness.
As long as someone asks for help, I am apt to give it. This is what every crisis counselor I talk to suggests, what all manuals and pamplets emphasize. As long as someone is making progress, asking for help, we can’t be unhappy with the speed with which they progress, we just need to be there.
This does not make me a better person.