Many thanks to a number of friends who shared their experiences, thoughts, and insights, helping me round out this post and give me the sigh of relief that these reactions were not Just Me. Also, this post includes a variety of experiences based on relationships with a variety of people over time. Right now I am fine, and my people are doing alright. This generalizing is as much to protect individuals’ privacy as to try and make sense of dealing second-hand with mental illness.
Wednesday, February 8th was a day to talk about mental health. Why it was sponsored by Bell, I don’t know. Why it was February 8th, I don’t know. But hey, getting people talking about mental health and raising money isn’t a bad thing.
Unsurprisingly, it brought to mind my own experiences with mental illness. I consider myself fortunate — any depression I’ve dealt with has been situational, and temporary, and I always remained at least somewhat functional. Those who have helped me through it have my eternal gratitude and are immediately welcome to anything I can do for them when they need it.
But depression and I have been close, sometimes very close, off and on for a lot of years. I kinda… live next door. I’ve seen many strong voices online talk about their struggles with depression, which has helped a lot of people. I haven’t seen much, however, from the people around those who struggle. There are some good reasons for that. A lot of what you think and feel seems either utterly futile, or makes you think you must be a complete asshole.
Mostly I’ve been depression’s next door neighbour, but sometimes other neighbours show up: anxiety, mania, substance abuse… And you would think, after all these years, that I’d know how to be a good neighbour by now. I’d have figured out How To Help.
Nope. I suck.
I mean, sure, the people actually dealing with mental illness have been glad I was “there”. And I’ve read the literature and tried to do or not do the recommended stuff. But I am a person who Gets Things Done and who Takes Care of People, and neither of these traits is usually of much use when dealing with someone who’s struggling with mental illness.
Because you can’t do much of anything a lot of the time. You can’t make the person start feeling, or stop hurting, or start sleeping, or stop sleeping, or start eating, or stop eating, or making terrible choices, or refusing to make any choices, or get help, or… Lordy, the frustration.
The neighbourhood is circular. Or perhaps a figure eight. Finding the exits ain’t easy, if they’re even there sometimes.
It involves conversations about the same things over and over. With no new insights, and no attempts at doing anything to change the narrative. Or in some bizarre way romanticizing the state of the person struggling. (More common in the young, and infuriating.) Or it involves trying to have a conversation with a person who Will Not Talk About It. To the point, sometimes, of someone who loves you actively avoiding you when you’re just trying to help.
You can end up feeling so incredibly isolated and alone, especially if the personal struggling with mental illness is your partner, and you’re supposed to tackle the world together, and they just… won’t. Not only the world is shut out, but so are you. Or, if not shut out, it’s just negativenegativeNEGATIVE all the time. Exhausting. And why does “for better or for worse” mean so much less worse for seemingly everyone else? What did you do to deserve this version where the grass on your side of the fence is all dead and brown?
You don’t know what the balance is of asking someone else for help, or venting, or at what point that violates privacy. And yes, there’s shame. We’re working on it, but there’s still stigma to people not being able to hold up their end of… life. And if you have kids, goodness knows you don’t want to drag them into that mire.
Sometimes a conversation will start happening, and you will be relieved, though feeling trepidation, because, just maybe, something will shift. Something will be admitted, or explained, or committed to. Something you can work with. Or not.
Because you may find out from this conversation that things are worse than you thought. That the person is worse than you thought. That the person is making choices (or not) that are actively making their situation worse. And you can’t stop them.
So you end up frustrated and disappointed and very, very angry. Feeling angry at a person with mental illness is not a noble feeling, but it is inevitable. You may even lose your cool and give the person a piece of your mind or a demand or an ultimatum. Yeah, that never helps.
You may even find out that the person has been “protecting” themselves from you by lying or not telling you important things. This will make you feel like you might lose your mind from anger and betrayal. Because it’s so obvious. That person’s “protection” is actually clinging ever tighter to what’s hurting them. That person’s sabotaging those who would help (i.e. you) and pushing you further away. Can’t you see that? That person, who loves you, and who you love, has lied to your face, and will do it again.
And you will not know what to do when you find this out. You will want to do things to protect yourself from this person, but that won’t really help. Because your choices are to stay where you are and do what you’ve been doing, or just… stop. Stop seeing, stop asking, stop waiting, stop trying. Discard the person, essentially. When they’re sick. This is not a noble consideration.
Though there may come a worse point where you stop feeling these non-noble feelings. You just stop feeling at all. Perhaps you have developed your own depression, which may bring all kinds of guilt since the way others treat you in your depression will convince you that everyone is a far better human than you to those who’re hurting.
Or your mind has shut down to protect you and you simply can’t make yourself engage anymore. Apathy may be the opposite of love. Or just the victim of it. And then you feel like you’re betraying someone who needs you because you can no longer make yourself… care. Or try.
Where the grass is a little greener, though, you may understand, after some point, that it is not the person you love who’s moping and crying and silent and lying. It’s the mental illness. Mental illness is not logical. It’s not fair. But it’s in the person you love, so you can’t entirely separate what it makes the person do or say from who they are. Sure, we all know this intellectually, but understanding it to the point of it helping you be calmer and cope is not so easily achieved.
And so you end up more frustrated and disappointed and angry. And that doesn’t help. And you are not helping. At least you don’t feel like you are.
But you’ll step back and take a deep breath and get more stable and let go and forgive a bit and just… wait. And hope. Attendre et espérer. All the while remembering that your neighbourhood is circular, so most likely it’ll all come around again. And you don’t know when or for how long. And you don’t know in what form. And OMG what if one time it never goes away ever? Or gets even worse, or… anything.
The person struggling with mental illness doesn’t know, either, and is just as scared, because in addition to not being logical, it restricts your sight. It restricts your ability to see beyond how bad things are now. Or behind you to when you were okay before this. Or what choices you could make or things you could do that would start to make things better (if anything). Or peripherally to see all the people who love you and will catch you.
The neighbour’s house has a really high fence. You never really know what’s going on in there. So you don’t know when to just be there, or do something, or say something, or just offer a hug.
Or when it’s time to move out of the neighbourhood.
Because there are situations when what’s wrong with the neighbours becomes very, very bad for you, and you need to protect yourself. Your heart, your mind, your body.
But sometimes you’ll wake up one morning and the neighbour’s fence seems a bit shorter, the gaps between the boards a bit wider. And it continues. Sometimes the fence will come down slowly and unevenly. Sometimes it’ll vanish overnight. And you will be wrung-out relieved. And wary.
Because you never know when the fence will go back up. Or if this is not health, but rather, different symptoms. When might the neighbourhood become crappy again? When will you need to try to see if there’s anything you can do this time? Like there’s any reason next time will be any different.
Sometimes the hardest thing in the world for a next door neighbour is to just live there.