When I was first diagnosed with my mental illness, bipolar 1, over ten years ago, my friends and family stopped treating me like I was on an even playing field with them. They treated me like a victim, with all the care, sympathy, empathy, and patience that moral, loving folks give freely to a victim. In response, I acted like a victim. I was given carte blanche to act out impulsively, and permission to treat others with disrespect, or in an unkind manner. It was quickly dismissed or forgiven when I pulled an act of great irresponsibility. The seed for self-centeredness was already planted with my co-occurring illness of addiction early in my life. Being without boundaries that my loved ones could have drawn for themselves in helping me cope with my mental illness, my self-centeredness grew to be a tornado in their lives, and often to those who were simply in striking distance to me.
The first few years after my diagnoses in particular were some of the hardest times for my friends and loved ones. During, or more often towards the peak of my manic episodes, extraordinary rage would set in. Dangerous rage. It was rage during a manic episode that led me to pull a man out of his car in the parking lot of a strip mall and beat the crap out of him in broad daylight. My parents had to come bail their 39 year old man-baby out of jail. My Mother and Father were the kindest, most loving as parents come. But, their mentality ill son didn’t come with an owners manual.
My Mother waiting outside the jail where I was being held in Placer County, California, had these questions for me when I was released, “Are you taking your medications properly? Are you hungry? Did you get hurt? Do you need to see your psychiatrist again?” She didn’t ask if I had hurt anyone, nor if I owned my own actions, or what was my plan to change my behavior so I wouldn’t be harming anyone with violence in the future. I was her baby, her victim. And that’s all there was to that.
My alcoholism had masked the symptoms of my mental illness for the first couple of decades of typical onset. I was guilty of many a debacle. I drank in my teens, and twenties to the extent that drinking became my identity. To my friends, I was funny, often outrageous, a crusader vigilante who punched those in the face who deserved it. My parents had viewed my drinking as just being a party drinker, or a heavy drinker – there was no way their son could be an alcoholic, after all, in no way did I resemble the unkempt, “long haired”, drug using offspring of some of their friends. My loving folks were in denial. They loved me nearly to death. At the end of the Nineties, I found myself living under their roof again being weened off alcohol by my Father who didn’t drink himself, to keep me from extremely dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
Then I got sober. My parents once again provided me with financial assistance, a new car, and a renewed optimism that my life would get back on track. I don’t know how many times they had given me that same opportunity before. They never even asked what would be different that time. They had been walked all over. They had been taken advantage of. They had been lied to so many times that they didn’t even care about wether I was telling them the truth anymore or not. My happiness was more important than themselves to them. My self centeredness was rewarded lavishly.
I moved all over the country. Mental illness started to come into question, and actually, in retrospect, to become obvious with alcohol being out of the picture. I suffered from delusions both at work, and with my relationships with friends, often leading to the severance of both. I had many unhealthy, hurtful-to-others coping mechanisms when I didn’t get my way. In my playbook was the game of “I’m not talking to you anymore”, the game of “How far will micro aggressions work to get people persuaded to do my will”, the game of “It’s all your fault”, and “let’s play passive aggressive until it no longer works for me.” If all else failed, I’d just write my friends and loved ones off. All of these sorts of behaviors stopped working for most people when they were four, maybe five years old. But because so many people in my life failed to set their own boundaries, I got away with those behaviors well into adulthood. So many people who greatly cared for me had no idea what a master manipulator I was. Some did. I have no idea why they stood by me.
The person I was, and still am closest to in my world, my brother Gordon, was the first person to strongly set clear and definitive boundaries with consequences for my behavior that was the impetus of change, personal growth, healing and progress for me. That was over eight years ago. It was hard for him. I just finished yelling at him at that time. I was shaking in rage. He tearfully said, “You make it really hard for me to love you, but I do. If you don’t comply with taking your meds, or refuse to see your therapist and apply what you get from him to your life, if you continue to blame your behaviors on your illness, I will have to withdraw from your life. These are things I will not negotiate with you.” The thought of losing him hit me like a ton of bricks. Someone I loved more than anything, or anyone had just stood up to me and called me on my behavior. I had even agreed to go to family counseling with him.
Gordon wasn’t always so strong. In his teens, he idolized me. I was his big brother who did big things, exciting things like work in the motion picture and television industry, a musician and recording artist, and strangely became a mortician; someone he never wanted to be in bad standing with. He was always wanting to go with me wherever I went. If he did ANYTHING that didn’t meet my wants and needs, my disapproval and manipulations would cause him to hang his head low. He began to suffer deep depression in his early twenties. He began seeing a therapist. It was then he learned that he was a caregiver whose self imposed job of keeping me happy had been taking a terrible tole on him. It was there, in therapy, and by going to Al-Anon meetings to better understand me, that he was educated and helped to implement boundary setting. Thank God for that.
People like Gordon, people who have dedicated so much to those they care about who suffer from mental illness, often surpass their limits before they realize it sometimes. Caregivers who have surpassed their limits will notice that their patience and energy has diminished. Once this sets in, and they continue to surpass their limits, anxiety, fragility, anger, anxiety, and depression can take over a caregiver’s life.
If you are a caregiver, or support provider to a loved one, or a friend living with mental illness, you have got to take some time to do some personal inventory, to look inside yourself and assess just how much peace you have with yourself. You have the right to be happy. You have the right to take care of yourself and exercise responsibility for your own well being. Setting boundaries will feel counterintuitive to you. But, it must be done, both for the person you support, and for yourself. It is not a single event, drawing boundaries is a process.
As a person living with mental illness, and someone who has become stable, self-aware, reunited with sobriety, and a contributor to his community instead of a detriment to it, I can say that my healing wouldn’t have been possible without my primary caregiver, in my case my brother, taking the initiative to help himself by setting limits.
Where would my brother be today if he didn’t established boundaries with me? Instead of going to college, instead of having a fulfilling career as a cruise ship musician while enjoying exotic ports of call, instead of making new friends, instead of maturing naturally from his own trial and error experiences, he would have been hovering around me, taking abuse, verbally and mentally, while slowly dying inside. Where would I be if my caregiver, my brother, had not have drawn the line? I would probably be wallowing in victim mode, never taking responsibility for my mental health, or owning my bad behaviors. I would have never pursued healing, and becoming self aware, and I certainly wouldn’t be of service to others. I would never have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. Today we both have value. We both know happiness. We both have hope for the future. We have a better relationship than ever.
It is helpful to remember the acronym F.O.G. That is something you want to rid your life of when you are about to set healthy limits – fear, obligation, and guilt – F.O.G. Again, you have the right to be happy and not be constrained by the expectations of the mentally ill person in your life. You have the right to be free of F.OG. For your sake, and the one you are caring for sake, do not tolerate the relationship if it is abusive. Trust your own opinions, feelings, and intuitions and do not excuse your loved one’s bad behaviors otherwise your will set your boundaries further, and further back, probably to square one.
Do not let yourself be convinced by the person you are setting limits with that your feelings don’t matter. Your feelings are yours, and you need them. Mentally ill people can have great powers of persuasion. They can make you feel self doubt, and lead you to not even trust your own perceptions or yourself.
Explain your feelings with him or her. Do not excuse them from your limits you set, or be led to change your mind. By explaining what you have to do, you have set the first stepping stone to a better relationship for both of you.
Do not let them make you feel guilty for the boundaries, and consequences you have outlined. You will lose respect if you back down, and you don’t want to do this. The limits you set are as important to you loved one as it is to you, even if it doesn’t feel like it at first. Like I stated, it will feel counterintuitive. Be strong. If they break your boundaries, that person has made a choice. It is up to you to enforce the consequences of that choice.
Professional support. Get it. It’s something that is well worth the time and investment to both of you. Learn what you need from it, then learn how to be your own professional – your own best advocate. Sooner or later the reward will be that your loved one learns from your boundaries freeing up the possibility of working together towards growing and healing. It is then a real relationship can begin to develop.
Do continue to have compassion for your mentally ill loved one. Do continue to seek professional help, and demand compliance of your loved one towards it. Do continue to be an advocate for him or her, but not at the expense of your own needs, health, and inner peace.
Setting boundaries is crucial, if not vital, for both of you.
I am eternally grateful that someone I care deeply for set boundaries with me.