The Dance of Mental Illness

Sometimes, there are some things that just don’t do well as a Facebook update. How much detail to offer? How much pain to reveal? If I tell the world, am I whining, or am I being brave by sharing my process?

Tonight I had to shut someone out of my life. He’s a long-ago ex boyfriend and we were together for 2 years when I lived in St. Louis. He’s on disability for Bipolar. For a while, he seemed sane enough, but things deteriorated, and eventually he just disappeared from my life without telling me he was going. Took me a few months to realize that I might never hear from him again. That may have been one of the more miserable Christmases I’ve ever had.

Months later, he resurfaced; he’d moved up to the Twin Cities and was living with another woman he’d met. But, he’d gotten into a situation where he felt stuck. He was with her for years, sometimes he’d ask me to come and get him, but neither he nor I ever had the gas money, and to be honest, I was leery of getting entangled with his hot mess.

Just over a year ago we saw each other while I was passing through Central Illinois. It was nice, a little awkward. Without diving overly into personal details, we had always been attracted to one another, it was just the relationship stuff that didn’t work out. So we went out on a date.

There was some emotional stuff that happened after I left town that I won’t get into. At least, not at the moment. It’s stuff that I might talk about some day if there’s a reason for it, but I’m not willing to open up publicly about what I went through a year ago just yet. He moved back up to the Twin Cities after that and tried another round with his ex girlfriend up there, but that didn’t last too long.

Actually, he tried to hang himself while he was still living with her. He was hospitalized for attempted suicide. The good thing of that was, he was able to get some help, finally get on some medication, get on food stamps, get connected to a job program.

We’d been trying to schedule a time for him to come down and visit me for a week or so since June. Neither of us looking for anything long term, but there’s something nice about reconnecting with an ex when you are lonely. There aren’t surprises, you know each other’s shorthand. It’s not like dating someone brand new where I’m not sure what likes we share or how compatible we’ll be or a host of other things.

Then the system failed him…not that I think he was doing everything he could to jump through hoops. But I understand depression and avoidance. I understand that monster all too well. The times when we’re in the worst headspace and need the most help are the times when we’re least capable of navigating a system like that. Then his food stamps got reduced.

Now, I didn’t know all of what was going on at the time, but I knew his living situation was deteriorating and even though he was staying in a horrible little apartment complex with sex offenders and crazy people, it still ate up almost all of his monthly disability check. I’d thought he was still on his anxiety meds but it turns out his insurance was switched and he got frustrated and said “fuck it.”

So I knew that this man–this friend–was up there starving. I’ve starved before.

I suggested that he come down to see me and I could feed him for a couple of weeks and he could help me with some projects around here. I desperately needed a second pair of hands to get some work done here at my mom’s house, from cleaning up construction messes to finishing up art projects.

And, he and I genuinely did miss each other. Like I said, attraction wasn’t ever the problem, and he and I both knew that it wasn’t a “we’re getting back together” thing.

But I told him up front,no drama. I didn’t want to deal with his big moody meltdowns. I just wanted a nice visit.

I bought him a bus ticket for Megabus for Wednesday. He told me he went to the bus stop but couldn’t find it, and then had to walk 4 miles home in the snow because he didn’t have city bus fare home. Now–Megabus doesn’t invest in stations, so the bus stops are usually at an intersection. They can be a little tricky to find; I even had a hard time finding the one at Union Station in Chicago because I had to find the actual correct cross streets. Plus, it’s freezing in the Twin Cities.

So I tapped local resources and found someone who could pick him up and take him to the Megabus stop, and bought a second ticket. Tickets are cheap, but I’m still strapped right now, especially battening down the hatches for what’s going on with the car accident.

Last night he had a meltdown. He seemed to come back out of it for a bit and I was clear with him in a way I wasn’t when he and I were together. I talked to him about how he’d done the emotional meltdown thing to me in the past, and if he did this again, I was cutting him out of my life completely. That I wasn’t going to be emotionally jerked around again like that. That I wasn’t going to be the good little codependent and dance around and try and keep him from having an emotional meltdown.

I was clear that if he bailed on me again, that that was it. And then he did. When my other friend went to pick him up, he’d shut off his phone and didn’t answer texts or Facebook or the door. She stayed until they couldn’t possibly make it to get him to the bus, and then she had to leave, there wasn’t anything else she could do.

Here’s the problem with emotional hostage-taking like this. I have those codependent urges. That control urge. If I can control the situation I can keep him in the ‘good” mood, right? And when he’s in the “good” mood, he and I get along great. We have a lot of fun together. And, I could really use a week or two of just having fun, and I know he could too.

On the other hand, if I am actually firm and have boundaries and say, “No, your behavior is not ok,” I genuinely risk this guy going into a full meltdown and possibly attempting suicide again. And then I’ve got that on my conscience.

And here’s where I finally come to the larger point of what I’m trying to write about. Mental illness is a tough thing. And once you’re stuck in the spiral of it, there’s not a good, clean way out. All the therapy work I’ve done, all the personal growth, all the boundaries, all the communication…there’s a point where I do all I can, and the other person is still going to have their meltdown.

I’ve been with three long-term partners now who have either used suicide as an emotional hostage-taking threat either actively or passively. Active is, “Yeah, I was thinking I’d just step in front of a bus, then you’d….” Passive is just them telling the story of how they tried to kill themselves that one time. Because, then you know it happened, you know it’s there, it’s something they could do again. And if you–if I–have a boundary, get too uppity, get too upset, call them on the carpet, it’s something they might try again.

I’m not sure if it’s called emotional hostage-taking in professional psychology, but I’ve heard the term a few times before.

And here’s the thing. I can’t blame someone for being ill. For being suicidal. For hating themselves so much, for being so desperate for attention that they would use the threat of suicide to keep me there.

(And yeah, we can talk about my choice in men some other time. There’s a reason I’m not in a long-term relationship at the moment.)

My experience interacting with people who are severely mentally ill–whether friends or lovers–whether diagnosed or not–has challenged me over and over. As a Gemini, I’m so often of two minds about things.

I have mentally ill people in my community. I want to help them. I believe they deserve spiritual work just as much as anyone else; in fact, they may need it more. Maybe it can help them get to a place of healing and balance. I believe in the power of intention and personal work to heal. Call it magic if you want.

And on the other hand, I’ve seen nothing more destructive to relationships and to communities than people who are mentally ill and acting out.

I have experienced mental illness in participants and leaders that have contributed to the downfall of group after group. My own mental illness in the form of depression/exhaustion/avoidance has caused me more problems than I can count, as a community leader.

I’ve also seen people with mental illness who have worked to manage their illness through medication, therapy, changes in diet. I can tell you several things that drastically improved my depression that aren’t anti-depressants–instead, I added in Vitamin D, B, and Thyroid pills, and eliminating wheat, dairy, and almost all processed foods from my diet. (And no, that isn’t going to work for everyone, and it hasn’t “fixed” me but it’s reduced my worst symptoms.)

Am I perfect? Nope, but, most of my symptoms are pretty manageable at this point. I’ve also done work with some of the theories/techniques of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to keep myself out of the debilitating shame spiral that has led to heavy depressive episodes in the past.

If I could afford it, I’d be doing that with a therapist right now. But, if I could afford that, I’d also be going to the doctor regularly instead of free clinics when I can get into them. And that’s a side effect of my endeavor these past years to make a living as an independent writer and artist in a system that isn’t supportive of such nontraditional lifestyles.

But I think that’s part of my point too. The folks who are mentally ill need more help, and they are often least able to get that help. The folks that need medical attention, medication for bipolar like my friend, are least able to navigate the system.

When my friend’s state insurance coverage changed, he suddenly couldn’t get his meds refilled. His anxiety skyrocketed. He couldn’t figure out how to even get medication. I’m unclear as to whether his caseworker didn’t get back to him or if he just stopped bothering to follow up. He stopped going to therapy and nobody followed up with him.

He was informed by letter that his food stamps were being cut, and then, that his medical might be cut completely. When he’s been off his meds for months and can’t cope with life, much less jumping through additional hoops.

He slipped through the cracks.

I’ve slipped through the cracks too. There’s a lot of things in the past years where I really needed help, but I lacked the resources to get that help. When I was in the worst of my depression, the thought of 1. searching out a clinic, 2. going there, 3. going through paperwork hoops, was enough to keep me in my bed with the covers over my head.

This guy lives in a city where he really knows only a few people; his ex girlfriend and two of her friends. He’s practically a shut-in. His anxiety is bad enough that going grocery shopping is hard, getting on the bus is hard.

And–while part of me would like to say, “His friends should help him,” I also know the other side of that coin. That it’s hard to help someone who’s that helpless, who’s that dysfunctional. Each person has a different well of compassion, a different amount of crap they can put up with to help someone they love before they burn out and have to hold a boundary and say no.

Which is where I keep coming to on this challenge of mental illness. I know that I do not have the capacity to really help people with certain types of mental illness in my community. I’ve tried, and tried, and tried. I have sometimes referred to this jokingly as “beyond my paygrade,” but it’s really true. I didn’t get into social work, I’m not a therapist; what I got into was leadership training. There’s crossover, but there’s a place where my expertise ends.

Beyond that, I want to be able to “fix” people. To help them. But there are some things that I can’t fix. I can put a finger in the dam, but I can’t keep it from flowing over.

Those of us who are fixers want to be able to fix.

Tonight, I feel more angry at myself for giving my ex the room to hurt me again. The problem is, I do still care about him. I understand he’s ill, he doesn’t mean to do these things. But, once upon a time I held a boundary that I wasn’t going to let him do this to me again…and tonight, I had to re-establish that.

Tonight I had to remember that, I can’t fix him. No matter how much I wanted to help him, I can’t “fix” him. Only he can fix him. And, I don’t know that he has the resources to do that.

Tonight I did the kindest thing that I thought I could. I called the St. Paul police to do a wellness check on him. Given his history, and that I know he’s in full meltdown mode and the stern words I spoke to him last night, I thought the liklihood of him trying to kill himself again was fairly high. I knew his address, not his apartment number.

I messaged him on Facebook to let him know that I had called the police to check on him, and it showed that he’d seen the message. Right after that, I saw that he’d unfriended me. So, all I can really assume at this point is that my friend did not try to kill himself.

Maybe the police will be able to help him. Or maybe not. Maybe he’ll slip through the cracks and end up homeless, or maybe someone will take him in as has happened before.

I am in the terrible place in this moment of having done what I could to help him–having gotten roped into his downward spiral again even though I vowed to never do so again–and, realizing that this is a man who will never be able to take care of himself. And, he probably will never get the help and care he needs.

And I have so many thoughts and emotions around that I can’t even articulate them. I’ve come to the wall of realizing that there are so many mentally ill people out there slipping through the cracks. I find myself on a pendulum swing–on one end, I want to help them, I feel they deserve help and if more people were helping then these folks wouldn’t slip through the cracks.

On the other end, there are my boundaries on what I need in my own life to stay stable, sane, and happy. It’s not my job to fix these folks. And even when I’ve really put myself out to try and help someone with a severe mental illness, it’s almost never resulted in them being able to sustain a relationship or, continue on in a Pagan or other group in a healthy way.

All I’m left with are questions and frustration. Wishing I could help, but, the best thing I can offer this person is calling the police. That may or may not help him.

Knowing that this time I’m really losing him as a friend for good. That I can no longer allow him into my life, that his situation has deteriorated to the point where, as much as my compassion drives me to try and help him, I cannot put myself into that position again, because it doesn’t get better, it doesn’t help him, and he continues to deteriorate.

And also knowing that the next time I hear about him–if I hear about him at all–will probably be because he got hurt, or tried to hurt himself.

It’s a hard moment to realize that–in some cases–my boundaries, my saying “No, I’m not getting involved in your BS any longer,” might be the tipping point that leads to someone harming themselves. Or at least, leads to their emotional meltdown that takes them into a complete nonfunctioning headspace.

Relationships are hard. People are hard. People do horrible, terrible things to each other. Sometimes, that’s why I’m such a recluse. When I see the terrible things people do to each other, it’s hard for me to do the work I do, the work of teaching and inspiring. Part of me does believe that anyone can be healed…and I work for that. I work to build that better world, to inspire people for it.

But then there’s reality. I just heard about a Pagan mother and child killed in a murder/suicide by an abusive ex husband in Michigan.

I got queasy prickles at the thought of it, at hearing from people who knew this woman. How this woman had finally left her abusive husband, and had worked to get her life together. And I thought of all the other abused people in relationships–whatever gender–who keep hanging on to someone who’s ill. “They’ll get better.” “They just need help.” “They’re ill, they don’t mean it.”

How many times have I done that?

A lot.

And I get it, and I believe it–there are people with treatable mental illnesses. Alcoholics are treatable. People with issues are treatable. Theoretically. Possibly.

And yet…these are the folks that snap, too. Verbal abuse, physical abuse, and then the day it escalates and they go over the deep end and take the life of the other person and their own.

I wish, over and over, that I had some magic wand that would heal people. That would take away those old patterns that lead someone to be abusive, or nonfunctional, or an alcoholic.

And I don’t.

So tonight, I have cut myself off from someone whom I’ve tried to help. I tried to take some responsibility for where he is at…and I have to relinquish that responsibility. There’s nothing more I can do for this man. All I can do is hope that he does, some day, get help.

Maybe as Pagans have more people trained as counselors and therapists in clergy roles, we’ll have more capacity to help people like this within our community. To keep these folks from slipping through the cracks. And maybe there’s folks who can’t be helped.

This one’s above my pay grade.

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2 thoughts on “The Dance of Mental Illness

  1. It is never an easy decision when you care for a person to hold that boundary, even when you know that all that continuing to try to fix them is doing is just exhausting you for no measurable result. I’ll be sending prayers for you and your friend. Be good to yourself, and please don’t get caught in the what-if spiral. Trust yourself, and remember that if you don’t care for yourself, you will have nothing left for the people you want to help. Beannú na Déithe agus na Aindhéithe Ort !

  2. Yeah that is a tough one. I would have made the same choice though. There is no point putting yourself in danger, and who knows how much you could really help anyway. Sounds like what he needs is meds and medical supervision.

    It is so hard to know how much a person with mental illness should be able to take responsibility for their actions. I can’t claim to understand mental illness. I know that I have been prone to depression my whole life, but I have managed to get the better of it, largely due to realizing that I am responsible for myself and no one is going to rescue me. Magic and meditation have helped me a lot. But I know there is much more severe mental illness to deal with than that. So is it fair of me to suggest that each person is responsible for their own destiny? I am not sure.

    Regardless of the answer to that mystery, ultimately you need to make sure you are safe. I am glad you have, even though I am sure that hurts a lot. :+/

    Also – I think each of us need to serve the world according to our circumstances and abilities. You do a great job doing what you do, and it would be a shame to see your gifts swallowed up trying to help someone “outside your pay grade” as you say. You wouldn’t really be able to help them, and the folks you do help every day with your work would also lose out.

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