As more and more people are speaking out about their struggles with mental illness, the stigma associated with it has been somewhat diminished. On the flip side, and perhaps in an effort to be empathetic or involved, it’s almost become trendy to have a mental health disorder. A bad mood becomes “depression.” A scattered mind becomes “ADHD.” A clean house becomes “OCD.” A mixed bag of a week becomes “bipolar.”
Not only is this dismissive, but it is detrimental. If someone who is in a bad mood believes this to be depression, then how easy it is for them to offer empty platitudes such as, “Be positive,” “You just need some fresh air,” or my personal favorite, “Choose joy.” The subtle underlying meaning to advice such as this, is “This is your fault. Do something.”
When people believe that they understand, and that by their own efforts, they have conquered the monster named, “Depression,” or any other mental illness for that matter, then there ceases to be compassion. It is replaced by impatience and frustration.
I’ve been chewing on this for some time now; trying to pinpoint where all of the well-intended platitudes and mental health awareness has gone awry; the inconsistency that I knew was there but couldn’t quite see.
BOUNDARIES. This word; this idea…this obsession with personal boundaries. Nobody talks about this fork in the road, where my sickness meets your boundary.
What are boundaries and why are they necessary? My boundaries say, “You can come this far, but no further.” This can be a physical, emotional, mental, or even spiritual barrier. They are designed to protect us. They are designed to keep relationships healthy and safe. They are NOT designed to be an excuse when people become hard or inconvenient.
When drawing up boundaries, a common phrasing is to say that a person or situation is “toxic.” You have a problem with someone? They are “toxic.” Even words like “narcissist” are casually thrown around as flippantly as “hello” or “goodbye,” while in fact, true narcissism is rare. The overuse of such words causes them to lose their meaning, and it robs those who have been truly victimized. It is a way to label people or situations that you don’t want to deal with. They are “excuse” words that put other people on the hook and take you off of it.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Your loved one knows when you are done. They can sense when your words have moved from compassion to frustration. They can read between the societal lines of “boundary” talk. When your boundary becomes silence. When toxic moves from poison to inconvenience. When self-care becomes narcissism. When big sweeping words lose their meaning in your efforts to escape the darkness from which they cannot, they know, and they understand. They wouldn’t want to be there either. They don’t want to be there.
You can’t fix them. They don’t want you to fix them. I will say it again–you can’t fix them. I promise that if it were that easy, then they would have fixed themselves by now. They are fighting harder than you can imagine, and you will only find yourself frustrated by the outcome of your failed attempts and expectations of a quick recovery. Just like with any other illness, recovery takes time and sometimes intervention, but don’t expect healing to follow your preferred time frame.
Imagine walking into someone else’s house uninvited and then getting angry at them for not cleaning up or preparing a meal for you. Or, imagine walking in, and with an exasperated look and many sighs, cleaning up a space for yourself, making a sandwich with an eye roll on the side, and then chastising them for all of your hard work.
This is going to be hard for someone to hear, but the boundary issue is not with them; it is with you. If your motive is to fix, you have taken on a role that was never yours. Human beings make terrible saviors. The fruit of such labor is disappointment and disillusionment. Your role is simply to be there and listen. That’s it. Just BE there
Also, please try to understand that when words are spoken in the throes of it, it is a purging process. They are getting the ugly out of themselves, and though it feels like truth in the moment, they are usually regurgitating lies that they have been choking on for a long time. There is power in simply putting a name to a thing and releasing it. Do not panic and correct in these moments. The lie NEEDS to come out into the open. Once the storm has passed and settled, THEN offer the Truth and encouragement the lie has stolen.
I know that your intentions are pure and loving. I know that you don’t realize what you are doing as you do it. I know this sounds like a lot. I know this sounds like too much, and for many of you it is, and that’s okay. Please, I beg of you, just don’t use “boundaries” as an excuse to further harm your loved one who is already feeling like a burden.
As hard as it may be for you to listen, imagine having to exist there with no way out. It’s okay to be honest about how hard it is to watch someone that you love struggling so severely. If at any point you need to take a break to regroup, by all means, do so. You are not a bad person if you struggle to be present for your loved one. If you believe yourself to be doing more harm than good or you need some space, just say that. They are not fragile; they are battle-weary, and with all of the lies they are constantly at war with, an honest word goes a long way. Do not become another scar.
If I sound angry, I’m not. If it sounds unfair, then maybe it is. Depression does not play fair. It takes a person hostage in a world that screams for freedom in the form of happiness and positivity. How does one reach out to this culture that flinches from anything dark? People are dying every day because they don’t want to be a burden. What does that say about us as a culture? Again, what do we do with this inconsistency that encourages the struggling to be vulnerable while insisting that we draw deep boundary lines between ourselves and anything that might smell of negativity? If you rid your life of everything except for “positivity,” then you are absolutely making the decision to ostracize at least one close loved one.
Surrounding yourself with positivity IS something that both the mentally ill and the mentally sound should be proactive about doing, but both of these things can be true at the same time. You can do both. You can pursue peace without rejecting your loved one.
Love is a verb. Love is active. Love shows up even if and ESPECIALLY when it’s hard. Love does not ask someone tormented by lies to put on a mask and participate in their own destruction for the sake of your ease.
In this new year, may we resolve to be intentional in all that we do. May we weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. May we forbid ourselves the luxury of turning the other way when we happen upon the uncomfortable. May we embrace discomfort in the name of love like lives depend upon it, because they do.