Friday, December 1, 2017

What I Learned Through Helping a Mentally Ill Person for a Year

This post has taken me more miles of solo running to work through than perhaps any other in this blog's history. It's not running related other than I've used running to work through it. It is, however, important. It is important that as a society we permit mental illness to be discussed without shame. I can only hope my words help achieve that goal, or help someone else in the effort.

I listened to and tried to help a friend suffering from mental illness for a year. We'll call my friend Pat. At first I didn't know it was mental illness. At first I only knew Pat was going through a rough period in life. At first, because it isn't in my wiring to realize it, I also did not realize the role narcissism played in Pat's mental illness. To summarize an incredibly complex story, after a year, a group of friends working with Pat attempted an intervention, to push Pat toward professional psychiatric assistance. It did not go well, and afterward Pat lied to us about seeking treatment we came to learn Pat did not actually seek. Out of exasperation, exhaustion, and sadness, we all cut ties with Pat. We blocked Pat on social media and via phone. 

The year took a lot out of me. It wasn't anything I wasn't happy to give for a friend, and I'm not sorry for trying. But it was emotionally exhausting in a way I'd never experienced. It's taken me a long time to process the lessons learned from this experience.

I have no training in psychology or any health field. I offer you no warranties about my experience. I have no credentials to support the labels I have affixed to Pat (depressed, narcissistic). I offer this because I went looking for help online and found things like this helpful. Here's what I learned from a year of trying to help Pat. 

1. Do not expect any of it to make sense
Pat's downward spiral started with one self-constructed lie, told to heal an old wound and with flagrant disregard for reality or realistic expectations. Pat engaged in some very bad and life-altering behavior as a result of believing this lie. Pat was burned by this behavior. Pat could not accept that the behavior had been bad, that the repercussions had been predictable and warranted. Pat lashed out, primarily by sharing inappropriate information publicly and constructing stories from manipulated parts of other stories.

Sharing inappropriate information was shocking behavior from Pat--totally out of character. When I say inappropriate, I mean incredibly personal information about Pat and others. I and others warned Pat--you shouldn't do this, this is too much. I believe Pat's intent was to convince others how upstanding Pat was, and what a victim Pat was. It was shocking. And scary. And weird. And made no sense. 

Like the over-sharing, stories were constructed to portray Pat in a particular way. The story line was made up of elements of real events, but each element had been dissociated from its original context and turned to fit into an image of Pat as a victim and hero simultaneously. The stories became Pat's reality--became Pat's prison of obsession. The stories consumed Pat. There was no relationship with Pat outside these stories. The over-sharing of personal information was sometimes done to support pieces of these stories, which also did not often make sense.

The stories only made sense if you accepted that they were constructed to portray Pat as victim and hero, to garner attention and build up Pat's ego. If you expected the stories to come from reality, that was another matter entirely. And Pat screamed this story and its new elements 24/7 as they developed. It thickened, and after a while standing at the edge pointing Pat back to the light of reality became impossible.    

2. There will be a lot of intentional fishing for the mentally ill person to figure out how to get a rise out of you
Any hint at questioning the story was met with brutal and swift personal attack. To get through the personal attacks, I had to embrace the knowledge that they weren't real. Pat probably did not even believe the horrible things said. After watching Pat attack someone else, I realized Pat had been fishing for some time, just slipping bits of bait into conversation to see what would get a reaction, then waiting. Example: When Pat saw someone hesitate to discuss domestic violence, Pat remembered it. Pat later accused that person of having had domestic violence in her life and wasn't Pat a great friend for not having judged her for not dealing with it, and how dare she judge Pat for Pat's life. This had the desired effect of temporarily disarming her.
3. Someone has to want help
Yes, we've all heard this before. I did not fully appreciate that it also means you cannot talk someone into wanting help. Remember, you cannot expect the thoughts and actions of a narcissistic, mentally ill person to make sense. That means you cannot logically outline the reasons they should seek help. Logic will not apply. You also cannot appeal to the emotions of a narcissist to get help, because a narcissist believes they really are special and above others. The desire for help has to come from within them. They have to want it, and you cannot make them want it.

4. Sometimes, there will be nothing you can do
This one was the hardest for me by a wide margin. If you haven't gathered already, I'm pretty logically oriented. I see problems, I evaluate their possible solutions, and I implement one. In this scenario, it felt like knowing the wiring in your house was unsafe and doing nothing. Actual people, multiple actual people, felt unsafe. I worried about Pat's physical safety. We tried all possible avenues to get Pat help, even a few avenues we just forced to exist out of desperation. It was incredibly difficult to accept that there was a problem of actual human safety and well-being--a problem I could see and explain clearly--and no viable solution.

5.  Getting out is hard
I have yet to meet a narcissist who does not want to control others. I have garden variety narcissists in my life in other capacities and struggle with this with them. Some do it passive aggressively. Some forcefully. Some by manipulation. But they all do it.

Pat was no different. Pat wanted our attention unconditionally and at all times. We tried to remove ourselves via silence, but Pat was relentless. We asked Pat to stop contacting us. It went poorly. It was painful. But when you tell someone they don't own you and they respond poorly, that has to tell you that leaving was the right choice. It was for us.

At the end of all this, would I do it again? Yes. I would hope anyone would. Part of our job on Earth is to care for our friends. But I would look for clues more wisely than I did before. I learned a lot about self-care through this. It's real. It's important. Sometimes caring for others can gut you. There has to be a limit, and you have to know when you've reached it. It's something I'm continuing to learn.