This is kind of a companion article to one I wrote in January called, “10 Things Everyone Who Loves Someone With Mental Illness Should Know” but this list is for us, those with the mental illness. I use the word “Support” for anyone who helps you deal with your challenges. “Support” can include family, friends, spouse, therapists, doctors, support groups, neighbors, etc.
1. Allow Your Support to Establish Healthy Boundaries
If you’ve been in therapy, the concept of boundaries is probably something you’re quite familiar with. Boundaries are present in every relationship, whether set intentionally, or not. Healthy boundaries allow your Support to have some personal time and space. It is neither healthy, nor appropriate to expect your Support to have to listen to you at anytime, regardless of their own needs and feelings. This may mean limiting the number of times you contact them each day/week, or what hours are appropriate to call, or simply respecting when they need to take care of themselves and cannot take care of you in that moment. Have a conversation with your Support and make sure your expectations are in line with their needs—this creates healthy boundaries.
2. Allow Your Support to Have a Bad Day (Week, Month, etc.)
This goes along with those healthy boundaries. Be aware that you do not have the corner market on bad days and hard times. Everyone experiences these, no matter his or her mental health. When your Support is going through a rough time, try to offer support in return. Sometimes, you will not be in a place where this is possible. At these times, just allow them the right to be unhappy. Do not judge or make them feel guilty because you feel that your challenges are significantly greater. However, if you can offer support, you will find that this role reversal is a gift for the both of you. You will feel better about yourself, about accepting help from them in the future, and they will feel appreciated, and supported.
3. Communicate Directly, Not Cryptically
At times we feel guilty for needing so much. Sometimes we feel that we have explained our needs a million times and shouldn’t need to any more. Other times we need our Support to prove their love/dedication/concern/etc. for us. There are many reasons why it can be a challenge to communicate directly; however, this is exhausting and stressful for our Support. If you know what you need, ask for it—no matter why your brain is telling you not to. If you don’t know what you need, be open and talk that through with your support, too. It can help them to know you are just as lost about how to help yourself as they are. Read here for more on being vulnerable and the strength it provides in our relationships.
4. Do Not Manipulate
In my experience, manipulation is easy to turn to with mental illness. Fight against this. Do not attempt to punish or manipulate your Support if you believe they have done/will do something “wrong”. Do not manipulate others into feeling bad for you in the hopes they will then take more care of you. Manipulation undermines relationships. It has no respect for healthy boundaries, it destroys trust and love, and it is dishonest and distrusting. This goes right back to communicating directly. Honesty and openness can be painful initially, but they lead to improved support and stronger relationships. Do you really want your Support to support you in ways they are not willing? Wouldn’t you prefer them to support you in ways they are comfortable and happy to?
5. Avoid the Blame Game
It is easy to blame those around us for what is wrong in our lives. If you have an unhealthy relationship in your life, do what you can to fix it, or eliminate it. However, most likely, your Support genuinely wants to support you. Do not blame them for the things that make you unhappy. Keep that focus on your mental illness. The blame doesn’t lie with you or with them. Blame never solves anything. Being proactive and working on the problem together will get you much further.
6. Give Your Support the Benefit of the Doubt
This goes along with avoiding blame. Trust that your Support is trying hard and that they care about you. When their actions don’t align with those concepts, give them the benefit of the doubt. No one is perfect. Sometimes mistakes will be made. Often, we misread and misinterpret offense or hurt where none was actually intended. Remember that the hurt is quite possibly only in your mind and do your best to forgive offenses (real or imagined) quickly.
7. Have Intentional Conversations Focused on Your Support
Mental illnesses like depression and anxiety tend to make us very egocentric. We are so worried about all these thoughts about ourselves; it is difficult to think of anyone else at times. Set times to put that aside and focus on your Support. Ask about their day, for a change. Listen to the things that are going well and the things that aren’t, in their life. Just listen. Let the focus be on them for at least a little while.
8. Carry the Load—When You Can
As I said before, life is hard for everyone. When your support is struggling, take over. Be the caregiver, even if it’s only for a day, or an hour. I have been amazed at my mind’s ability to do this. Sometimes I’m having a truly horrible day and my husband comes home and I learn he has had a truly horrible day as well. Even if I thought I could only make it until he got home and could then take over for me, my mind is able to somehow set my pain and struggles aside enough to carry on and take care of things even after he comes home. This allows him a break and the space to have a hard day. He tends to recover from a bad day much quicker than I do, so I know I just need to stay strong for a little while and then he will be better able to resume his role as my Support, in addition to feeling better in general.
9. Encourage Self-Care
Being a Support is very draining at times and self-care helps replenish that. Self-care is anything your support enjoys that brings them joy and relaxation. This may be activities or friends that don’t include you and that is okay. Encouraging your Support to participate in self-care helps them take care of themselves and feel appreciated and supported by you. Support will eventually burnout if this is not happening.
10. Encourage Your Support to Find Support
There are support groups available through NAMI and other organizations that are strictly for Support. It is helpful for your Support to feel they are not alone, to be among others who understand their challenge, and sometimes just to vent. Your Support can also participate in individual therapy, or just find a trusted friend to share things with (using discretion to protect your privacy, of course) and find support of their own.
Any time someone comments on how well I seem to deal with my mental illness in comparison with someone else, I always attribute much of my “success” to my support. There are times that I am pretty sure the only difference between me and that lady talking to herself on the street corner is that I have a wonderful support group who takes care of me, even when I can’t. Support is critical in dealing with mental illness. Sometimes maintaining these relationships can seem frustrating or not worth the effort. It is worth it, but it takes effort on both sides.