How to Deal with a Mentally Ill Person: Setting Boundaries
When someone you love becomes sick with a mental illness and refuses to get help, there are a lot of emotions that you will experience. Some of them will come right away, some of them will come slowly. One of the most surprising is grief.
To someone who has not faced this, it may be hard to understand how you can grieve a living person. The terrible thing about mental illness is that the person themselves change. It's often a gradual change, from healthy to ill, but they do change. As the mental illness holds onto them, like in cases of schizophrenia, dementia, and many other mental illnesses that are gripping those we love, the person gets sicker and sicker. Unlike other illnesses, their personality changes, they may become paranoid or even volatile. One moment you are talking to the person you used to know, the next, you find them screaming at you and you don't recognize the person before you. This can happen from day to day, or even moment to moment. Unfortunately, as a loved one, we need to learn to cope with this new change. We nee to grieve the loss we are experiencing and begin setting new boundaries.
Setting boundaries does not mean outright rejection. It means, I am limiting their influence on my life. This is probably the hardest part of this kind of grief, because where the boundaries should be is different for every person. The ill person may deal with certain people better than others. And different people deal with someone with mental illness more easily than others.
One book I strongly recommend is called Boundaries. It teaches how to set up healthy boundaries. It is not mean or heartless. It is self-preservation, love for yourself, respect for yourself. And often times it is also better and more healthy for the sick person as well.
One question to ask yourself when setting up boundaries is does that person take advantage of you. If they take advantage of you, it's important for you to learn to say, "no." Until you learn to say no, they will continue to take advantage of you. You may feel you have responsibility to that person, the truth is that if they are an adult, even if they are your child, you do not have a responsibility to be at their beck and call. In some cases saying, "no" is actually being more loving to that person, especially in cases of enabling.
Also, when we set up boundaries towards our loved ones, it allows us to better help them, since our emotions are not worn and patience lost.
Are You An Enabler?
Also, you need to be honest with yourself. One of the hardest question, especially as a parent, needs to ask themselves is am I enabling this person. Many parents of mentally ill adult children, feel that they need to care for that person, even though that person is capable of caring for themselves. By setting up boundaries, you are making them take responsibility of themselves and their actions. It also teaches them to become more independent.
Friends, siblings, etc can also do this. Are you allowing them to worsen than illness and preventing them from getting the help they need. This needs to be assessed very carefully, since its easy to make excuses for your reasons for intervening or helping the person out. Often we have good intention with disastrous results.
Is This a Toxic Relationship
Another thing you need to ask yourself; is this a toxic relationship? A toxic relationship means any type of relationship where you are being abused mentally, verbally, or physically. This is the hardest kind of boundary, because for your own protection, you need to distance yourself from the abuser. Its hard to distance ourselves from someone we love. We often want to a martyr in order to help the other person. We cannot do that at the expense of ourselves. This is not a selfish tactic.
When we allow others to abuse us, we are incapable of helping those around us who do need help. You may be allowing yourself to be abused by this person, at the expense of helping other people, such as your own children, or if the person is your child, your other children. You may find yourself focused on your ill child, you neglect the others. You may also neglect your marriage.
When a person is toxic in your life, you may need to decide when they are no longer allowed in your life. Your heart will break, that's normal, but you are not only protecting yourself, but those around you. By cutting off toxic relationships it allows your other relationships to blossom.
Allow Yourself to Grieve
Once you have set up boundaries, allow yourself time to cry. The one thing you need to remember is that you are losing someone. Maybe they are physically present in your life, but mentally the person you once loved is gone. Let yourself mourn. Remember the good times, but know that the good times you had were not with this person. It was a healthy version of this person. You can hope you will have them back but be realistic. In most cases, unless that person seeks medical help, they will never be back. They may have moments where they are doing better than other times, but expect that things can change right back quickly.
Mental illness is a terrible set of diseases. There is not enough known about the human brain to cure for such diseases. Although it does not take away life, it takes away quality of life. It can affect those around the ill person more drastically than any other type of illness. Be honest with yourself, be realistic, set up boundaries, and let yourself grieve.
© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz