I receive correspondence from people dealing with a wide variety of issues relating to mental illness. One of the more common themes include parents, usually mothers, who are trying to figure out a way to make their adult child realize they need help and work toward recovery. I’ve talked to parents who have developed severe depression and anxiety, who have claimed strokes and heart attacks from the stress, who have gone so far as to take out additional mortgages to try and fund rehab, and far more.
In many cases, these parents have gone to mental health groups or counselors of their own. They’ve been told about the need and importance for boundaries; but feel that they can’t do these things to their child because of potential repercussions like violence, homelessness, self-harm, or suicide. All are very real possibilities when it comes to Bipolar Disorder and other volatile mental illnesses. That’s why it is vital to have the input and support of a qualified, licensed mental health professional. Being that I am not, it is not my place to tell you what you should do in that kind of situation other than seek professional help. Instead, I want to address the internal struggle of those parents.
On Waging the War…
I look at my mental wellness and my efforts in trying to help other mentally ill people and their loved ones in the context of fighting a war. You need a loose strategy that can be adapted as you push towards your goals. You need to have and manage resources. In war that includes troops, morale, weaponry, and money to keep the machine going. In mental health it’s professionals, your own emotional and health, therapy, medications, and money.
In war, you deploy your resources in a way that will push you closer to a victory. You do not want to arbitrarily waste your resources on battles that will not bring you closer to victory. In war, your troops may have advanced on and taken a hill. Intelligence indicates that a massive counter-attack is coming. Do you hold the hill? Does it serve a strategic importance to keep your troops on that hill and commit additional resources like air support and artillery to ensuring they hold it? Or is it a better idea to withdraw and let the enemy retake it so you can conserve resources and keep your troops in fresh, fighting shape for future actions?
In mental health, the wise will pick their battles in a similar way. You commit your resources when they have the greatest ability to make an impact and serve a strategic purpose. The most common piece of advice I give to people is don’t bother arguing with a Bipolar person who is manic. It serves little purpose. On the off-chance you actually do get through to the person in that moment, their instability can wipe out any perceived gains that you’ve made. What’s more likely to happen is you end up throwing fuel on the fires of their unwellness, anger them more, drive them further into instability. Then you have the emotional energy that you’ve expended in the form of your own anger, sadness, and frustration with the lack of meaningful gain.
In trying to get through to a mentally ill loved one, you must conserve your resources because it can take years for a person to not only realize they need help, but foster the desire to change their situation. You cannot sacrifice your mental and physical health, career, money, and home for someone who is not ready to help themselves. If you do, then you may not have those resources available five or ten years down the road when they could have been employed to make a real difference.
I Can’t Do What Is Suggested to My Child…
No one in this world is going to love your child as much as you do. No one. No one is going to put up with as much shit, sacrifice, or care as much as you do. What happens when you are no longer there? Will they end up on the streets? Will they commit suicide? Will they jump into a terrible relationship to just not be alone or on the streets? Will they turn to drugs or alcohol to escape? Maybe they are already doing those things now; but the difference is you are alive and reading this right now. That means you have the potential to be there for them and crack through the distorted perception that mental illness creates.
The boundary setting suggestions that mental health professionals make serve different purposes. Not only do they help you retain your sanity and well-being, but they also contribute to a controlled descent based on choice, whether that was the intention or not. Enforcing these boundaries forces the person to acknowledge that they have choices that will have repercussions. That helps to contribute to a controlled fall where hopefully the person won’t have to hit rock bottom to realize they need to change.
This is not something you are doing TO your child; this is something you are doing FOR your child. In following the recommendations of your mental health professionals, you are fighting the war FOR your child, which will hopefully push them towards the realization that they need to fight, too. Nobody accidentally recovers from a serious mental illness like Bipolar Disorder. Recovery is a major victory in a long-term war that requires a great deal of fighting, effort, and work. It is not something that can be handed to another person.
Your child, or loved one, is the only one who can truly help themselves. Enabling that person to realize it and that they have the strength to overcome will be two of the hardest fought, bloodiest battles in the war. Thus, you need to pace yourself to make sure your own life and well-being doesn’t get destroyed in the process. If the situation is so bad that your professional is suggesting extreme measures, you can’t tell yourself you can’t do them. You may not have a choice if you want to win the battle.