The Secret to Maintaining Your Sanity While Helping Another

Many people in my audience are here because they are attempting to better understand mental illness, help a mentally ill loved one, or better help themselves. The ups and downs associated with the process are emotionally taxing and difficult to handle. So today, I want to share an important tip that can significantly ease a lot of the stress and emotional turmoil that goes along with not only this process, but several other aspects of life.

That is: work to reduce the amount of emotion you invest in the process or outcome.

What the hell does that mean?

In trying to help a mentally unwell person, their instability can be a great deal of stress and anxiety. It’s only natural to start letting hope peek in when they appear to be balancing off. Maybe this time they will finally be ready to seek help? Maybe this time they’ll listen to reason and their doctor? Maybe this time they will take their medication as directed?

In a situation like this, it’s also possible that they don’t make the right decisions, aren’t ready to commit to their wellness path, or have a bad reaction to the medication they do take. Investing hope into that situation is fruitless because the pursuit of wellness and stability is not a straight line. It has it’s ups and downs. It’s a long road to travel and there are many obstacles that can knock a person off their course. And most people, I find, have to learn things the hard way. You don’t want to find yourself getting angry, frustrated, sad, or depressed because things didn’t resolve how you thought they would.

That is not to say that you should never be emotional. You’re human. You’re going to be. You should celebrate successes and acknowledge failures; just don’t celebrate or mourn until you have an actual, tangible reason to.

Work to maintain neutrality and it will make things much easier in the long-term. The ability to last long-term is important because the realization that one needs help and the pursuit of wellness often takes years. You can’t compromise your own mental and emotional health in the process of trying to help someone else.

And really, it applies to most other areas of life as well. It dramatically reduces the emotional impact of the process of pursuing your goals.

Far too many people look at things like failure and rejection as an end all, be all. They’re not. They’re just part of the process of succeeding. That’s why you can’t let your emotions dictate a setback, failure, or rejection as a devastating end.

Let me frame it in one of the most common examples that people write to me about.

The mind of a Bipolar spouse runs screaming into an unwell cycle. The cycle is burning hard for months with all of the “fun” that goes along with it. Eventually, the cycle ends and the Bipolar spouse reaches back out because their perspective is finally starting to clear up. So, what is the Supporter spouse now feeling? Hope since it appears the person they loved is back and clear again? Anticipation that the situation is changing for the better? Relief? Happiness? Comfort? It can be any number of things.

What happens to the emotional state of the Supporter spouse if a few days later, Bipolar Disorder takes off into another drastic swing and all of those relief-based emotions are yanked out from under them? What happens if the Bipolar person realizes they need help, but can’t get in to see their doctor before another cycle takes hold and convinces them that they are fine? That it’s everyone else that’s fucking crazy!!!  Not me!!! And then you find yourself back to square one after months of suffering with little to show for it.

You must work to maintain your wellness, balance, and stability while trying to love and help a mentally unwell person or their instability will destroy your emotional health. It is very common for Supporters to develop their own mental illnesses as they try to cope.

I use a very simple process myself.

1. Identify what the long-term goal is.

2. Temper emotions by keeping your eye on the long-term goal.

3. Force yourself to not dwell on the immediate successes and failures.

4. Repeat until you reach the long-term goal.

Seems simple, right? It’s not. At all. It takes time and practice to get used to; and you’re not going to get it right all of the time. I mean, you don’t need to look too deeply into my work to find anger or frustration. I definitely have it and experience it still. But, it’s a lot less intrusive than it used to be. Even a small gain in control over these emotions can make the overall journey much easier.


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19 Responses to The Secret to Maintaining Your Sanity While Helping Another

  1. MJF says:

    Once again spot on. I’m in this thought process currently.

    BTW the karma of life would suggest that at some point in your life your immense body of incredibly supportive work will come back to you in some wonderful way. I hope so.

    • Dennis says:

      Hey there. Glad you enjoyed the piece. Just a note though, don’t use your last or full name in discussing mental illness on the internet in public spaces. You don’t want it associated with searches from Google in case your loved one or a potential employer searches for your name.

      And, I don’t know about karma. I guess we’ll just have to see!

  2. HooNoes says:

    I am really struggling as I live with two unwell people at the moment. One who seems to be “happy” to be unwashed, grumpy and reclusive for over six months, and the other, who is suffering their second bout of some major sudden depressive illness in about a year. I hate meds as I worry about the side effects, most of which seem to be the very same as the symptoms they are prescribed for. The second one is ashamed of his condition and thinks he will be judged a “wack job” forever. Neither of these people are BiPolar to my knowledge but the struggle is as bad for me. I am nearly 60 and fear for their futures when I am gone. They have family but do not seem to value them and maintain ties as I would like so I do not know how much support there will b e for them there. How does one impress upon such people the need to be close to family?..I think they assume I will be here forever to do the hard yards.

    • Dennis says:

      Hey there. Hate meds or not, the severity of the depression you’re describing, they are likely going to need them. Yes, the side effects can be severe, that’s why they are listed so we can keep an eye out for them in the event we have a bad reaction.

      Assuming they are both adults (I don’t know how old they are), you may want to sit them both down and have a very frank conversation on the matter. That they are going to need to start doing something before you’re no longer here to do what you do. And shove them towards meaningful help. In regards to the second, reinforce that he doesn’t have to tell anyone that he’s taking medication or having mental problems if he doesn’t want to. That line of thinking just isn’t going to fly really.

      It’s very likely they aren’t close to family because of their depression. Socializing and being around other people is very difficult when a person is struggling from depression for a long time. And at some point, it just takes more energy than it feels like it’s worth. So, you’re not likely to impress on them the importance of family and encourage visitation or anything along those lines until the depression is actually handled.

      To put it frankly, you’re going to have to get over your own fear and push them towards working on their problem, as whatever solution may be most applicable for them with their professional, including meds.

      • HooNoes says:

        Thanks Dennis. The first one is 26 and was severely abused in every way possible by his father when I lost custody at age 5. He came back to me at age 18 and slid downhill from then on, except for a brief marriage which ended after producing a daughter whom he hasn’t seen for a few years. He denies having any mental disorder, so treatment is not on the cards. I wonder if there are indeed people for whom “melancholy” is just the norm?..just like being happy?.
        The second one does try when he is well to attend family gatherings. He is on the spectrum(high functioning) but is in denial of this also. His counsellor and myself have told him about no one needing to know about meds so I hope he takes it onboard. He is taking Imrest atm for insomnia but that drug scares the crap out of me and I try to encourage him to use alternate methods of inducing sleep, such as exercise, avoiding screens after dinner etc..he is 20 so I cannot enforce these things and he seems to be hell bent on relying on drugs.
        My career is on indefinite hold and I am running out of time. I may need meds soon dammit.

        • Dennis says:

          What you’ve described to me about him, both in these posts and our previous conversations, what he experiences is far past being “melancholy”. Yes, there are people who are mainline mildly depressed – like I am. That’s where my brain is often at as well. But I still get up and grind because I know I don’t have a choice in the matter. And when the depression is really bad, I usually need to take some time to myself. People like that usually need to have a drastic jolt to realize they can’t conduct their life the way they are. Usually it means laying down foundation like, “You need to be pursuing work and putting in effort or you can’t stay here.” Yes, even for parents.

          I mean realistically, in both scenarios, breaking through that kind of depression takes something drastic and sharp. Usually losing something major which makes them realize they can’t keep doing things the way that they are. A strategy for that may be worth discussing with the counselor if you haven’t already.

  3. Steve says:

    God bless you Dennis, your wisdom is priceless!

  4. Nicole says:

    This post is very timely for me as I am trying to work on rebuilding with my husband and just two days ago had a setback. But like you said in the end, detachment and reducing my emotional response in the process is so hard when it is my marriage/partnership on the line. It makes me wonder if I have what it takes to see this whole thing through. I really appreciate this post and will work on setting my sights on our long term goal (recovery/wellness and reunification) when the immediate road in front of us is rocky. Thank you Dennis for all of your thoughtful wisdom.

    • Dennis says:

      You’re very welcome. It’s a difficult journey for sure. I hope things smooth out for you and your family soon.

  5. Lou says:

    A timely piece for me, as I struggle to generate some neutrality to maintain my own emotional equilibrium.
    Mental illness can be a horrific, nightmarish roller coaster, with no clear view of the direction you’re travelling in, or how things will turn out in the end.
    It is indeed very human and understandable to feel hope, relief and a sense of justice and resolution when a loved one appears to be gaining some insight and perspective. It’s then absolutely crushing when things just fizzle out and you’re back to square one.
    Not investing emotionally is easy to say, very hard to do. This doesn’t mean that it’s not worth trying, it’s just that realistically it’s only possible to a degree.
    If we didn’t love and care about these people it would be easy, but we do. As much as we want to get out of the car and just watch and wait – we can’t.
    That said, having constant reminders of what we should be striving for, from people who’s opinion we trust, is a massive help.
    Every time I read your work Dennis, I take away a part of it that really resonates with me, and use it as a mantra to give me a bit more strength.
    Thanks again.

    • Dennis says:

      I’m glad to hear you’ve found this piece helpful, Lou. It is most certainly difficult to maintain some boundaries and separation while trying to navigate these difficult things. Unfortunately, pretty much everything is easier said than done. Glad to hear you are working on finding your own neutrality and balance in all of this.

  6. Philip says:

    The worst thing ever had to do, I had to call 911 and she was 5150’d. I feel so incredibly guilty. I talked to her on the phone last evening from the hospital. So I was the most evil person in the world and that I did this to her and now she hates me hates me hates me. Your post of all of them so right on I really shouldn’t Waited this long we’ve been together for almost 10 years. I am heartbroken. I feel so bad. When she does get out I know that we will never be able to work together again.

    • Dennis says:

      That’s a very unfortunate story, Philip. But you have to do what you have to do. There’s nothing pretty, pleasant, or easy about any of this. Hopefully, when she gets further down the road and more clear, she will understand why you made the choice that you did. She doesn’t hate you, it’s her mental illness telling her that she hates you. Don’t let the guilt or bad feelings eat you up. It could be worse, she could be out doing god knows what. Sometimes the only choices you have in dealing with mental illness are choosing which flavor of shit sandwich you want to take a bite out of. It’s not easy at all.

  7. Philip says:

    She stopped taking her medication and new medication she was taking Made her feel bad and ill. Details regarding the calling 911 included I thought she maybe having a seizure her breathing was uratic when I attempted to talk to her at that point she started screaming 5 AM in the morning and causing major disruption in the household.

  8. Jo Smith says:

    Very interesting and well thought out. I love reading your articles as it somehow gives me some peace and tends to make me less stressed in my situation. My family member has had me emotionally invested in her sickness and has tied me up for many years. It is to the point where she uses me an an outlet. Whether it be using my life and family as her outlet for social needs or using me as the focus of her life, but she always ends up emotionally traumatizing me. I am now starting to learn not to stress out about her and to be less emotionally invested. It is still hard as she tries to trap me and I can predict what she will do (because i have known her to do so for so long). And sadly even the times when she’s being sincere but I can only flinch at the possibilities. I feel like a beaten dog. Does that make sense? Hoping that the outcome will soon be better for both of us. I can be less involved and she can get better and get on with her own life.

    • Dennis says:

      Hello. Yes, it does make sense. Given your description of the situation and behavior, have you been to a counselor yourself to learn more about setting and enforcing boundaries with the person? Because toxic people, whether they are actively malicious or just making bad decisions regularly, will often overrun boundaries unless you enforce them harshly. A toxic person who is comfortable with treating you poorly will just continue to do it unless you do something to break the cycle because their emotional investment in the relationship is much smaller to nonexistent.

  9. Philip says:

    Hi Dennis, It’s been awhile since my last post. As I said earlier, I had to call 911 due to an episode. She has not found shelter and has been sleeping in her car. I could not stand to see this any longer, and I have allowed her back into my home. She still will not seek the kind of help she needs, she is not honest with her doctors. How do you help someone who does not think they need help?? This more a rhetorical question. I think I know the answer. I just can not see her killing herself, getting sick, the weather changing, no hygiene, on and on. The mental health here in my county is terrible, and really no help. 5150, and she is out on the street in 3 days. I know that letting her back in may be the wrong thing to do, but it seems the humane thing I can only do. 🙁

    • Dennis says:

      The short answer is: you can’t help someone that won’t help themselves. That’s just the way it is. It’s not a rhetorical question. The question has an answer. “You can’t.”

      5150’ing is typically only to get people through a psychiatric “emergency”. It’s normal for things to function like you’re talking about here. The actual process of mental recovery is generally long and difficult.

      As for letting her back into your home: we make the best decisions that we can. If you feel that’s the best thing to do, that it’s right for you, then that’s what you should do. There are very few easy answers as it relates to mental illness and loving someone with a mental illness. So, just make sure that you’re maintaining some boundaries and ensuring she can’t damage your life while she is staying with you.

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