Just read another story from someone with a loved one with mental illness, and again I hear the same story: His illness is no excuse to act the way he does, nor to treat people badly.
Of course it isn’t. But I always wonder, did anyone take the time to ask HIM about his point of view?
Too often I see the mentally ill told to straighten up, do what society expects, stop acting all crazy, and could you please, while you’re at it, be nice? These are all reasonable requests, as long as we refrain from defining “acting all crazy,” since it can cover a wide variety of things, some of which even the sanest of us participate in.
Buying bottled water, for example. It’s crazy, when you think about it, and when you know that tap water can be better for you, and cost a lot less, but we do it anyway. At least some of us.
I’ve come to the realization that I’m one of the sanest people you’ll ever meet. However, that doesn’t mean that when I’m talking to someone who’s mentally ill I’ll proclaim my superior sanity and tell them to just act like me. Instead, I’ll ask them what they think. I’ll want them to tell me about their delusions, though I won’t call them delusions, and I’ll want to know how they see things.
With my ex-Stew-who-was-mentally-ill (for those of you who haven’t followed the story and haven’t read the book yet), I talked to him. I didn’t just tell him what was going on in the real world, but I asked him about what was going on in his world. I treated his views, as irrational as they seemed to me, as if they were real. Because you know what? To him, that was reality. Telling him to join me in my reality didn’t mean anything to him because he couldn’t see it.
I don’t mean buy into their world. You can’t follow them down that path, at least not far. It doesn’t help them, and it doesn’t help you understand them. And sometimes no matter how much you ask, it won’t make sense to you. It can’t, anymore than what you see can make sense to them. But that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is that you are relating to them on a level that’s equal. By asking about their world, you let them know you care what goes on in it.
I’ve met people who don’t want to know what’s going on in someone else’s world. “It’s not real, they just need to snap out of it.” Always helpful advice, the just-snap-out-of-it. It’s like telling someone with a broken leg to just walk on the damn thing and they’ll be fine in no time.
But often it matters to them. It matters that someone cares enough to ask. With Stew, we could have these sorts of dialogues, so he could tell me what was going on and I would take it seriously, but I could also remind him that, “You remember, don’t you, that we talked about how only you can see this, and no one else?” And he could remember, usually (not always, I’m not a miracle worker) that his world view was not necessarily the world view I had, or anyone else had. It was distinctly his, but he was welcome to talk about all he wanted, because if you can’t talk about your crazy world with anyone, you’re going to hold onto it even tighter so you don’t lose it.
Even if it’s a sad dark world, it’s still the only world you have, and why give that up? How can you when you can’t see anything else?
Maybe, just maybe, if you take them seriously, instead of insisting they conform to a standard they don’t understand, they might take you seriously. They might come to understand that you’re not the enemy, at least not all the time. Sometimes you’ll still be the enemy, but perhaps just by listening you can become safe, someone they don’t have to fear is going to tell them, yet again, that they’re crazy and could they just listen to reason?
And maybe not. Maybe it’s all for nothing. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to disengage. Sometimes, though, if you try, you can find that disengaging isn’t necessary after all. I tried with Stew. I tried with everything I had, and I was rewarded with his lasting friendship and his support, which are no small things. I was also rewarded with being able to talk him off the ledge when he was on it, which happened more than I would have thought possible. He listened to me even when the voices in his head were telling him not to, because he knew I was listening to him, and not just talking at him. I knew his fears, and I knew his hopes, and I knew, usually, how best to reach him.
Not always. But enough.
Sometimes enough is the best we can do.