Saturday, October 6, 2012

Taking Care of Yourself

When all around you are running around with their psyches in disarray and the world is in danger of imploding, what do you do?

If you’re anything like me, and I sincerely hope you’re not, you assume that it’s not only about you, but that it’s somehow your fault, and even if it’s not your fault, that it’s your job to fix it.

If you ARE like me, I hope you’ve invested in some good therapy, because we can drive ourselves nuts with this sort of thing.

I grew up convinced that I was not enough. I wasn’t good enough, or pretty enough, or smart enough, and I grew up knowing that if I wanted people to like me, I’d sure as hell better have something to offer, like fixing their problems, or being helpful, or giving them something. I managed to learn early on that giving people things wasn’t helpful and made me go broke fast, so if I give you something, it’s because I want you to have it. And I do like giving gifts, I really do.

And I discovered that I can’t fix anyone else’s problems. I tried, but it wasn’t productive. When my ex-husband, Stew, was severely mentally ill I first tried to fix his problems, but that didn’t work, because I’m an accountant by trade, and he had no problems with numbers. Instead, I gave him the support he needed to work on his own stuff. Besides, I had my own stuff to work on at the same time.

If you know someone who has a mental illness or is going through something really tough for them, you can’t fix it, no matter how much you want to. What you can do is support them as they navigate through their own minefield. Sometimes this means you have to erect your own defenses to protect yourself. It’s so easy, when you’re close to someone, to let their worldview become a part of your worldview. It’s not productive if their world is dark and scary, because you don’t want to be there.

You really don’t. There are so many other worldviews out there, so we should try to avoid the scary ones.

I could make a political joke here, but I’m not going to. Such restraint!

One of my carryovers from my dissatisfying childhood is my reassuring nature. “No problem,” I’m used to telling people, even if it IS a problem. “It’s okay,” I’ll say, in an attempt to prop up their fragile ego, when it really isn’t okay. “Yes, by all means, stomp all over me and leave me for dead, I’ll forgive you because I’m so damn empathetic and I know you’re in pain,” is something I might have said if I felt like using that many words all at once. But it’s not okay. It’s a hard one, for me, because I want to please people, I want them to like me. (Newsflash: Some people will not ever like me, no matter what. One of my sisters has told me she’s not interested enough in me to buy my book, which is basically about ME, not even to just have it and say, “My sister wrote this.” I didn’t really understand this concept because if any members of my family write a book, I’m buying it, and I’m promoting it to everyone I know. But this is life – some people will like us, and some won’t, and it doesn’t matter if we lie down in the middle of the freeway and let them run over us – in fact, that might make them like us less.)

And make no mistake, I do go out of my way for people all the time. But now, when I do, it’s because it is okay, it isn’t a problem, and I do want to do it. And I do this for people who appreciate it, usually.

With Stew, I had to learn it wasn’t okay for someone else, anyone else, to act as if I were their personal verbal punching bag, and that it’s my responsibility to myself to say, “That’s not going to happen.” He needed someone to tell him when what he was doing wasn’t okay, that his illness did not give him license to behave anyway he liked. He needed that far more than someone putting up with his occasional bad behavior, because he could no longer recognize what was okay, and what wasn’t. When you’re ill, whether it’s depression or something like schizo-affective disorder, your perceptions are off, and when that happens, you (and by you, I mean I) need someone to tell you what’s okay, and what isn’t.

Occasionally I slip up. But then I recover. It’s an ongoing process, this self-improvement thing.

Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone who needs help is to let them figure it out on their own. The best thing you can do for yourself is stand your ground. Where you draw that line is up to you, as long as you realize there is a line.

I could have said this in just a few words, but I like words: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

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