In the Care of Insanity

When I write posts about mental illness, I often get thank yous from people who are mentally healthy for giving them an insight into what it’s like living with a mental disease.

My friend, Lauren, has written a post at my request.  The post details her experience as a friend of somebody who was, frankly, at the height of his insanity.  It’s not fun, and it paints a picture of why people with conditions like these often wind up at the tail end of their self-fulfilling prophecy of living alone.  It also may help the sickly to realize how difficult it is for those close to us who are thrust into a caretaker role whether they’re ready for it or not.  If you have a mental illness, even in its infancy, consider getting treatment for the people around you.

I was lucky – I had very patient, dedicated friends.  Not everybody is as lucky as I.

I am unsure of where to start this blog post. When JT asked me to write about “dealing with a crazy person” I was pretty pumped. I thought that I would have all kinds of kick ass, inspirational things to say and then probably win a major award for being so awesome and talented.

The more I thought about my experiences, however, the sadder I got. Helping JT through his dark times wasn’t fun. In fact, it was a lot less than fun, it was pretty fucking shitty. I want to tell all of you to run out there and help those who need it no matter the cost but the truth is that it’s damned difficult.

I first met JT my freshman year of college when I volunteered to be the art director for Opera Workshop. He was one of the lead actors and when we saw each other, we immediately engaged in what shall now be dubbed the HUG OF EPIC EPICNESS *cue dramatic music*.

We became fast friends over the semester, starting shenanigans that escalated at an alarming rate. That first semester, we were two of seven people dressed as pirates in downtown Springfield, MO protesting evangelists. Only a year later we had created the MSU Church of the FSM that boasted over 200 members and had the power to shoo away campus evangelists.

JT got sick slowly. At first none of us really seemed to catch on. We were all part of a pretty close knit group of friends, the five of us constantly hanging out and getting into trouble. At first, he would decline to come around because he said he had too much homework, was too tired, or just didn’t have the time right now, sorry! These are all valid excuses, so it wasn’t until he had managed to weasel his way out of seeing us for more than a week or so that we all suspected something was wrong.

It’s a good thing that Amber was a psych major, because lord knows I had no idea what the hell was wrong with my best friend. He wouldn’t really talk to me anymore, and when he did it was weird. JT became a shadow of his former self, hardly ever taking down his walls to talk to anyone anymore. His jokes became strained and hollow. He seemed constantly distracted and distant.

Eventually, the rest of us got together and made up a battle plan. Amber would be in charge of making sure he got professional help and medicine, Ryan would be the bad guy when it came to other things like making him get out and socialize, and I was to just be there by his side no matter what. I was supposed to sit by his side and never allow him to shut me out so we’d always have an “in” as to what he was doing and thinking.

I thought I had the easy job, but looking back I’m not so sure anymore. I lived in constant fear that I would do or say something wrong and end up being the reason he shut us all out for good or worse. I felt a constant worry for JT…it was absolutely mentally exhausting. I felt guilty for so many reasons it often made me sick. I felt guilty that I couldn’t help him and fix it, that I was so very tired of trying, and that I sometimes felt like walking away entirely and saving my own sanity. I even felt guilty for being happy.

Trying to help someone who is mentally unhealthy is a difficult thing and it made us all very desperate at times. While we may not have had the best methods to help him, we gave it all we had. We made him meals and forced him to eat something, anything that we had made. We had movie nights, game nights, plain old hangout nights and dragged his ass out kicking and screaming so he would see something other than the inside of his bedroom. We yelled, we threatened, we guilted, we blackmailed, we were beyond sugary sweet: anything to get him out socializing or eating.

Helping JT through his illness has been one of the hardest things I have ever done. Before he got sick we were the most amazing friends you could ever hope to meet. We got shit done, we terrorized the local religious community, we sang Tenacious D at the top of our lungs and were known to give each other only marginally terrible advice.

However, helping JT has come at a cost that I am still only beginning to understand. JT did and said many horrible things to me when he was sick. I won’t get into the hairy details, but it absolutely destroyed our friendship. The person that I had trusted had turned into some sort of horrible monster hellbent on making me just as miserable as he was. Some days I left his company crying, sometimes numb, sometimes pissed off that I allowed this kind of shit to happen in the first place.

I stayed and helped JT because it was the right thing to do. Because he would have done it for me. Because I knew what he used to be like, what he could be like again, and wanted that back. He needed me, he needed all of his friends, to stay there with him no matter how hard he tried to push us away. It was not always easy, but it was a price we were all willing to pay.

I wish I had some sort of remedy as to how to deal with this situation but the truth is that I still have no fucking clue. When someone you care about starts to turn into something unrecognizable you really only have two options: leave or stay. I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to leave but I will say this: if you won’t or can’t be there for them, make sure to find someone else who will. Tell their parents, tell their teacher, tell a professional, tell someone, anyone who will get them the help that they need. Do not abandon them.

So I guess that’s my advice to you, stick with them. Make them eat your crappy chili and drag them out to the midnight showing of your favorite movie. If they won’t leave their bedroom, find things to do in there with them even if it drives them nuts.

When it comes down to it, I’d do it again tomorrow. Not a doubt in my mind.

I love you, Jtface.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Off to get see if they’ll experiment on me.
POLITICS: Boehner calls Obama an “anti-war President.”
MENTAL ILLNESS: Time to go be a lab rat.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • peicurmudgeon

    Dealing with people with mental illness takes a toll, and end relationships. When I made my suicide attempt (almost 5 years ago now). My partner of nearly 10 years tried to put up with the shell I became afterwards. For 6 months I lived in my own world and just shut down. I finally went back into the hospital, for alonger stay, and during that time, she moved out.

    I am in another relstionship now, and one of my biggest fears is that my illness will someday drive her away as well. This, along with the pain I caused my children is my greatest motivation to do everything possible to avoid sinking to such depths again. Will it be enough? I have no idea. That’s my reality.

  • Lisa Chalkley (@living_as_if)

    That’s a brave and ballsy write up & a great topic to deal with. I hope it’s provides some validation for carers and some hope, they normally just get a list of ‘sensible things to do’ or told to abandon a person for their own mental health. Bravo :)

  • Nepenthe

    Yeah, pretty much this. It’s doubly, maybe triply, exhausting to be a carer for a mentally ill person when you are mentally ill yourself. I had to leave my best friend in high school because his bipolar swings drove me further into depression. I couldn’t deal with worrying about him; I couldn’t stand waiting for the phone call informing me that he’d killed himself.

    And then, there’s knowing how much of a difficulty you are, when you are mentally ill. To a great extent, my avoidance of people when I’m in relapse is due to an understanding, however distorted, of just how shitty I am to be around when I can barely move or speak, let alone provide any semblance of friendship. It kills me how much pain I know I cause. And when I think about suicide, that’s top in my mind, the continuing pain that I cause, although the rational bits of me left understand that suicide would be worse.

    So, since my depression has been fairly intractable and relapses frequently, I usually lose all my friends about every two years or so. I don’t know what to do. I can’t tell them not to worry about me because it just makes things worse; people don’t work like that. C’est la vie.

  • ischemgeek

    I’m glad to see your friend’s post. I can relate (suffice to say, severe mental illness runs in my family, which resulted in me growing up in an unstable and emotionally abusive environment, and my partner is also mentally ill). I often get people advising me to leave my partner (including, ironically, my mother, the one who caused a lot of the instability in my home growing up and who still refuses treatment even though yeah, she’s… well, let’s just say she might not be as sick as she was when I was a kid, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t still very sick) because his mental illness is currently disabling.

    Screw that. My partner is a wonderful, amazing person who’s working his butt off at getting better. He can’t get better without support, though, so I’ll be there.

  • sunnybook3

    Dear Lauren–
    Thank you for this post. I’ve been in exactly the same place as you. I became close friends with a co-worker when he hit a severe case of depression, which came with suicidal thoughts. I put off reading this post because I didn’t want to dredge up the fear and sadness from when he was at his worst. As honest and as difficult as your post is, I know you pulled your punches. And of course you did–how can you put into words just how hard it is? I’m not sure that there are words in the English language that explain the mixture of frustration, tension, fear, worry, and desire to just walk away. Not to mention having to come to terms with the thought that you might fail, no matter how hard you try to help…. Thankfully, my friend survived and he has worked very hard to fight against the illness. He is an amazing person and endlessly willing to fight for his friends. Like you, I would do it all again tomorrow–not a doubt in my mind. Thank you for sharing your story. You made me feel less alone.

  • The Nerd

    As Nepenthe mentions in comment #2, it’s tough when some days I don’t know whether I should leave work early or if by the time I got home, he’d be dead anyway. Or maybe today he’s a good supportive partner, but tomorrow my being transgender and haveing ADHD will be too much and he’ll just leave. I don’t know. Are we together because no “normal” person would put up with us? Or do we have a unique insight into each other’s struggles that brings us closer together than we could be with anyone else? No easy answers.

  • Charles

    I was married for 17 years to someone with bi-polar. 6 suicide attempts during that time. She got sick right as we got married. I blogged about what it was like being a care taker for her during that time. It was a huge part of my becoming an atheist.

    Our divorce was finalized last spring after 2 years of separation. I still miss her every day, and still feel like a bastard because I made her already really hard life even harder by leaving. I am not sure I had much other choice–It was the least bad option–but I still feel both responsible for her and love for her even though I haven’t seen her for over 2 years (she wants nothing to do with me now).

    I am now engaged to someone so amazing, and think that I made the right choice. I just wish it didn’t have to come at the expense of my ex. I really worry for her if the repubs succeed in destroying Obama-care. We could barely make it on my 6-figure salary.

    Being a caretaker is really hard. Not as hard as being the person with the mental illness, but just never ending soul-grinding work. My only days where I was not responsible for everything were when she was in the hospital because she wanted to kill herself.

    JT. I am really glad you are talking about mental illnesses, and about their caretakers. We need more awareness on both issues. It means a lot to this Seattleite.

  • L

    “tail end of their self-fulfilling prophecy of living alone”

    That statement is only for some people, and nothing more than a personal opinion. Many people live alone and love it, and would have it no other way. For some it’s a goal to independance that some may desire but have never achieved the strength for. And circumstances often dictate, and have nothing to do with sanity or insanity.

    It’s the ultimate freedom for some and doesn’t mean the end of a fulfilling social life, it’s a way of life living it on your own terms as much as possibe. The list of advantages is as long as the list of disadvantages made by those who prefer or need regimentation and less comfortable without it.

    One person’s utopia is another’s misery, much like one person’s possessions is treasure and another’s clutter.

  • Kumasan

    Yea, we do become shitty people. I remember the second time I was hospitalized a group session led to us discussing how we had all gotten there. Honestly, 5 out of 7 were there because a loved one pulled the plug on our ‘let’s be shitty to anyone that cares enough to be around us’ gig. It gets better, but the process is not something I ever hope to repeat.

    • allie

      I never want to go through it again, either, but I have to say that when I look back over the progress I’ve made as I’ve rebuilt my life, I am incredibly proud. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding.

  • allie

    I second (third? fourth?) the thing about us mentally ill people being hell to be around when we’re sick. When I was suicidally depressed, or when I was manic, or when I was in a mixed mood and would verbally abuse people for sport, there were people in my life that I could always count on, who helped me see how bad things were, and helped me get better. I can’t even begin to say how grateful I am for them.

  • anthonyallen

    Do I really do that to people?

    Sweet Zombie Jesus… :(

  • judykomorita

    Hang in there, Anthony. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Even if it’s true, it wouldn’t help to beat yourself up over it. Take a deep breath. If you can, talk to the people you are around every day.