I receive a lot of inquiries from people asking for advice about living with mental illness, loving someone with a mental disorder, and doing ministry among people with mental illness and their families. I can’t offer the kind of advice and help a mental health professional can give, but I can point people in the direction of resources that might help them. And I can share some of the wisdom I have learned in my own family’s experience as well as countless conversations with people who have experience in similar situations. Sometimes it’s a matter of just introducing people to resources that are available. Sometimes it’s a matter of sharing my own personal experience and my own perspective.
Occasionally I share some of these interactions* here, for the benefit of others who may have similar questions.
Question: My sister has a serious mental illness, and it’s really hard for me to be in a relationship with her. I love her a lot, and when she’s doing well, we have a lot of fun together. But I never know which version of her I’m going to get. She counts on me a lot, and I try to help her as much as I can, but I have my own family and job to worry about. Plus, sometimes I’m just tired of trying to help. How can I help her and love her but still have some boundaries around my own life?
Answer: I’m so glad you’re asking this question. It’s important! Your life matters as much as your sister’s does, and the other people who are counting on you–your family, your co-workers, and others–need you to be available to them too. And ultimately, you won’t be a great help to anyone, including your sister, if you are not healthy and well yourself.
I recommend you consider attending a group that can help you understand how boundaries work and support you as you establish and enforce them. You might be able to find a boundaries support group in your area. Or you might consider attending a recovery group, such as Al-Anon Family Groups or Celebrate Recovery. This might sound funny if no one in your family has a substance-abuse problem, but these groups are very effective at teaching boundaries and helping people enforce them. A family affected by serious mental illness can have a lot in common with a family affected by addiction (which is a kind of mental health problem): family secrets, poor boundaries, and unhealthy patterns that can even keep a person who’s ill from getting better.
You might also consider reading a book about boundaries, such as the classic book Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. This book also has several spin-offs that apply to specific relationships.
Aside from those suggestions, here are some tips you can use right now:
* Address your needs for healing.
If necessary, engage in therapy. If you’re going to establish healthy boundaries and respect your own needs, it’s important to understand how your wounds have shaped you and to seek healing.
* Understand who you are and what you are called to.
Find your own sense of purpose outside caregiving. What are you here for? Then you can figure out how helping yoru sister fits into that overall purpose. You must understand and respect not only your limits but your limitations—you cannot do it all. You have to respect not only yourself but others as well (like your sister), trusting that they have access to resources beyond you. You’ll have to trust God, that he is capable of doing his work without you. This requires some humility–acknowledging that you are not the true, complete answer to anyone else’s problems.
* Be proactive–establish your boundaries before you need them.
Think about boundaries that will establish patterns that reflect the way you want your life to be in 10 years. Then tell people what your boundaries are. Carefully consider the best way to communicate your boundaries. Someone with mental illness may need you to explain them very gently, yet clearly; in a way they can hear, understand, and respect. Then, if they violate those boundaries, you can remind them of what you already told them. Holding to your boundaries in this situation is far easier–and way more effective–than making them up on the spot.
* Be consistent.
If you want people to take your limits seriously, you need to take them seriously. You can’t just react in the moment when you’re tired; you can’t draw a boundary one week and cave in on it the next week. That doesn’t mean you can’t make exceptions; of course you can. But consistency is key.
* Get ready to disappoint people.
This comes with the territory. Not everyone will be happy with your boundaries. And this is something you can survive. Keep in mind, if you don’t disappoint someone, you’re going to disappoint someone else. Maybe someone very close to you. No one can keep everyone happy all the time.
I hope this helps. If you’d like some help in finding healthy boundaries, establishing them, and sticking to them, consider working with me as your coach. I can help support you and provide accountability as you make this important change in your life.
*Question has been modified for the sake of brevity and to protect privacy.
© 2017 Amy Simpson.