Woe #13: Don't Wear Out The People Around You, Part 1: Don't Threaten Suicide
This is the first in a series of tips about strategies to help the people around you deal with your mental illness without burning out.
You might hate this tip because it may sound like I’m blaming you when I tell you it’s your responsibility not to wear out your friends, family, coworkers, and lovers over the course of living with mental illness.
And I may sound exactly like that depressed voice in your head that says you are wearing them out, so much so that they would be better off without you, so you should disappear from their lives, one way or another.
But I am not the depressive voice in your head. I’m a middle-aged woman who has been living with mental illness for almost forty years. I’m not here to say mean things to you about how much work it is for other people to be around your anxiety, or your depression, or your psychosis or mania or angry outbursts or compulsive behaviors or nightmares or suicidal ideation or self-harm or risky behaviors.
I’m here to say that you need people who love you, you need people who can help, and that the quickest way to ruin relationships is to dump the burden of your emotional crises on the people who love you, over and over again, until they walk away. Other people have limits just as you do, they likely have their own terrible shit going on, like you do, and we can and must respect that and do what we can not to engulf other people in our mental health crises in ways that drain them dry.
Okay, but what do you mean, Amy? Never talk about anything to anyone? Stigma all the way? Back in the crazy closet?
No. That is not what I mean either.
Let's dig in.
I’m going to speak first about one extreme way you might exhaust your loved ones and what you can do about it if that’s a thing you find yourself doing.
As I said, I’ll address other aspects of this topic in future issues, so if you’re not yet subscribed be sure to sign up now so you don’t miss out.
The extreme thing is threatening suicide or self-harm, either directly or by implication, if someone else doesn’t do something you want them to do, or actually attempting suicide or engaging in self-harm in order to make others feel guilty about what they did or did not do in relation to you.
When I say threaten I don’t even mean that the words “If you don’t do x I will kill myself” come out of your mouth at any time. “If you don’t do X I’m really worried I might kill myself” is just as bad, maybe worse, because it’s still a threat, but it’s indirect. No one else is responsible for whether you hurt or kill yourself or not.
If you did this once or twice in your life and then realized both how awful and ultimately self-defeating it is and never did it again, look, I get it. We’ve all done stupid shit.
But if you do this on the regular you will lose the people you love.
Okay, but what if I can’t help it, Amy? What if I keep doing that and I know it’s awful and I am doing it anyway? I just can’t stop.
I get that too, I really do. We all want other people to do what we want, and the threat that they might not, that they might leave us or stop loving us, can feel like the threat of annihilation itself. When faced with the threat of annihilation any of us may be willing to do whatever it takes not just to prevent the annihilation but to stop the terror we feel at the idea of it.
I understand you might not be able to help it, but if you want to be able to have stable and loving relationships you gotta try to help it. Maybe you don’t always succeed, but maybe you get better at controlling it and your loved one can see you trying and that makes it easier for them to continue to be in relationship with you.
Lucky for you there’s a kind of therapy that was explicitly designed to help out with this very problem. It’s called Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and you can get a self-help book about it, you can find a group that will teach you the skills, and you can get individual therapists trained in it who can help you implement it in your own life.
Don't be freaked out by the fact that Dialectical Behavior Therapy was originally developed to treat Borderline Personality Disorder, which like everything called a personality disorder is super-stigmatized. I’m not an expert on Borderline Personality Disorder and I don’t really care here whether that’s your diagnosis or not, because DBT is actually super helpful for all kinds of emotional suffering, and as I talked about in my post on diagnosis codes, I take a strongly instrumental approach to treatments and diagnoses. I ask not what is your diagnosis but what can it do for you, and not what a treatment can do for your diagnosis but what can it do for you?
DBT can help you stop using self-harm or threats of suicide to try to bend other people to your will. Not only will it help you better tolerate the fear of annihilation or abandonment that may be at the root of that behavior, it will also help you learn and practice other ways to be in relationships that don’t result in constant exhausting drama. Because not only do your loved ones not have time or energy for that, you really don’t either.
So, get the damn therapy. If you can’t afford the therapy at least take a look at one of the workbooks, the interpersonal effectiveness section. The original one is by Marsha Linehan, and it’s more of a guide for clinicians, but there are plenty of other workbooks out there. I don’t have this one, but I have other workbooks from this publisher and they’re generally pretty good.
I know I might sound pretty harsh here. I really really really am saying all this from a place of love. You’re not a bad person if you do or have done this kind of thing. Everyone has their reasons. But in my experience it’s a shitty way to live and it’s a shitty way to be in relationships and there is help available for this exact specific problem and so if you have this exact problem I just really want to make sure you knew about the thing that’s out there to help. It’s not magic, of course. No therapy can fix everything. But it can give you some alternatives.
Good luck. I am rooting for you.
As I said earlier, I do have a lot of other tips on how not to exhaust your loved ones with your mental illness, but those are for another issue. If you’re not subscribed, be sure to sign up now so you don’t miss them.