In recent weeks and months I have been spending more and more of my time on the support person side of the mental illness equation. For about five years previous to that, I was the sick one, the one who needed to rely on others to support me and help me with some pretty basic things. I still have to do that sometimes now, but I’ve started to find myself stable enough to take on the role of support person for certain friends and family.
There’s something that I want to say to everyone who has mental illness in their life, on both sides of the relationship: it’s not your fault.
The more time I spend interacting with my own and other people’s mental illnesses, the more I see the overwhelming feeling that drives the experience is guilt. The guilts look different.
When I was sick, the guilt was the guilt that I was a burden, that I was sucking too much time and energy from the people I loved, that there was something wrong with me that could never be fixed. It’s easy to feel guilty when you see how much you are hurting the people around you simply by trying to survive. And when your brain is in the midst of serious depression, any criticisms start to feel like commentary on your worth as a person. It’s easy to live completely within guilt, and start to feel as if you need to apologize for your existence. Being the sick one is something that comes with a side helping of guilt not just internally, but from a society that asks why you can’t deal with things on your own, why you’re so sensitive, or why you have to be such a burden.
But what I didn’t understand until recently was the guilt of being the support person.
Right now, some of the people I’m trying to support were there for me through my mental illness. There is a part of my brain that interprets that as an obligation I now have to return. They were there for me, which means that I am never allowed to abandon them. There are lots of versions of this form of guilt: I love this person and they love me, so I must be there for them. This person supported me through grief or illness or childhood or any other difficult situation, which means I must be there for them.
There is the guilt that comes with not being able to do anything. You can sit and watch someone you care about hurting, and there will be times when there is absolutely nothing that can be done to change it. There’s the guilt of taking care of yourself, perhaps the most insidious guilt of all. No one can be on all the time. No one can always be available and ready to provide support and care, or even just time to listen. Every support person (and every “sick” person) gets time to set boundaries and do what they need to to take care of themselves. But the narratives around support tend to be all or nothing rather than nuanced: you are always available, or you are never available.
I understand all of these guilts. The problem is that mental illness is no one’s fault. Difficult things in life happen. Hard emotions happen. There are certainly ways to respond to them that should elicit guilt, but their existence or your inability to eradicate them is nothing to feel guilty over.
I think what I want more than anything is to be able to talk about the guilt. Whenever I say that I think it’s my fault I get empty reassurances. I want to sit down with the people I love and break down the ways that the mental illness makes our lives suck and then remember: none of us caused this. None of us are required to fix it. Are you doing your best? You have no cause for guilt.
But you get to feel guilty. If you need to. No matter which party you are.