#3 in Love Is Action series
The advice that follows comes from successfully surviving the first 16 years of my life being raised by a man who was mentally ill and a woman who was an alcoholic and addict (she probably medicated her pain because she was married to an extremely abusive, mentally ill man), and from my own “jerky” behavior that resulted from my painful upbringing. I didn’t learn what I know from a book or a university classroom. What I’m about to share with you is real, hard-learned information.
The first thing you absolutely MUST do to survive life with a mentally un-well, unstable, or downright ill person is to PRAY. Set aside unbelief, skepticism, and past disappointments about supernatural help, and give this a go. Pray for strength. Pray for wisdom. Pray for guidance. Pray for patience. Pray for God to change the other person’s heart and mind. Pray for God to heal the mentally un-well person. Pray for God to successfully get you through whatever situation you find yourself in. After you pray, listen. Pay attention to ideas that pop into your head about things you should say or do. They might not make sense to you in the moment, but thoughts that show up right after you pray are likely answers to prayer disguised as ideas to be acted upon. Too many people make the mistake of praying and then not listening and following up with action. Miracles typically don’t just spontaneously happen. They usually require some action on our part. And don’t give up when things don’t change within the first ten minutes (or ten days, or ten months) after you pray. EXPECT things to change—eventually. Most of the time miracles happen eventually, not instantaneously.
The second thing is to look at the other person as broken by pain from trauma rather than as a mean jerk. When we are able to see the wounded, scared, traumatized person inside the person who’s acting like a jackass, we are better able to approach that person and every interaction with him or her with mercy. Despite what we think we know about people, we have no idea what a person has been through, what they’ve seen, or what they’ve heard that hurt their heart and triggered their behavior. Mercy is a game-changer because it gets the focus off of us and our feelings and over onto the person who’s not behaving properly—right where the focus belongs.
The mentally un-well person may blame you for everything that’s wrong. They may accuse you of ruining their life. They may lash out and abuse you emotionally, verbally, and perhaps even physically. Consider a foster child who has been abused in ways that we can’t talk about in polite society. It’s when the child finally feels safe that she can release all the anger that’s been pent up inside of her little body. The foster parents who set aside their own comfortable lifestyle to care for a wounded child may find themselves in a position of taking the brunt of all that anger, rather than receiving warm hugs from a child who is grateful to finally experience safety. Whether the traumatized person is a child, a teen, or an adult, when squeezed with enough stresses, the trauma will come out, and usually on the person with whom the wounded person feels safest. To be the safe person in the life of someone who has been traumatized is a great honor—but it sure doesn’t feel that way at the time the person is lashing out.
If you find yourself enduring the brunt of someone else’s anger, RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO FEEL SORRY FOR YOURSELF. Self-pity will not help. Self-focus will only make you feel worse. Self-nurturing is definitely something you need to do to take care of yourself, but be sure to create a clear distinction between self care and self pity. Take it from me, it’s very easy to slide right down into a full blown pity party. This will do absolutely no good and often makes the situation worse.
Let’s be clear—I am not suggesting that you stay with someone who is using you as a punching bag. If that’s the case, get to safety, and love that person from a safe distance.
If living with a un-well person is part of your life assignment, and you choose to accept it, then you’ll need to know how, specifically, to toughen up so that their issues don’t damage or destroy you.
In order to toughen up, the third thing I suggest is that you shift your thinking from, “they’re a jerk, joker, or jackass,” to “they’re ill.” Mental illness is a tricky thing. People can look perfectly normal to the outside world, and be completely unhinged on the inside. Many people who suffer from mental illness can hold it together long enough to put on an Academy Award worthy performance in the role of lead actor in their own production of “Everything Is Perfect,” and then come home and rail on people behind closed doors.
We wouldn’t walk away from someone because they became ill as a result of heart disease or cancer, so why would walk away a loved one who becomes mentally ill? We have to shift our thinking to the truth that mental illness is illness, not unlike cancer or heart disease. Often the victims of mental illness are not terribly sympathetic because they treat us horribly. But they are ill. Let’s treat them as such.
You may be thinking, “This lady is nuts. There’s no way I’m sticking around to endure this abuse. I didn’t sign up for this. I’m not a doormat!” Of course, you didn’t sign up for this. None of us do. But people can fall ill and relationships can get messy. And when they do, we have a choice. We can fight back and become as much of a monster as the one who’s acting like one. We can medicate our pain with the typical go-to drugs of choice—alcohol, anti-depressants, food, shopping, or relationships with other people who make us feel better about ourselves. We can throw ourselves into our work, hobbies, or exercise, spending our time doing something that others recognize and appreciate. Or we can leave. (If you leave, don’t make the rookie error of thinking that you’re going to find someone else who is perfect and has no issues. There are no perfect humans, and every single one of us has some fault or failing.) But there is another option.
The fourth piece of advice is to respond to the mentally un-well person with love. [DON’T STOP READING] Yes, you can do this. In fact, you may be the only one who can love this person into wholeness. Perhaps the thing that will most help the mentally un-well person is loving kindness that is not conditioned on whether or not it’s deserved or on the person’s ability or willingness to reciprocate. Love and kindness that demonstrate the feeling of being wanted and accepted, of belonging, and being approved-of is like balm on a wounded soul. (That’s not to say that medication, talk therapy, proper nutrition, exercise, and other approaches aren’t helpful too.)
I know that it is possible to love someone who is miserable and who makes others miserable. In many cases, our unconditional love can restore wounded people to the point that they behave better and are capable of receiving and giving love.
The secret to loving an un-well person into wholeness is to help them to feel better about themselves by building them up. Tell them over and over (and over) again, specifically what’s good about them.
Give them the compliments that they need to build their self-esteem so that they don’t have to grind you into the ground to feel better about themselves. Tell them how much you admire their good character traits. Name them specifically, like courage, bravery, tenacity, strength, integrity, the ability to cope with tough stuff, and more. Tell the person about their learned abilities that you appreciate, like their ability to find solutions to complicated situations, their ability to bake and decorate a beautiful cake, their ability to learn, grow, etc. You may have to reach with these things, but if you tell someone long enough about the good qualities you see in them (or the good qualities you hope to see in them), eventually they will begin to see them in themselves. They will begin to rise to the challenge and become the person you envision that they can be.
The change in them doesn’t happen overnight, and I’m not going to sugar coat it and tell you that the going isn’t going to be tough. It will be tough. It might even get worse before it gets better. But you can be tougher. You can ignore insults. You can become selectively deaf so that you tune out the criticism. You can smile when you’d rather scream. You can leave the room or the house when you’ve clearly communicated how you want the relationship to be and your calmly stated, reasonable requests go unheeded. There are a range of consequences that you can implement help manage the behavior of the un-well person and to establish healthy boundaries.
This involves putting your own feelings, needs, and wants aside, and giving without expectation of reciprocation. Foster parents, pastors, missionaries, parents of disabled children, adult children of parents with dementia, and others who I call “Kindness Ambassadors” put others first all the time. If you are called to be in relationship with someone who is un-well, think of yourself like this, as someone who is called to love a person who cannot or will not reciprocate.
Effective “Kindness Ambassadors” literally live their lives and give the irredeemable time of their lives to love others. Loving someone who cannot return love is the highest form of love. The highest form of nobility is giving one’s life for another. When you choose to be an “Kindness Ambassador,” you are modeling that behavior for everyone within your influence. Influencing others in the art of loving kindness, in itself, is perhaps one of the most powerful things we can do in this life.
Loving people into wholeness sometimes takes much longer than we hope it will. In the case of the people who raised me, it took a lifetime. The mentally ill man who screamed at me, demeaned me, and beat me when I was a little girl was sincerely repentant for what he had done to me—on his deathbed. The alcoholic and addicted woman, his wife, who self-medicated as a result of living with that mentally unstable lunatic, the woman who disciplined me with a skillet of hot oil when I was four years old, lived with me in the months that preceded her death. I took care of her until she died in my arms, having accepted my love and mercy.
The fifth and final piece of advice I have for you is to take care of yourself. When you’re pouring your love into someone who is broken, wounded, ill, or who acts ugly for some unknown reason, be kind to yourself. Be intentional about taking time for yourself.
To care for yourself while loving people are are unable or unwilling to reciprocate, ask for help. Consider finding a pastor, a therapist, a good friend, or a family member who understands probably better than most what you’re dealing with. If you do that, do not “throw your difficult person under the bus,” or “put them on blast” to everyone who will listen. That is precisely the opposite of what you should do. You only need to say that I’m going through a difficult time right now, and I would be grateful for a hug or some prayers, good advice, or a pint of ice cream (just kidding—avoid self-medicating with food, it’ll only make matters worse). The only reason to tell others about how awful your difficult person is would be to seek pity. Stop. Don’t. You don’t need pity. You need strength. You may benefit from a good friend who’ll give you unconditional friendship without having to know all the details.
YOU CANNOT CHANGE ANYONE. But love can. In fact, the only power in the universe that can authentically, sustainably change another person is Love. Love the difficult people in your life with a good attitude and without any expectation of reciprocation and see what happens.
For more info on how to change people and circumstances, get a copy of Love Is Action and check out the community initiative of the same name: www.loveisactioncommunityinitiative.org.
Rhonda Sciortino was abandoned by her parents and raised by a mentally ill man and his alcoholic and addicted wife, her maternal grandparents. She learned at an early age the survival tips that will be included in this series of articles.