Content notice: suicidal thoughts.
“I can’t wait until you get sick so that I can take care of you,” a former partner joked once, when I brought him soup because he had a cold. Taking care of our loved ones is among the most rewarding parts of a relationship. It can be hard to remember to find new ways to show we care, day after day, amid the daily cycle of work, sleep, errands, and obligations. So when a partner or close friend gets injured or falls ill or experiences a death in the family, it’s rewarding and renewing to make a gesture that we know will brighten their day. A visit, a small gift, a pan of lasagna––these things say, “I love you and I’m thinking of you,” and the exchange is satisfying. We know we’ve helped.
When that loved one is suffering from the effects of a mental illness, sometimes it can feel like watching them catch on fire right before your eyes but behind an impenetrable screen. You bang frantically on the glass, desperate to break through, to let them know you’re coming, to stop their cries for help, but they’re trapped. Or maybe you are. Either way, there’s nothing you can do.
When you love someone, hearing that they hate themselves is harder than hearing them claim to hate you. You listen as they speak of wanting it all to be over, wanting to leave this world. It makes you want to turn the whole universe upside down to find the source of their pain like you’re trying to find a keepsake in a ruined house after a tornado.
You want to grab their shoulders, shake them, force them to see themselves the way the rest of the world sees them––the way you see them. You want them to feel the depth of your love, let it wash over them like a healing ointment, until they feel safe.
But you can’t. And the more you try, the worse it gets. It’s not about you, and making it about you is, unfortunately, the hardest kind of “punching down” to avoid.
You feel helpless. Hopeless. Why isn’t your love enough? Why can’t they see how much their friends and family care about them? What are you supposed to do? They might say, “Nothing.” They might say, “Just be here.” They might say, “fuck off.”
Be there anyway.
Acknowledge that when a person doesn’t want to be alive anymore, expressions of love from others feel at best disingenuous and at worst like an acid burn. Acknowledge that logic is beside the point. Acknowledge what you can do and what you can’t. Acknowledge that there is professional help for mental illness that is beyond your ability, just as you can’t fix a broken leg without medical training. Do everything you can to get them that help. Know that you can’t force them, but you can keep trying to convince them. And when they get help, you support them like it’s the most important thing you’ll ever do in your life.
Do not forget or neglect your self care. If you make this mistake, know that you will inadvertently place the responsibility for your self-care on the person you’re trying to help. You will burn out. You will break down. This will make things worse. You will begin to resent someone who is ill through no fault of their own. That’s not a value judgement––it’s a normal human response to unmitigated stress––but it’s still completely unfair to the suffering person. You do not want this. When you need to vent, vent out, never to the person who needs you at full strength.
And then you wait. You acknowledge the amount of courage it takes for your loved one to get help and work through treatment. And you marvel at their strength, and love them all the more.
I had to break every rule in this post in order to learn all this. Now I know where the true resources are for people in pain: I donate to suicide hotlines and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I speak of the benefits of therapy to anyone who will listen and fight back whenever I see myths about psychiatric illness being spread around. I’ve learned that as much as love can make you feel like a superhero, when you try to turn love into a tool to fix someone, it will instead become a weapon.
If you want to help, fight to make mental health resources more accessible, to spread education and awareness about mental illness, to get your loved ones professional treatment. And when they need you, just be there. It’s all you can do, and it’s the worst helplessness you may ever feel. But if you’re going to convince your loved one that they will survive, you have to believe that you will too.