You Can’t Fix What You Can’t See

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.


Julia Burke

Julia is a wine educator with an interest in labor and politics in the wine industry. She has also written about fitness and exercise science, mental health, beer, and a variety of other topics for Skepchick. She has been known to drink Amaro Montenegro with PB&J.

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  1. Unfortunately, abusers are adept at using exactly the advice you provide here against you. “Just be there” is good advice if a person’s loved one is mentally ill, but horrible advice if the loved one is abusive. And these things are not mutually exclusive.

    You can’t force another person into therapy, but you can put YOU into therapy. In fact, someone who is dealing with mental illness in a loved one should probably be in therapy. Caregivers also need and deserve care.

    1. Oh, certainly, there is a lot of good advice that abusers can twist around to gaslight their victims and justify behavior. It’s crucial that, mental illness or neurotypical, no one is isolated to the point where just one person is supporting them entirely.

      And I agree with you that therapy is extremely helpful for self-care when you are trying to be a support for someone else; not least because a good therapist can guide the supporting person in appropriate actions.

      1. I’m not even referring to isolation. We’re all told that abusers isolate their victims, and that’s often true, but not invariably true. Codependency can be abuse, and it doesn’t require isolation.

        I’m probably not expressing myself well. I’m all for being supportive of the people you care about, and I’ve been on the receiving end of a person who abruptly dropped me when I needed it the most: when my own mental illness was first asserting itself in an unambiguous manner, but had not been diagnosed let alone treated. That hurt. A lot. And I wish it hadn’t happened. But looking back from the perspective of having survived that, I understand why it happened. Taking care of someone like I was then is a big job that my SO did not ask for or sign up for, and not being neurotypical either, it was not something that person could actually handle. Personally, if I were to find myself having to take care of another me, I probably could not handle it either. Dropping me that way, especially the way it happened, was a really cruddy thing to do and there are better ways to handle it. But I reckon what I’m saying is that going through something really difficult can be really difficult on the people around you, and I don’t think there is any shame in having to say, “I can’t do this.”

        Is this making sense? Or am I being a dick?

        1. Yeah, absolutely it makes sense; there are a lot of issues related to this that I think deserve their own discussions. I would never try to speak for all scenarios or advise all people; there are too many nuances, as you point out. I guess my post was directed at people who are not abusive and actively want to help and are, or think they are, in a position to help, and either don’t know how or don’t understand why their “help” isn’t very helpful. That is my personal experience, so that’s what I wrote about.

  2. As a social worker who specialized in serious mental illness, the daughter of a mother with bipolar disorder and a father with schizophrenia, the sister of a brother who committed suicide, and a person who herself has bipolar disorder, I applaud this article heartily. It is spot on.

  3. You don’t know how much I needed to read this today. Trying to fight through the healthcare system to get help can be exhausting and there are days it doesn’t seem worth it. But then I think about how much I love my husband and how much I want him around forever and I get up and start fighting for him again. He may not have the strength right now to fight for himself, but damnit, I can! I lost a ‘brother’ (best friend’s brother and former boyfriend) on 2/14/14 and I refuse to lose anyone else. Thank you!!

    1. I’m sorry for your loss, and wish you all the strength in the world as you fight for your husband to get treatment. The healthcare system adds on a whole extra layer of frustration, I know from experience. Good luck. Thank you for reading <3

  4. I want my partner to read this, but circumstances require me to copy this and put it on paper or in a doc. Is that OK?

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