Monday, February 3, 2014

What to Do When You Can't Help: Learning to Let Go

This post has been a difficult one for me to approach. I've delayed and avoided it at various times, wrote and rewrote it and often while writing it I had to pause because I wasn't sure if I was fully convinced of what I was saying. Nevertheless I feel like this is a discussion worth having, even if I am not the best at talking about it.


You know the scenario. It's the relationship where you have to force yourself to speak to the other person regularly. It's the relationship where you dread getting a call from the other person, because you know it will only be them talking about their struggles and their miseries, and that while you'll listen, you know you're not going to solve their problems. It's the relationship where the other person says "You're only doing this because you feel bad for me" and you say no, no, no--even though you know that's exactly why you're doing it.

I've known people who have struggled with these issues. I've known people who have stayed in friendships and relationships, not because they wanted to, but because they felt obligated to. I've known people who have sacrificed their own time and energy in an attempt to better someone else, to comfort someone else when they were distressed, only to see that person continually take that effort and do little with it, unknowing of how much strain it was on the other person. I've seen people fake affection out of the hope it would make the other person feel valued, and encourage them to change.

The unhealthiness of these arrangements should be readily apparent. The effort put into it often goes wasted, as the other person is usually unconscious of the effort and energy we go through and what we ultimately want them to do, and thus do little to try to achieve that. Often our friendship and affection does not so much give them an impetus to get better as it gives them a comfortable safe zone, where they don't feel the need to change, because they know we are already there for them. And finally, the whole arrangement is cruel, as the other person believes we are spending time with them because we enjoy their company, while in truth we are only doing it because we want them to change. For the better, certainly, but it is still us trying to use friendship as leverage to get them to change.

Yet it also feels cruel to do nothing. Even if we don't feel affection for the other person like we used to, if indeed we ever, we still feel obliged to help them. We know them, we know they're suffering, and to stand by and do nothing feels selfish.

To give one example: I had a friend who struggled with untreated bipolar disorder. I listened to him and talked with him through his episodes, and gave him advice for what I felt he should do. He did not follow through on my advice, and no matter how many times I talked with him he would inevitably have more episodes, as frequently and as intensely as when I first met him.

I expended a great deal of energy trying to help him. Our relationship was not one of mutual benefit. I spent hours of my time listening to his problems, trying to help him with his problems, yet he expressed comparatively little interest in my own. Sometimes I even gave up sleep so I could stay up and help him with some problem. At the time, I justified it saying that he needed help more than I needed sleep, yet as the days went on, and I found myself more exhausted physically and emotionally, and his situation none the better, that justification lost some of its vigor.

That alone did not dissuade me from trying to help. Many people have struggles that aren't easily remedied, that doesn't mean the presence of a friend to help them cope is useless. Yet I began to wonder if my presence was not helping him cope, but rather providing him with a safety blanket. He would meet with me, tell me about all the people and situations that were bothering him, and I would listen and try to suggest to him solutions, which he inevitably shot down, or promised to do at some unspecified point in the future. I wondered if by staying there, by giving him that support, that he felt like he didn't need to change to improve, that I gave him enough comfort that he was willing to tolerate his unhealthy situation, unaware of the toll it took on me.  Perhaps even, I was making that desire not to change all the worse.

I felt like I was giving and giving and giving, and he was taking and taking and taking.


I'm talking about letting go.

Letting go is one of the hardest things to do. It sounds like abandonment. It sounds like giving up. Perhaps it has elements of both of those things. At times it can feel cold and loveless. Yet letting go is also an act of love, perhaps not to the person we are letting go, but to ourselves, and to the friends and family in our lives who are hurt because of the energy we put towards someone else and not them.

The time I spent trying to help my friend was time I could have spent developing myself, developing my relationships, or simply recharging for the trials of the next day.  I was eighteen at the time. I was just getting started on my own recovery, and had plenty of obstacles of my own to deal with. Yet they all went by the wayside when I was with him. In those moments, my life wasn't my own, but a supplement to his. I was lessened in service to him. We want to help people, it's part of our nature. But what happens when the things we do to help aren't of benefit to them, or the benefits are not so great as to justify our own effort into it?

The entire endeavor is a confused one, both selfish and with a confused altruism. We do it because we value friendships, because we care about their well-being. But we also do it because we think it's what we're supposed to do, because we feel we're obligated to put some sort of effort towards helping them, even if the effort is meaningless and ineffective. But so often it is little more than an act of self-harm, of bashing our hands against a brick wall hoping it will give way before we do. In these cases, when we can't stop the other person from being hurt, often the best thing that can be done is to keep ourselves from getting hurt as well.


The fact is, in cases like this, there isn't much else we can do.

For those of us struggling with mental illness, a healthy social life is immensely valuable to recovery. But it must be sincere. If it is not, if the other person is staying with us for some reason other than genuinely enjoying us, and we find out, we feel betrayed. We feel lied to. We feel as though we're not good enough to have actual friendships, and that the ones we do have we have only because they pity us, or because they want something from us.

The fake friendship or relationship cannot be sustained forever. It will break. And when it does, it will hurt. The question is whether and how we can mitigate that hurt, how we can control the breaking, so that it happens on our terms, and not on accident, where the effect will be much worse.

And I don't know if we can do that.

I wish I did. I wish I had solutions that could apply to every scenario, but either I don't know them, they vary from person to person, or they simply don't exist. I've tried telling them up front, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I've tried simply to distance myself from the other person, and the end result is the other person either avoids me or simply stops seeking me out, and I don't know how they're feeling. When I break away, I know that I am better off. I can't say if the other person is.  I don't feel as burdened, as drained, as powerless as I did before, but whether they're helped by it, or harmed, I don't know.

With my friend struggling with bipolar, I simply stopped talking to him. I would respond to the messages he sent me less and less, and would sometimes make sure to be offline at the times he was online. It was not the best way to approach it, not by a long shot. It was clumsy and uncertain and probably hurt him more than it had to. But at the time I didn't know how else to do it. Should I have tried talking to him, to tell him my concerns? In retrospect I feel like I should have, but if the time came, would I have done that? Or would I have been afraid of the reaction, afraid of seeing the hurt rather than simply imagining it? If I'd asked my therapist for help on how to do it, would he have been able to make it easier? Or is there really any way to make it so?

It's good to learn how to make it as painless as possible, but after a point we need to get on with it and risk what cuts may come, to us or them. At a certain point, we need to learn to be self-concerned. Not selfish, but self-concerned. To know how to put our own needs above others, and to give ourselves the care we try to give to others, with the knowledge that we at least will be better helped by it.

The other person needs help. They need support, they need self-actualization, they need trained professional help. But whatever they need, they're not getting it from us, and the only thing we're doing is making ourselves feel better.

If that sounds cruel, that's because to some extent it is. But sometimes we need to be cruel to save ourselves and others from greater cruelty in the future.

Often times there are no easy answers. Often times there are no hard and fast rules. Often they are as filled with as much nuance and ambiguity as every human being. Sometimes, all we can do is ask ourselves, as honestly as possible, if what we're doing is worth what we're doing.

And sometimes it doesn't mean the end of the relationship. In some cases, setting boundaries and distancing oneself can help to strengthen the relationship in the long run. It enables those involved to take a step back and reevaluate, to reestablish themselves in relation to one another, and to take care of vices and bad habits that may be getting in the way. It does not always happen, but sometimes it does.

And whether it does or it doesn't, remember this: You are not a bad person for letting go.

You gave yourself, your time, and your energy, to help this person. You withdraw it not because you dislike them, or because you wish to hurt them. You withdraw it because you need to help yourself, and help those you love, in ways you feel work the best. You withdraw it because you need space, you need comfort, and it doesn't make sense to take that away just to try to give that same comfort to someone else.

But I can't guarantee that it won't hurt. It very likely will. It's hard to let go. But sometimes we need to do it.

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