Amelia Christie discusses her own experience with mental health, how to look after your own mental health when caring for others, and the importance of knowing that it is okay to say ‘no’.
The last two years have been hard.
Not the kind of “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger!” hard, but the type that feels at best exhausting and at worst debilitating. I am tired, and I have been tired almost constantly. It didn’t come out of nothing and the series of events that have affected me have happened to my entire family, and it has felt often like blow after blow. The opportunity to ‘get back on my feet and go!’ feeling pointless sometimes, when it was easier to constantly expect the worst.
Most of my immediate family suffer from mental health problems, and I have struggled with my own mental health at times; what I am writing comes from both sides, and while it might not be a revolutionary concept, it’s all too easy to forget when you’re in the midst of a dark place. Hindsight is twenty twenty, but I wish someone had sat me down and told me all of this from the beginning.
When things started to go south around two years ago, I supported people emotionally and went from nineteen to thirty years old overnight. I managed a degree with arranging therapy sessions for multiple family members, spending hours on the phone calming nerves and moods, and living with a perpetual fear that the people I loved the most might hurt themselves. I was told as much by them, that they were afraid of the same, and I didn’t know where to turn – everywhere I looked stared blankly back at me, shrugging. I spent my weekends acting as a counsellor when I was not qualified and taking on burden after burden, waiting to snap at any moment. I took people’s sadness and I took their anger. There were periods I did not hold it together, and moved between social situations like a ghost, feeling constantly aware of my inability to blend in and relate to the congregation of young and happy twenty year olds. Mostly though, I aimed to seem okay in the hope that it might make everything okay.
Struggling with mental illness is a challenge beyond description, but how do you care for yourself when you are supporting the people you love facing that struggle? When it’s family, it feels like giving up everything isn’t even enough; to give yourself away, bit by bit, until it feels like you’ve handed out your last cell. I had stopped doing most of the things I had enjoyed, clinging onto my degree as the reason I had to keep my life afloat. I lost my mental capacity to focus on anything, and the support system I had created with myself at the centre was eating away at me.
At first when my closest friends suggested that I was giving too much to my home life, supporting too many people and sacrificing too much of myself emotionally, I hated the part of me that thought they might be right. I wasn’t mentally ill, what right did I have to say no? What right did I have to not pick up the phone every time it rang needing just another chat, what right to say that I was too tired today?
But the thought at the heart of it all was; what would I do if I gave up for just a moment, and something happened? How would I live with myself? Saying yes became automatic.
It took a year, and a last ditch attempt to save my own mental health, to learn to step away. I signed up for counselling, and I stopped taking every single call. I learned to delegate and send people to a professional when I felt out of my depth. I learned to say ‘no’, and to not give more than I could. Some days I couldn’t say no when I needed to, and I felt it. But the reality was that I couldn’t fix things; it was unreasonable to think that I could, no matter how many times I picked up the phone or returned home. Understanding that I could not resolve issues beyond my control was heart breaking at first, but was followed by a swift relief.
I am not the first, or last, young person placed under a burden of care – many people have suffered through worse, supported through more and struggled harder. I am still no professional, but sometimes learning to say no is the difference between helping, and losing track of your own mind. If I pushed myself to the edge, I wouldn’t be able to offer any support – but most importantly, it was okay if I was struggling. Often when you’re lending a hand to too many people, you lose sight of the fact that sometimes going through something is really the only way to come out of the other side. Struggling is part of life, and there is no shame in it.
We talk of self care being all bubble baths and routine, but sometimes it is just saying ‘no’ to others when you need to take care of yourself for a moment. Looking after yourself is about setting boundaries, and creating a life that you are content in; you are not responsible for other people’s happiness and sometimes that involves saying ‘no’. It doesn’t make you unkind or unsympathetic, it makes you human.
It is okay to feel the weight of people’s emotions – but it is important to remember to draw a line that you are comfortable with. Often when you want to soothe, the first temptation is to open yourself up completely to conversations that might make you feel incredibly uncomfortable. You are not a therapist, or a counsellor; the best help you can offer sometimes is professional help. Offering to set up an appointment with someone else isn’t handing off a problem, it’s giving the people you love a line to those who are most qualified to help them. Without a medical degree, the best you can expect of yourself is to let them know that you love them, and that you are there to listen within boundaries.
Your life is your life – and you can pause it for a moment, or an hour, or a day – but neglecting the things you want to give your time entirely to other people will only leave you empty hearted. You’re in the best position to offer support when you feel stable, and grounded – protect that feeling, don’t resent it, or take it for granted. And if you don’t feel grounded, tell someone. You did not cause whatever mental illness your loved one is struggling with, and you cannot fix it – don’t try to. Seeking professional help yourself will help you stay above water, and will help keep you educated and realistic about your expectations.
Finally – it is okay not to be okay. Being ‘not okay’ doesn’t always equate to mental illness, but watch out for the warning signs of depression and anxiety when you’re offering and intense support system to a person, or group of people.
Like with an oxygen mask, always assist yourself before helping others – even if it seems selfish. Sometimes being selfish is really about self-preservation.
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