How do you know when you’re a burden on your support system — and when your mental illness is just whispering lies to you? We have some advice.
Welcome to Crazy Talk: a mental health advice column written by yours truly, a mentally ill and queer writer reclaiming his “crazy” to educate and empower. In a world that tries to push us to the margins, I’m all about getting loud and kicking the stigma where it hurts. In this column, we explore what it’s like to live with mental illness without shame or apologies. Expect frank advice, a little self-deprecation, and a good dose of humor.
Around this time last year, I was having a huge mental breakdown. Epic, even. And the demands that I placed on my loved ones were immense — and later, I found out, it was actually too much.
I’m not here to sugarcoat it: If you feel like a burden, it’s really important for you to check in with your support system and make sure that isn’t the case. Take it from someone who learned this the hard way. You aren’t responsible for reading minds, but it doesn’t hurt to be considerate and touch base with your people.
Not sure what to say? Try something like this: “Hey, I really appreciate that you’ve been supporting me during this difficult time. I wanted to make sure you’re not feeling overwhelmed right now. Do you need some space? I want to make sure you aren’t burnt out.”
And this is key: Don’t personalize their response. If they do need space, remember that it isn’t because you did something wrong. It’s because everyone has their own issues to sort out, their own energy levels and time commitments and, realistically, we can’t be there for someone 24/7.
This isn’t a question of whether or not you’re a burden. This is just practicing good boundaries, which everyone — mentally ill or otherwise — can benefit from. Whether or not you’re in crisis, every relationship has to have the right balance of emotional labor and space or it can’t be sustained.
Too often, we take offense when someone sets healthy boundaries rather than appreciating that they trusted us enough to advocate for what they needed. They are committed to having a solid relationship with you, which means to support you best (and care for themselves, of course!), they need to be willing to “tap out” if they can’t support you in a healthy way. This is a good thing — believe me!
Another important thing to note: If we want to avoid compassion fatigue in the folks we care about, it’s important we’re doing our best to take care of ourselves. Do we have a decent network of support — clinicians, friends, family, AND self-care? Or are we just unloading on one particular person we trust because it’s convenient?
If you’re putting all of your eggs into one basket, no one wins — which means it requires some effort on your part to build the kind of network that supports everyone’s health and respects everyone’s boundaries. If you’re not sure how to do this, it doesn’t hurt to connect with a therapist and make a plan.
Since last year, I’ve had to make a concentrated effort to build out my support. It started with going to the hospital twice to reset my medication regimen and address my crisis head-on. I’m part of support groups now, have a regular therapist and psychiatrist, have a broader network of people I trust, AND I’ve learned better coping skills (bonus: gave you heard of the app called Wysa? It’s a chatbot/penguin that can do cognitive-behavioral therapy with you anytime — it’s totally magical and will never burn out on you!).
All that said, sometimes when you feel like a burden, you might actually be the only one who sees it that way. Mental illness thrives on whispering bullshit to us constantly, and often, those lies eat away at our self-esteem. That’s why it’s important to check in — it never hurts to assess boundaries and get some much-needed reassurance from the folks who care about you.
In a nutshell? Being proactive about the impact you have on others is always a solid plan. Best-case scenario, you are opening up the space for your loved ones to be fully human. Worst-case scenario, the train might be coming off the rails a little — but you have a chance to make it right.
No matter what, rest assured that boundaries are not a measurement of how much someone loves you — if anything, their honesty proves that they’re in it for the long haul, because they care about nurturing and sustaining the relationship between you two. And there’s really no better way to show someone you love them back by letting them know you care about their feelings, too.