I can't fix you
I think the reason why mental illness makes people so uncomfortable, particularly in intimate relationship, is we’ve been set an impossible task. Glennon Doyle talks about those who are grieving as having a double loss: the loss of their loved ones and the loss of their close friends. You see, when these close friends witness their friend in pain they feel they’ve failed. Their one job when times get tough is to support their friend and help them release the pain. As they become aware of the magnitude of this task, given the present circumstances, they begin to withdraw in shame at their failure.
When I was 13 years old, suffering with jet lag induced insomnia following my well-traveled commute from the West Coast of Canada to England, I called the only person guaranteed to be awake at 2am. Crying down the phone about how homesick I was and how miserable I felt at school. My mom said one thing that stuck with me: “it hurts me to see my baby sad”. I heard the message loud and clear - my pain inflicts pain on those around me. Next, she said “and there’s nothing I can do”. As if her geographical distance was the only thing preventing her from taking my pain away. I stopped calling when I felt sad. I stopped asking those for help when I knew there was nothing they could do. Her unintentional statement, flicked a switch in my head that said ‘no one can fix you’.
I’ve always felt things too much. Growing up in a family that rarely shows emotion, I was the freak who would burst into tears given any remote conflict. I felt immense shame around my sadness and learnt to retreat to a safe place whenever I didn’t feel 100%. You see, I understood people’s discomfort around my expressions of hurt as a burden I couldn’t bear to shoulder. Given how lucky and privileged my life has been, it’s surprising how ever-present sadness has been. From late night sobbing into my pillow when I felt like the carpet had been pulled under my family life to lamenting my lack of deep romantic connection. I learnt how to ‘cope’ with these intense feelings mainly through distraction. Throwing myself into more dramatic storylines in TV shows like Gossip Girl and Vampire Diaries. Bingeing on food and trying to never be alone with my thoughts. If push came to shove I channelled my discomfort into being the most ‘perfect’ student I could possibly be.
If you’ve spent a fair amount of time in public with me, you’d probably be surprised to read what I’ve written above. I tend to come across as bubbly, sociable and generally pretty up-beat (if I do say so myself). But if you’ve spent an extended amount of time with me behind closed doors, you’ve seen behind the mask I’ve crafted for protection. An ex of mine once said the quality he admired the most in me was my ability to “get up everyday and take on the world even though every fibre of my being wanted to stay in bed”. Psychologists call it high functioning depression.
It comes in waves of good and bad in days or weeks at a time. I know it’s related to diet, lifestyle and general self talk. I know that coffee doesn’t help. I know sleep is necessary. I know hormones are pretty crucial. But it’s days like today as I lay on the yoga mat on my floor having managed only child’s pose, with my unwashed hair and my mascara smeared that I’m faced with the reality that I can’t fix myself. Let alone, can my relations come close to fixing me. They can distract me. They can tell me they love me. They can try to talk me out of it. They can stroke my hair as tears stream down my hair. But this sadness that takes over my life cannot be fixed - indefinitely.
There have been periods of my life where the situation has made this lowness unbearable. It’s at those stages of immense pain that even the well-choreographed façade is too much effort. As the piles of plates covered in dried food litter my floor and I order another greasy take-away and the last thing I can manage to do is to attend a lecture, I feel like my life is falling apart. I don’t call loved ones. I can’t schedule anything. I even wait until the people I live with leave the house before creeping out of my bedroom. I don’t want anyone to see me like this. I don’t even want to look at myself like this.
I used to feel frustrated as I desperately sought the cure. Sometimes that manifested into anger. Nowadays, I’m trying to just accept the wave as it comes and release it through space and sleep. Yes, I’m behind on schoolwork and societies and conversations. I’m not a ‘productive’ human. I’m just a human who struggles sometimes.
Loving someone when they suffer with depression or just pain in general is the hardest thing anyone can do. This impossible task confronts us all with the reality that ‘I can’t fix you’. If our job in our relationships is to relieve pain and ‘make the other happy’ - we will always fail. Judging ourselves and others is the root of all withdrawal in relationships. I understand that when you feel low you want to hide away and you don’t feel worthy of love and you feel like a burden. I feel like that a lot.
I also know the more we try to resist these feelings or give up on people that can be ‘hard’ to love (in the traditional sense). We’re denying the opportunity to revel in the pain we all feel in this life. The true price of my compassion and love for humanity is the pervasive sadness I feel. As I watch the loved ones around me withdraw when they feel pain, I beg them to stay and let me see them in all their sad glory. It’s a privilege to be that truly vulnerable with someone.
‘I promise to never try to fix you or myself’ - could be the foundation of any great love.
All my love, Sam