Setting Boundaries With Those Living With Mental Illness
by Darin Barry
Photo by Darin Barry
When I was first diagnosed with my mental illness, bipolar 1, over ten years ago, my friends and family stopped treating me like I was on an even playing field with them. They treated me like a victim, with all the care, sympathy, empathy, and patience that moral, loving folks give freely to a victim. In response, I acted like a victim. I was given carte blanche to act out impulsively, and permission to treat others with disrespect, or in an unkind manner. It was quickly dismissed or forgiven when I pulled an act of great irresponsibility. The seed for self-centeredness was already planted with my co-occurring illness of addiction early in my life. Being without boundaries that my loved ones could have drawn for themselves in helping me cope with my mental illness, my self-centeredness grew to be a tornado in their lives, and often to those who were simply in striking distance to me.
The first few years after my diagnoses in particular were some of the hardest times for my friends and loved ones. During, or more often towards the peak of my manic episodes, extraordinary rage would set in. Dangerous rage. It was rage during a manic episode that led me to pull a man out of his car in the parking lot of a strip mall and beat the crap out of him in broad daylight. My parents had to come bail their 39 year old man-baby out of jail. My Mother and Father were the kindest, most loving as parents come. But, their mentality ill son didn’t come with an owners manual.
My Mother waiting outside the jail where I was being held in Placer County, California, had these questions for me when I was released, “Are you taking your medications properly? Are you hungry? Did you get hurt? Do you need to see your psychiatrist again?” She didn’t ask if I had hurt anyone, nor if I owned my own actions, or what was my plan to change my behavior so I wouldn’t be harming anyone with violence in the future. I was her baby, her victim. And that’s all there was to that.
My alcoholism had masked the symptoms of my mental illness for the first couple of decades of typical onset. I was guilty of many a debacle. I drank in my teens, and twenties to the extent that drinking became my identity. To my friends, I was funny, often outrageous, a crusader vigilante who punched those in the face who deserved it. My parents had viewed my drinking as just being a party drinker, or a heavy drinker – there was no way their son could be an alcoholic, after all, in no way did I resemble the unkempt, “long haired”, drug using offspring of some of their friends. My loving folks were in denial. They loved me nearly to death. At the end of the Nineties, I found myself living under their roof again being weened off alcohol by my Father who didn’t drink himself, to keep me from extremely dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
Then I got sober. My parents once again provided me with financial assistance, a new car, and a renewed optimism that my life would get back on track. I don’t know how many times they had given me that same opportunity before. They never even asked what would be different that time. They had been walked all over. They had been taken advantage of. They had been lied to so many times that they didn’t even care about wether I was telling them the truth anymore or not. My happiness was more important than themselves to them. My self centeredness was rewarded lavishly.
I moved all over the country. Mental illness started to come into question, and actually, in retrospect, to become obvious with alcohol being out of the picture. I suffered from delusions both at work, and with my relationships with friends, often leading to the severance of both. I had many unhealthy, hurtful-to-others coping mechanisms when I didn’t get my way. In my playbook was the game of “I’m not talking to you anymore”, the game of “How far will micro aggressions work to get people persuaded to do my will”, the game of “It’s all your fault”, and “let’s play passive aggressive until it no longer works for me.” If all else failed, I’d just write my friends and loved ones off. All of these sorts of behaviors stopped working for most people when they were four, maybe five years old. But because so many people in my life failed to set their own boundaries, I got away with those behaviors well into adulthood. So many people who greatly cared for me had no idea what a master manipulator I was. Some did. I have no idea why they stood by me.
The person I was, and still am closest to in my world, my brother Gordon, was the first person to strongly set clear and definitive boundaries with consequences for my behavior that was the impetus of change, personal growth, healing and progress for me. That was over eight years ago. It was hard for him. I just finished yelling at him at that time. I was shaking in rage. He tearfully said, “You make it really hard for me to love you, but I do. If you don’t comply with taking your meds, or refuse to see your therapist and apply what you get from him to your life, if you continue to blame your behaviors on your illness, I will have to withdraw from your life. These are things I will not negotiate with you.” The thought of losing him hit me like a ton of bricks. Someone I loved more than anything, or anyone had just stood up to me and called me on my behavior. I had even agreed to go to family counseling with him.
Gordon wasn’t always so strong. In his teens, he idolized me. I was his big brother who did big things, exciting things like work in the motion picture and television industry, a musician and recording artist, and strangely became a mortician; someone he never wanted to be in bad standing with. He was always wanting to go with me wherever I went. If he did ANYTHING that didn’t meet my wants and needs, my disapproval and manipulations would cause him to hang his head low. He began to suffer deep depression in his early twenties. He began seeing a therapist. It was then he learned that he was a caregiver whose self imposed job of keeping me happy had been taking a terrible tole on him. It was there, in therapy, and by going to Al-Anon meetings to better understand me, that he was educated and helped to implement boundary setting. Thank God for that.
People like Gordon, people who have dedicated so much to those they care about who suffer from mental illness, often surpass their limits before they realize it sometimes. Caregivers who have surpassed their limits will notice that their patience and energy has diminished. Once this sets in, and they continue to surpass their limits, anxiety, fragility, anger, anxiety, and depression can take over a caregiver’s life.
If you are a caregiver, or support provider to a loved one, or a friend living with mental illness, you have got to take some time to do some personal inventory, to look inside yourself and assess just how much peace you have with yourself. You have the right to be happy. You have the right to take care of yourself and exercise responsibility for your own well being. Setting boundaries will feel counterintuitive to you. But, it must be done, both for the person you support, and for yourself. It is not a single event, drawing boundaries is a process.
As a person living with mental illness, and someone who has become stable, self-aware, reunited with sobriety, and a contributor to his community instead of a detriment to it, I can say that my healing wouldn’t have been possible without my primary caregiver, in my case my brother, taking the initiative to help himself by setting limits.
Where would my brother be today if he didn’t established boundaries with me? Instead of going to college, instead of having a fulfilling career as a cruise ship musician while enjoying exotic ports of call, instead of making new friends, instead of maturing naturally from his own trial and error experiences, he would have been hovering around me, taking abuse, verbally and mentally, while slowly dying inside. Where would I be if my caregiver, my brother, had not have drawn the line? I would probably be wallowing in victim mode, never taking responsibility for my mental health, or owning my bad behaviors. I would have never pursued healing, and becoming self aware, and I certainly wouldn’t be of service to others. I would never have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.
Today we both have value.
We both know happiness.
We both have hope for the future.
We have a better relationship than ever.
It is helpful to remember the acronym F.O.G. That is something you want to rid your life of when you are about to set healthy limits – fear, obligation, and guilt – F.O.G. Again, you have the right to be happy and not be constrained by the expectations of the mentally ill person in your life. You have the right to be free of F.OG. For your sake, and the one you are caring for sake, do not tolerate the relationship if it is abusive. Trust your own opinions, feelings, and intuitions and do not forgive your loved one’s bad behaviors otherwise your will set your boundaries further, and further back, probably to square one.
Do not let yourself be convinced by the person you are setting limits with that your feelings don’t matter. Your feelings are yours, and you need them. Mentally ill people can have great powers of persuasion. They can make you feel self doubt, and lead you to not even trust your own perceptions or yourself.
Explain your feelings with him or her. Do not excuse them from your limits you set, or be led to change your mind. By explaining what you have to do, you have set the first stepping stone to a better relationship for both of you.
Do not let them make you feel guilty for the boundaries, and consequences you have outlined. You will lose respect if you back down, and you don’t want to do this. The limits you set are as important to you loved one as it is to you, even if it doesn’t feel like it at first. Like I stated, it will feel counterintuitive. Be strong. If they break your boundaries, that person has made a choice. It is up to you to enforce the consequences of that choice.
Professional support. Get it. It’s something that is well worth the time and investment to both of you. Learn what you need from it, then learn how to be your own professional – your own best advocate. Sooner or later the reward will be that your loved one learns from your boundaries freeing up the possibility of working together towards growing and healing. It is then a real relationship can begin to develop.
Do continue to have compassion for your mentally ill loved one. Do continue to seek professional help, and demand compliance of your loved one towards it. Do continue to be an advocate for him or her, but not at the expense of your own needs, health, and inner peace.
Setting boundaries is crucial, if not vital, for both of you.
I am eternally grateful that someone I care deeply for set boundaries with me.
Photo by Darin Barry
Living on the Ceiling by Darin Barry
I walked around angry and sad for years. I walked around with a monkey on my back that was tugging at my hair, pounding on my back, and blocking me from the sunlight of the Great Spirit. The monkey was vodka. Vodka was also my God. I worshipped vodka around the clock.
I had another monkey on my back that occasionally caused me to be either deeply depressed, or highly manic. The two monkeys are evil twins, although not identical. This second monkey is named manic-depression, or what is now known as bipolar disorder.
Today I am 39 days sober. And of my manic depression, I am symptom free. The monkeys are off my back and hiding somewhere in the darkness waiting for me to let down my guard. Psychiatrists have named the twin monkeys Bipolar 1 with Co-occurring Substance Abuse Disorder. I am the type of alcoholic that the Big Book of a twelve-step program I am working reads “There is the manic-depressive type, who is, perhaps, the least understood by his friends, and about whom a whole chapter could be written.”
When I would have bipolar episodes of either mania or depression, I would often self-medicate with booze when prescribed medications failed me. Alcohol could mask or exacerbate the symptoms. I’d often lie to my psychiatrist when he asked if I used alcohol, causing him to scratch his head in wonder as to why medications were not working.
Manic-depression and alcoholism have amassed much havoc in my life. I was a tornado in the lives of others as well. I had lost jobs, friends, vehicles, family and a whole lot of dignity. By the time December of last year rolled around, I was homeless too. My drinking entailed swallowing 1.75 liters of vodka over a 24 hour period.
I was lost, alone, and afraid.
I had crashed my last vehicle into a ditch in Camptonville, California and was arrested for a D.U.I. After I got out of jail the next morning, I went straight to a bar and spent the afternoon throwing back long island ice teas, then straight Stolli. I was soon, mercifully, hammered again.
I spent months couch-surfing at the homes of friends. Then, when I felt my welcome was wearing thin, I’d resort to staying with other practicing alcoholics and addicts where I wouldn’t stay long because no one cared. Finally, a friend, a good friend, my ex-roommate Jen, offered her home up for a few days. She was shocked over how much I was drinking. She left me alone one morning and I slugged back nearly half of a 1.75 bottle of vodka in record time for me, and ended up having great pain in my chest. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. I thought that maybe another drink would take away the delirium tremors, but the pain was new and different for me. I stumbled across the street to a Chevron on South Auburn Street in Grass Valley, California where I had collapsed before I could even utter the word help.
I found myself next at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, admitted to a room, with and I.V. in my arm, and oxygen under my nose. I would stay there for five more days before a living guardian angel, William W, arranged for a bed in a treatment facility for me.
I was in disbelief when I ran into him in treatment. I was happy to see him sober! I was so happy to see him looking great and speaking with coherency. I thought him an intelligent man – a kind man, a well mannered man.
Fast forward to last night, day 38 of my sobriety. I was volunteering at a warming shelter for the homeless in downtown Nevada City. The temperature outside was in the low 30’s and the skies had begun spitting out snow. Our curfew is 10:00 P.M. and I had begun to lock the doors, and dim the lights. Then, someone knocked on the door. I was horrified to find Bob outside, dripping wet, and stinking of booze. What had happened? I was instantly depressed. I had such high hopes for Bob. But I knew this was the vicious cycle of the chronically homeless.
When we were in rehab, I had shared with Bob that I suffered from a mental illness, and he relayed that he did as well. He suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. When I had begun to feel symptoms of my own illness begin to manifest, I asked the treatment center’s doctor for a medication adjustment. I was told that I needed to focus on my sobriety and to talk with my doctor after I graduated from treatment.
It is clear how Bob fell through the cracks of the system. Currently there are very few alcohol and drug treatment centers that treat both addiction and mental illness at the same time. I feel that residential drug and alcohol treatment programs should be denied of any state funds unless they offer treatment for co-occurring mental illness as well. It’s a what-comes-first, the chicken-or-the-egg situation. Does mental illness cause alcoholism, or does alcoholism make mental illness worse? They go hand in hand, and it’s not rare at all for people to suffer from both, in fact, its common.
Today, I walk around with a heavy heart, and angry thoughts even though as an alcoholic I can’t afford resentments now, or ever. For Bob, I’m hoping for the best but expecting the worse; jails, institutions, and death. Today, I only ask one thing of the Great Spirit; to save Bob. The Great Spirit can move mountains, but unfortunately, he will still expect Bob to show up with a shovel.
I just don’t think that’s going to happen.
Sober for 60 Days by Darin Barry
I had feared that sober meant somber; that no more fun was to be had. I had a lot of fears, in all actuality, about getting sober and staying sober. I feared that I would have to be religious and follow some hair-shirt wearing order of those who literally feared a horrid, and vengeful God. I feared anxiety would once again become an overwhelming, and ruling factor in my life as I would no longer be able to medicate with alcohol. I feared living life on life’s terms.
I feared that being alcohol free would dampen my creativity. I feared how people might treat me without the social lubricant of alcohol. I feared fear.
But I was already living in fear. Booze kept me living in fear. I didn’t realize alcohol was keeping me from being happy, joyous, and free. I didn’t realize that it was holding me down, exacerbating all my problems instead of helping. My notion that booze was easing me through life was pure deception on my part.
I thought I was having great fun, mixing with bar regulars, and newly found single-serving friends. In all honesty, there were great laughs, great times, and epic moments I had during my drinking career. I remember riding on the back of a friends Harley in downtown Nevada City, California, a gold rush era town that is now a tourist town, swatting tourists on the butt with a broom as we road along. It was tremendously funny, even to those being swatted. Sure there were good times. But alcohol is a progressive disease, and when drinking becomes a disease, all the fun is underscored with great depression and fear. There came a point that the only people I wanted to do was be around were other people that drank, and then, even they became just an annoying presence; all I wanted to do was drink alone.
Life had spun out of control. How fun was it for me to sit in a cold travel trailer in the dead of winter drinking vodka before anyone was even awake in the morning? How fun was it for me to not want a drink, but to need a drink to keep me from shaking, dry-heaving, and to cure ravaging headaches? Where was the fun in loosing my job, alienating good friends and family, being homeless, totaling my car and scoring a D.U.I? I was lost, alone, and afraid.
I had time to reflect on just how fun liquor had become when I was in the hospital for five days suffering from alcohol poisoning and withdrawal over 60 days ago. It was then, that a total stranger, whom only knew me from my posts in a Facebook group, came to my hospital room with hope, and was I ever ready for hope. I was so out of it, that even today I don’t remember the ambulance ride to the hospital, nor collapsing in a Chevron beforehand. But I do remember the kind actions of a total stranger, and the one who would become known to me as my guardian angel that would eventually lead me to sobriety and a joy that I had long misplaced; a new joy and freedom that I would soon discover.
I found myself in Pathways, a residential drug and alcohol treatment facility in California, as well as a twelve step program in which I live my life by today. From day one I felt my debilitating fears begin to slip away. My life wasn’t just beginning to be restored, but a new life was being founded, one that was much better than the one I had long ago enjoyed before getting sober. I had even feared being in a live-in drug and alcohol center, but had more fun there than I thought was even likely. I also met true friends who will be with me for a lifetime. They are friends without conditions. Friends whom I would ordinarily not mix with had I not been seeking a life of sobriety. I am truly lucky.
Once I graduated Pathways, a bittersweet graduation, my guardian angel, William, once again reared his helpful head and offered me a safe place to live in a sober environment, and a job as well. I no longer feared God, that word I felt was a dirty word – God. I had found my own conception of God, the Great Spirit. There would be no hair-shirt wearing, or sour-faced, judgmental church ladies trying to direct my spiritual path. I had turned my life, my will, and my fears over to the Great Spirit of my own understanding. I even found a religious organization, the Unitarian Universalists, who embraced and allowed me to be guided by my own conception of God. It’s a church that allows me to be spiritual, not religious.
And of friends, and the fun that comes along with friends; who knew I would have so much fun? My old friends are still with me, those who accept my sobriety and embrace it. And my new friends who share the path of sobriety with me are golden as well. We support each other and share a great deal of humor, sometimes greatly irreverent and inappropriate humor; my favorite kind!
Fear is one of the greatest enemies of an alcoholic. Today I walk in the sunlight of the Great Spirit, and the company of great friends. I can also love the person I look at in the mirror each morning. My fears are processed with the tools of the twelve step program I am living, and given over to the one that can better handle them than me, my higher power.
Each day, with a clear head, I can face life, and handle life on life’s terms. Everything is infinitely easier to handle. Things seem to fall in place as they should. I have come to know life as I had never known it before. It is a joy-filled life of happiness and freedom.
I have 60 days of sobriety today. I have a lot of people to thank for it. I have the Great Spirit to thank for it. I am grateful that I have found the bright spot in my life. I am grateful to be truly living the life I was meant to have.
(About the photos: All photos in these essays are by Darin Barry, using Canon EOS Rebel X 35mm, with fine grain film, Kodak CN400)
When I entered the treatment center’s, door, Pathways in Marysville, California, the first person I ran into was a homeless person from back in Nevada City, California who looked pretty good for himself. This man, who I will call Bob, was arrested 156 times for being drunk in public. He was arrested in front of me at least twice. He was the cause of public nuisance over and over, and could be seen panhandling for booze outside Bonanza Market as soon as the store opened every morning. My own cousins took him in once, and after a few weeks, had to ask Bob to leave as he was drunk all the time.
Bob made no attempt to quit.