One of the ripple effects of mental illness is its effects on other people. If you care for someone who is in the grips of panic, anxiety, depression or another mental illness, your own wellbeing can be compromised and it is important to have support. We felt it was worthwhile to share an excerpt from an exchange between therapist Lori Gottlieb and an exhausted sister in The Atlantic to illustrate this point, as the sister has become involved in her younger sister’s anxiety. If you live in the greater Cleveland area and are caring for a child, sibling, parent or someone else whose mental health issues are taking a toll on your own wellness, we hope you’ll reach out.
I’ll start with your second question about how you can help yourself, because helping yourself will help both of you. I know it seems as if your sister is creating all of this chaos, but you may not realize that you’re both participating in this dance together.
Of course, it’s painful to love somebody deeply and watch her suffer, so it’s natural that you want to alleviate your sister’s suffering—whether that suffering is her generalized anxiety or a specific incident that incites it. The only problem is, the way you’ve been trying to calm her down doesn’t help your sister learn to deal with her anxiety in a productive way. Instead, it reinforces her belief that she can’t manage basic life situations without your intervention. Every time you “rescue” her, your action sends the message that she needs to be rescued, much in the way that parents who rescue their children without letting them struggle through something they’re capable of doing inadvertently raise people who grow up to believe that they’re helpless.
Which brings me back to the dance. I imagine that when you drop everything to help your sister, you believe that you’re doing so for her benefit. But despite how frustrated you get, you may also be doing it for yours. You can’t be “drawn in” to something unless you agree—consciously or not—to be drawn in to it…