the other day i received a phone call from william (not his real name), very distressed. he was in the psych ward, on his third week now. “i gotta get better, i gotta get better!” he kept saying. his hospitalization had been preceded by a good six weeks of progressively worsening mental health. anxiety, depression and borderline personality disorder were only some of the diagnoses that had been with him for many years. when he is healthy, he is funny and quirky, a dedicated stay-at-home dad who enthusiastically shares his two daughters’ passion with field hockey. when he cycles into his illness, his thought patterns quickly become more and more one-dimensional until all that is left is a looming preoccupation with how bad of a father he is and a clinginess that becomes almost unbearable to his partner, especially since it tends to be laced with hurtful sarcasm.
my involvement with william is only at the margins. when things get bad, though, we often spend a lot of time on the phone. he finds our phone calls comforting; i think it’s because i treat him like a normal human being, because i, too, have personal experience with mental illness, and also because i keep pointing out my boundaries, gently but firmly.
when william called and kept saying, “i gotta get better, i gotta get better”, my instinct made me blurt out, “you gotta make a choice here. either force yourself to get better – the old pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps method – or accept that you’re sick right now, and that this could be a slow process. but if you keep going back and forth between the two, it’s going to drive you around the bend.”
in my observation, one of william’s major problem seems to be that he is stuck in a painful, very tight loop of thoughts and feelings, a cage of unrelenting self-talk of self-loathing, control and neediness (“i’m a failure!” “no-one wants to spend time with me!” “jean bought the wrong kind of potatoes again!”) my blurting and telling him what i think he needs to do – not exactly according to the textbook of counselling – was at least partially informed by this observation. perhaps i was trying to say, “get out of your cage!”
over to you, readers. what do you think? was my exclamation to make a choice clumsy, too directive? if you were william, how would you have reacted? would you feel connected because i simply followed my instinct and therefore related on a real level?