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You Don’t Have to Care.

2 August 2013

There is growing compassion for those suffering from mental illness, and that’s a good thing. Addicts are recognized as sick, the depressed are recognized as suffering, those with other pernicious disorders are recognized as needing medical attention rather than scorn. All of this is good, and valuable, and likely to improve the lives not only of the mentally ill, but also of those who love them and care for them. I enthusiastically endorse addressing mental illness with compassion, medical evidence, and, in the case of addiction, 12 step programs.

That said, you don’t have to care. Mental illnesses take incredible tolls on the lives of those other than the sufferer. The two mental illnesses I’ve suffered from – and been diagnosed by trained professionals with – alcoholism and depression, are particularly egregious in the profound damage they do to people who are not alcoholics, and who are not depressed. I have less to say specifically about depression because my own depression has always been subordinate to my alcoholism, and treating my alcoholism will, for the most part, treat my depression as well. But alcoholism, it feeds off of the compassion of others.

Alcoholics are, by our nature, users and avoiders. We are assailed by difficult emotions (who isn’t?!) that we don’t know how to process, and generally have few tools to address. Alcohol is how we treat the condition that we find intolerable: feeling. We hate feeling. We love being drunk. Drinking quells the feelings. It has the added incentive of appealing intoxication. But it also prevents us from functioning in society. As things get worse, we cannot work, or manage our affairs. So we often latch on to people who will manage these things for us.

These people start as loving companions. Very rapidly they become crutches. Then simply tools that we use to keep drinking. We will attempt to inflame their compassion, their guilt, in order to keep using them. We’ll accuse them of being the source of our problems, so that they will stay and attempt to rectify this imaginary wrongdoing. We inveigle ourselves into their graces, we turn the good things about them, their empathy and their magnanimity, into grim obligations to care for us as we spiral into deeper addiction and depression.

You don’t have to care. Alcoholics are, by our natures, abusers. We abuse substances, and we abuse people. Anything that allows us to keep indulging in our addiction we will drain of every last ounce of strength and will. And then, when you are empty, we will rage against you and accuse you of failing us, of hating us, of abusing us. We do this in order to maintain access to what we need from you to keep drinking. This is our illness, that we will raze everything good in our lives to return to the succor of the bottle.

You don’t have to care. Yes, we are sick. Yes, it’s an illness. But it is an illness that has as one of its symptoms the ruthless consumption of other people. And you have the right to say: “I will not participate in your illness.” Because all your compassion for the drunk in your life does is help them stay sick. Withdrawing your aid may not help them get better. But emotional investment in an active alcoholic, and especially material investment in an active alcoholic, only helps them stay sick.

It is perfectly acceptable to walk away from a drunk. Your husband, your wife, your parent, your child. Your business partner, your best friend. Your priest. You don’t owe us the sacrifice of your sanity or your finances or your time or your trouble. Because we will use it all and then demand more. And we will lay the blame for our abuse squarely on your head.

Mental illness is so difficult to treat because all too frequently one of the symptoms of the disease is treatment avoidance. This is true with addiction, and in many cases with depression, and I presume also with many other afflictions. But just because this is a legitimate illness doesn’t mean that you have to participate in our self-destruction. You don’t have to care. And refusing to participate in our illness may, possibly, help us finally reach out for help to recover, rather than the help we’ve been demanding from you: help to stay sick.

Or it may not. We may find others to assist us in our disease. When your compassion is withdrawn, we may well simply move on to someone else. We throw people away like that.

But you don’t have to care. You are allowed to have all the full real life you deserve. You don’t have to waste your energy and vitality and hope and compassion on us. We are sick, yes. But we are abusers. And until we find recovery not only from our addiction but also from our tendency to use and discard those who we can convince to care for us, you owe us nothing. And once we have recovered from those things, we’ll demand nothing. Our demands are the voice of our disease. You have the right to ignore them guiltlessly.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Syd permalink
    2 August 2013 07:53

    Powerful post.

  2. 2 August 2013 15:20

    Thank you for this post. I have been (and continue to, your last sentence notwithstanding) feeling terrible about my abandonment of my older sister. She’s an addict, and depressed, and incredibly manipulative. I have spent many years being her cheerleader and crutch. When I finally had to say no to one of her requests for help (yet another instance of her getting herself into a bad situation and expecting to be saved, and by a large sum of money this time), she stopped speaking to me. It breaks my heart every time I think of it, so I try not to think of it, which of course makes me feel like an awful person.

    I tried to explain to her once, when she was angry about the lack of trust our family showed her, that as much as she may be a victim of her addiction, we are victims of it too. She needs time and space to reprogram her actions and thinking as she goes through her nth attempt at sobriety, but we also need time and space to reprogram our responses to her. She didn’t quite seem to understand, or perhaps she just doesn’t believe we care enough to be hurt that way.

    I won’t say that I feel better about the situation or my withdrawal from it for having read your post, but it does help in some small way to know that maybe I’m not a terrible sister for stepping back and refusing to participate in her abdication of personal responsibility.

    • 2 August 2013 15:33

      That’s a sad story, and one I’ve heard too many times. But I’d say she abandoned you, not the other way around.

  3. 4 August 2013 10:51

    I don’t think it is accurate to group alcoholism and depression in the same realm of using people.

    • 5 August 2013 05:47

      Well, I tried to separate them. Depression can, in some cases, become indulgent. Mine has. But in general, I agree, they are not the same. However, both require the sufferer to engage with treatment, and both make the sufferer resistant to treatment.

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