A few days ago my beloved lady wife mentioned that she had been asked by someone if she didn’t feel that she was enabling me by being as supportive of me as she is. She responded that she didn’t think so and gave her reasons why. That prompted this post because it’s a valid question and an important subject .
Telling the difference between support and enabling can be very tricky. You want to be there for your partner or relative or friend when they are having problems. You want to be compassionate because they are suffering and often not fully in control of themselves. So it’s easy to blur the line between having their back and taking their shit.
Basically the line between the two is defined by behaviors that are harmful or destructive to themselves or others. If the person in your life with PTSD or some other mental illness needs to vent and you offer to listen to them -even if it’s about the same shit they were going off on just the day before- that’s support. Sometimes we just need a friendly ear to let us blow off some steam. If they start emotionally abusing you or anyone else and you let them get away with it, that’s enabling.
Support is vital to coping with mental illness. You can get by without help from others but it’s infinitely harder and many of us lose the fight specifically because we’re all alone in it. At the same time enabling us is just as harmful and needs to be studiously avoided.
When we engage in harmful behaviors, be they destructive actions like breaking things or punching walls or substance abuse such as drug addiction or alcoholism at those moments the disease is winning. And frankly we’re allowing it to win. This is different from those moments where the disease is winning in the sense that we are actively symptomatic despite our best efforts not to be. By not holding us accountable at those times you are effectively providing positive reinforcement for them. You are saying that it’s ok to kick the dog or emotionally abuse you or drink the rent money because hey, we’ve got a mental illness and that makes it ok.
No. No it fucking doesn’t! Yes, we’re sick. Yes, we deserve your compassion. Yes we will have moments when we need your patience and understanding because we’re acting in ways that are scary and hard to understand. None of that absolves us of the responsibility to handle our shit and not behave in ways that bring non-consensual harm to others. And I say that as a man who burned his first marriage of twenty years to the fucking ground with such behaviors.
Folks, I’ve been dealing with PTSD since I was twelve years old. Maybe younger. Probably younger. And I’ll admit there’s times when the disease grabs you by the face and drags you along on a destructive spree through some aspect or other of your life. Fighting those moments is hard . Finding an alternate expression of those urges is hard . But it doesn’t get any easier to do if we don’t get corrected when we act out inappropriately.
Understand that I am not blaming others for what we do. It’s not your fault we trashed the kitchen or got arrested on a drunk and disorderly because you didn’t check us the last time we smashed a plate or treated moonshine consumption like a competitive sport. That’s on us pure and simple. We punched out the microwave. We downed a fifth of Jameson and took a shit in the backseat of a convertible that didn’t belong to us. We did that, not you.
But why should we expend the energy to not be a douchebag if we get treated with the same patience and compassion whether we handle ourselves or act out? I said it once and I’ll say it again. This shit is hard. It takes immense expenditure of energy to control ourselves when the disease is in the ascendant phase. And we have less reason to expend that energy if we aren’t going to suffer any negative consequences for failing to do so.
So what does support look like? Support looks like a friendly ear. A gentle hand offering to be held when we’re in the throes of a panic attack or a flashback. An extra set of eyes watching our backs when we’re out in public. It looks like having our backs when someone talks shit and tells us just suck it up buttercup or makes some other equally ignorant remark. In short it looks like providing us with that extra bit of strength we need to make it through the bad patch. Even if we don’t really need it knowing it’s there to avail ourselves of can help us find the resources to gut it out on our own. Robia my love, I saw you face the entire time I wrote this paragraph, plain as if you were on the couch instead of at work.
Support also looks like holding us accountable when we cross the line. We have to live in the world. We have to work and have relationships and own stuff that isn’t all smashed to shit. And oh boy do landlords lack a sense of humor when it comes to the willful destruction of their building. By telling us “I love you and I’ve got your back but that behavior is unacceptable.” you are helping us build the mental muscles we need to control ourselves enough that yes, we may have active symptoms but we’re not going scorched Earth on our lives. When you say to us “That’s too far and I’m not having it.” you are actually saying “I believe you’re capable of better than that. I believe you are stronger than this horrible disease you have if only you’re willing to allow yourself to be.”
Unless you have PTSD or some other serious mental illness you can’t know the self loathing and doubts we experience. You can’t imagine how weak and failed as human beings we often believe ourselves to be. Society tells us that mental illness is a weakness. A weakness of person and a weakness of character. I have been told to my fucking face that I wouldn’t have this disease if I weren’t a great big, self-pitying pussy.
Society says to us “You’re an invalid. A cripple. We don’t expect anything of you because all you are is a disease, a dysifunctional collection of aberhant behaviors that are the product of a weak mind and a questionable character.Crawl off into your cripple hole and die so we don’t have to be burdened by you.”.
You say “You’re a person and you will fucking well act like one. You will have your panic attacks. You will have your rages and your flashbacks and all the other Hell and misery that this condition rains down upon you. And I will be by your side every step of the way. But you will not abuse me. You will not destroy things. You will not drink yourself into insensibility or take drugs to excess. You will find other ways to cope because are not a cripple. You are sick but you are more than your symptoms and you will do better because you are capable of better. You will do all this and you will stuff it in the fucking faces of every naysaying asshole until they gag on it!”
By doing that, by gently, compassionately holding us accountable you reinforce the much-needed belief that we are more than our illness and that we are stronger than it. By helping us find non-destructive coping tools and reminding us to utilize them you arm us against the condition . It’s hard at first. It takes an exhausting amount of effort. But in time effort becomes pattern, pattern becomes habit, habit becomes the new normal. We may still have our symptoms. We probably always will. PTSD cannot be cured, only treated. But by not allowing us the freedom to just act out destructively without consequence you are helping us pave the road to a better quality of life. You make it possible for us to say, after an Episode “Ok, that sucked hobo taint. But I didn’t hurt myself and I didn’t hurt anybody else. And that’s a win and damnit I’m proud of myself for it.”. And in this fight every win, however small is cause for celebration.
Have a great day everybody. See you next week.