In almost every conversation I have had lately with my beloved friends and co-workers, someone is confiding in me that they are under chronic stress due to another person’s upsetting behavior. There is a person or people in their lives who consistently causes drama and/or chaos. Sometimes the other person is a jerk but on the unfortunate rare occasion, it is because that person is suffering from untreated mental illness.
These situations are hard to navigate because symptoms of mental illness aren’t always easy to identify. A mentally ill person can seem completely level headed for very long stretches. Sometimes the illness does not manifest until later in life and the symptoms come on so gradually, it’s difficult to detect.
It is the most devastating when this is happening with a child or a spouse. There is often shame and secrecy involved. You live with that person on a daily basis oftentimes and deep emotions are involved so it’s difficult to know the right thing to do.
With friends, mental illness can be both heartbreaking and surprising. A friend can regulate or mask their sick behavior easier and for longer periods of time because you usually aren’t living with them. By the time your friend shows the symptoms of the illness, you may have years of emotional investment.
I have had both relatives and friends with untreated mental illness. The way I have handled situations with them has improved as I have become more educated and able to identify what is going on. I would like to share with you a specific situation I had with a friend who had mental illness, how it impacted my life and my friends’ lives, and how we finally resolved the chaos she was causing.
When I was working in Chicago, a super fun girl at my job named Mari did everything she could to become friends with me. I was flattered because she already had a huge number of friends and everyone liked and respected her. She singled me out and made me feel special.
There was no end to the surprises that Mari would come up with. She would buy me expensive presents. She would take me on fun vacations. I felt like I had finally found a new best friend.
One day I had a vague realization that Mari may have had ulterior motives. She casually asked for me to spy on my best guy friend who also worked with us. The way she phrased it made it seem fun though, “I need you to spy on Todd for me. I need to know about all of his crazy antics.”
I was flattered that someone well liked and generous was paying so much attention to me so I giddily agreed to give Mari information about Todd. Her questions seemed innocent enough: “What is his favorite food? What music does he listen to? What are his favorite books and movies?”
Answering these questions didn't seem like I was betraying Todd because she wasn't digging into any of his dirt, just seemingly light-hearted, regular things. Besides, if Mari and Todd got together it would be great. He was my best guy friend and he deserved an adventurous, generous girl.
Mari invited my husband and me on a weekend vacation to her condo and asked me to invite Todd. It would be at a beautiful resort and everything was paid for. I did everything I could to convince a reluctant Todd to go and eventually, he agreed.
This marked the beginning of Todd and Mari's relationship. The first few weeks went great. We had fun dinners together, attended parties at the beach, and although she lived in another town, commuted together when she would spend the night at Todd's house.
Things started to unravel pretty quickly one night when Todd decided that he needed a night alone. Mari decided that she was going to sleep in her car in front of Todd's house rather than go home. She used this as a tactic to get attention and although none of us acquiesced and invited her to stay the night and forgo her cold car, we felt guilty because it was cold outside and besides, Mari was so nice.
What none of us understood at that time was that Mari had a well-hidden mental illness. She had been hospitalized when she was younger for a break down, bulimia, borderline personality disorder, Munchhausen syndrome, and had also for substance abuse problems. She was partying with us and breaking her sobriety and none of us knew.
Mari decided to move to our town and her new apartment started filling up with expensive items that she couldn't possibly afford. It was then that Mari confessed that she was a shoplifter. She started getting bolder and bolder with her thefts, even stealing boxes of TV trays by walking straight out the front door of the department store with the huge boxes.
One day, Mari showed up at my house with an expensive watch for me. It was exactly fitted to my wrist. It wasn't until later that I found out that when we had been drinking, Mari had measured my wrist. She had stolen the watch and had taken it to have it sized.
It didn't take Todd long to grow tired of Mari's shenanigans. He was dating her and experienced much more disturbing things than shoplifting and car sleeping. After Mari lived in our town for a few months, Todd decided to quietly break it off with her.
In an act of desperation Mari turned her most charming attention on me yet. She had a plan to get Todd back and she needed me to do it. She was going to throw him a surprise birthday party. Mari showered me with helpfulness, gifts, and unasked favors all the while pitching the surprise party. I remained skeptical and Mari grew frustrated.
She became almost frantic about having the party.
Mari started calling all of Todd's friends to rally their support and asked his best guy friend, Bill, to host it. “This will be our secret,” she explained. “Todd will love that all of his friends came together like this to celebrate him.”
At this point, nobody knew that Todd and Mari had broken up. None of Todd's other friends knew about Mari's unstable character. Todd was trying to politely slide out of this girl’s life and the last thing he would want is for her to have a large gathering with everybody he knew attending including her.
Todd's best friend, Bill, and I made the decision to alert Todd to what Mari had been planning. Todd was grateful to find out but also mortified that this girl was planning him a surprise party with all of his friends. It was conniving on so many levels.
She would look like a wonderful person for throwing him a fabulous party. Todd would have no way to stop her because it was a surprise. If he got upset that she was trying to wheedle her way into his life he would look like a jerk because Mari had just done such a thoughtful thing for him.
We all had to come together at this point and confront Mari. Bill would not host the party. Nobody would be attending the party. Bill explained, “Mari, it's just wrong to have a surprise party for Todd after you broke up. We can't participate in our good conscience.”
For the next several years of our lives we experienced a tremendous amount of crazy making behavior from Mari. She continued living in our town and through many different manipulative tactics kept Todd tied to her. She was a master at feigning sickness and injury and always had a reason Todd had to take care of her.
Mari and Todd weren't dating anymore but Mari saw to it that Todd couldn't date anyone else. If she suspected a girl liked Todd, she would confront the girl and tell the girl that she and Todd were very close. She even told one girl, “Todd and I are friends. Special friends. You may think he's attracted to you but when he is kissing you, he is thinking about me.”
We still worked together and she became hostile toward me at our job. She would keep important documents from me. She started rumors about me. It got to the point that I dreaded getting up in the morning. It was at this time that I decided enough was enough.
I know what you are thinking: “When there were so many tremendous red flags right from the start, why did you think it was ok to continue hanging out with this girl?” The answer is, it's not always easy to understand the gravity of such things when a person can appear to be so kind and generous.
When a person has an untreated mental illness and addictions, sometimes their sick behavior can be charming. When they turn their charm on you, the lines can get blurred between what is acceptable and what is not. It is difficult to set boundaries when you are a person who knows the unwritten rules of life and would never think of violating another person's boundary or trust.
Todd, Bill, and I had to brainstorm about how to go forward with Mari. We knew that she was orchestrating chaos in our lives and that this had to end. By this point, Mari had told everyone about her breakdown and mental illness so we knew that we had to tread cautiously. She had caused us trauma but we didn't want to traumatize her or make things worse for her or us.
We decided to do research about how to set boundaries with a person who has mental illness and addictions. We wanted to be as kind as possible but also firm because this girl did not understand subtleties. One of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder is that boundaries are not recognized even if clearly stated.
· Through our research, the first thing we had to do was ask ourselves, “How much of this are we allowing and encouraging to happen?” For instance, with Mari, were we letting an expensive gift cause us to overlook behavior that should not be tolerated? Were we allowing her sometimes manic behavior seduce us into thinking she was exciting?
· The next thing we had to do was decide if the relationship was too toxic to salvage. Was the stress and anxiety she was causing us worth it due to her fun, exciting, and even generous side? Or would it be better to end the friendship?
· Next, we had a conversation with Mari. In this instance, we told her that we had allowed her to manipulate us but from now on, we would like her stop instigating drama in our lives. We told her that her behavior had hurt us and asked her to please stop doing things that made us uncomfortable.
· We had to keep having that same conversation with Mari because although she would be on her best behavior for a short time, eventually she would challenge the boundary that was set. Repetition is key in boundary setting.
· Do not feel like you are being too hard on the person by setting and re-setting boundaries with them. The boundary is like a life preserver and actually helps the mentally ill person to feel more anchored to reality. It gives them clear guidelines for normalcy.
In the end, we all decided that the relationship with Mari was too toxic to salvage. She eventually switched jobs and then later moved to another town so we all eased out of the friendship.
This was hard to go through but the positive take-away I gained was newfound insight. The negative impact Mari had was temporary. The situation was eventually managed and then resolved.
I hope that if you are experiencing stress and/or anxiety in your life due to a mentally ill friend or loved one, this helped you gain understanding to help navigate the challenges you are facing. Please get help from a professional if you feel you or your loved one is in danger of hurting themselves or someone else.
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