Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Boundary Setting

I just went through a difficult situation for several months with a friend/room-mate whose mental illness culminated in hospitalization for treatment of out of control symptoms - but the hospitalization didn't occur BEFORE a lot of damage was done via the behaviors involved with his mental illness.

I stayed in the situation too long, even after boundaries had been breached on his part. This WAS A SIGN I missed - that showed where he was incapable of thinking clearly and determining that others have the same rights as he does. This boundary breaking was a sign that I should notify him of symptoms I was seeing right before I EXITED the relationship for a while so that health professionals could step in.

Now, here's where things can get tricky with people who suffer mental illnesses:

He spoke with a high vocabulary at all times, offering the illusion that he was mentally competent
He avoided controntation and was agreeable almost all the time - even when I introduced compromises about his behavior which most people would dislike and ask questions about - he'd just simply and always say, "okay."
He repeated, over and over again, behaviors I notified him of that were troublesome and he kept saying "Yes, I know that is a problem" but never "I'll take steps to change this unhealthy behavior."
He never stated on his own - ever - that he would make behavior changes but always agreed that the behaviors were, logically, a problem...

The very first symptoms were the ones I missed for a long time - the complex vocabulary and the agreeable attitude. These two things kept me from realizing that he was in no way ABLE TO control these or other, more distressing behaviors!

The attitude of agreeing all the time, however, is what I want to address in this little article because it has everything to do with BOUNDARY SETTING.

Boundary setting is a two-way street. In my efforts to assist my friend as well as physically protect myself, my belongings and interests, I decided to set boundaries. The agreeable nature of my friend at all times was not a two-way street and it took me a long time to realize this.

My friend never suggested any boundaries of his own, either - any changes he would like me to undertake in order for our friendship to get better. Sometimes people under influence of their mental illness have trouble seeing 'the bigger picture' and do not understand boundaries, even for themselves.

My friend never once said, "I'd like you to ...." or "I'd like to set a boundary where you do/do not ...." and this, when done respectfully leads to discussion of problems, positive changes in behavior, etc. I was willing to do almost anything to make my own changes if these were going to help both of us and our relationship, however, my friend never made any suggestions, seemed incapable of this sort of 'boundary awareness' and 'boundary setting.'

One of his behaviors/signs of his mental illness is religious fanatacism. He PRAYED - and prayed a LOT...and sometimes, he shared with me what he was praying about. He was praying, asking God to make ME be a certain way. I finally just told my friend, "Just ask ME these things yourself - Ask ME, not God, to make these changes happen."

To all this, my friend refused, and right after, things got drastically more severe in our relationship...

I finally realized that he could neither respect my boundaries NOR understand that he needed his own boundaries against me and my personality. Although I don't believe I was being a rotten friend or anything, everyone in every relationship needs boundaries. These are POSITIVE points of reference for everyone.

I still quite honestly do not know if I did anything to hurt my friend - I may never know...his illness was so severe that I left the relationship as completely and entirely as possible. He violated me and manipulated me and had no idea he was doing this - all due to his mental illness.

My friend's illness brought him to very sneaky and paranoid behaviors but for many, many weeks, these were hidden by the calm and agreeable face he wore. His meddling covered everything from his stealing my food, and I do mean ALL OF IT (he did not believe he was stealing it at all - God was involved - God brought me into his vicinity so he could have what I owned - only, I didn't give him PERMISSION to own ANY of my belongings) to compromising my income and banking (he told business people who called for me that he was looking after me, I would never need any money and they need not call again), and almost three months later, I am still recovering financially and emotionally from the whole experience.

In all of this, I still have to forgive him...due to his mental illness being in control for several months.

There are no boundaries I can trust that my friend will not cross in the future and so I have set a boundary with myself:

Never to let myself help another who refuses to respectfully AND productively discuss boundaries and negotiate behaviors - no matter how calm they appear on the surface.

If nothing else, this was a good lesson in observation and awareness. Fine words don't cut it - observing behavior CHANGES and, hopefully, improvements and not getting sidetracked by other matters is important...not the trouble-solving conversations that always seem to 'go alright' or 'turn out okay - with no conflict or yelling.'

Avoiding conflict and emotion is not boundary setting - it's manipulation. I knew that from textbook models before - now I know how this works in real life.

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Anonymous said...

Kudos to you for forgiving your friend. What you have described sounds like an extremely frustrating and crazy making time and situation to go through. As you said - lessons learned.