Reflections on accompanying loved ones in pain
By: Serena Habib, Contributor
cw: Mentions of self-harm and mental illness
In The Vampire Diaries, the vampires had an inner mechanism called a “humanity switch.” This allowed them to turn off any emotions that made them human so they could completely and carelessly follow their desires.
While I am grateful for my sense of empathy every single day, I sometimes wish I had a little knob I could turn to decrease the pain love brings when people around me are hurting.
However, empathizing with others allows us to build connections and make a difference in the lives of people around us.
In an interview with Self magazine, Gottman Relationship Institute Co-Founder Julie Schwartz Gottman said that a person’s ability to empathize with others is what makes friendships last.
Psychologists Daniel Goreman and Paul Ekman outline three forms of empathy: cognitive empathy, the ability to understand another person’s perspective; emotional empathy, the ability to share the feelings of another person; and compassionate empathy, which allows us to understand the other person and moves us to take action to help them.
But what happens when your friend has been suffering severely for years from a mental illness? You can see from their perspective, you are agonizing in their pain and you have already tried everything you can do to help, but it doesn’t feel like it makes a difference.
I am scared. I am tired. I dream about her dying and I awake to her messages about how they are hurting themselves. Yet, if my friend was dying from cancer, I would stay with her until their dying day. How is it any different with a mental illness?
The definition of love as understood in our society can be summed up by the famous Bible passage from 1 Corinthians. I think about that quote when I think about our friendship.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”
I am being patient and I am being kind. I do not want to be friends with anyone else. I do not think I am a better friend. I am not prideful about what I have done in the friendship for I know we have helped one another.
“It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” I try not to be angry, but it enrages me to see people suffering so gravely due to circumstances they cannot control.
“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” I am grateful for the honesty in our relationship and I want to be there as a listening ear. Our friendship was built upon rawness and mutual support.
“It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” I always refrain from saying things that will be triggering or telling my friend how much this is hurting me because she already feels guilty for it. I do not give up and I never will give up on her being okay.
I always get excited at little glimmers of hope when she messages me about recovery or when we text about mundane things all day, but then I am dejected when the illness re-emerges and I once again see myself losing my best friend.
I get swept up in this whirlwind of pain and hope and confusion and I feel like I am trapped by the friendship that has brought me so much life and liberation.
But then I realize that friendship goes both ways. I am not being honest with myself or patient with myself. I am expecting myself to do everything perfectly and blaming myself if anything goes wrong.
I need to follow these rules for myself. I need to be honest when I need time to put on my oxygen mask so we can both make it through these tumultuous times. Seeing as I can’t flip a switch to make this change, I’m not quite sure how to do this, but I am working on it.