The Unhealthy Other

The Unhealthy Other

Though I write this article from the perspective of chronic illness, one can become isolated within any relationship: voiceless, invisible, lost in the sound of silence. Whatever our circumstances, we all have mountains to climb, we all suffer, and we can all find ourselves silenced by those we love the most.

Living with a chronic health condition presents challenges in many ways, not least in our relationships, both those we already have and those we hope to make. Having the right relationships can improve the quality of our lives as we face the day-to-day challenges of ill-health, and can help us to be resilient when there are setbacks. The wrong relationships, however, can hinder us in many ways, adding pressure to what is already a difficult and stressful situation.

Nothing is fixed. Every day is different, every relationship will evolve, and your condition, your very self, will change as the days become weeks and the weeks become months. Only you know how your condition affects you, and only you can judge the quality of your relationships in the complex environment that is your life. Applying “rules” to the shifting sands of our lives can be unhelpful, but we also need at times to take a step back, consider things, and make changes.

Allow yourself to be imperfect, to make mistakes. Allow others to be imperfect, to make mistakes. The problem is not always in the mistake itself but in a lack of willingness to own our mistakes. That said, we must also be careful not to be so quick to own our mistakes that we do not hold others accountable for their words or actions. This can be difficult when we are sick and dependent on others for our care.

Living with a chronic illness can be isolating as there is a level of suffering no-one ever sees except those closest to you. Even then, your experience of something that affects you twenty-four hours a day can be difficult to put into words, to express to another person in a way that they will understand. The effect of not feeling fully understood can be frustrating.

Keeping your tears for yourself alone might seem brave but misses out on the support that might be the very thing you need to help you get through the worst times. Only you can work this out, but allowing yourself to be at your lowest ebb with someone who understands and hears you can be profoundly supportive.

While you need the understanding of others, you also need to allow them to feel stressed, for they love you, and worry about you, and get frustrated too. Be understanding of them, and allow them to share with you how they are affected.

Forget trying to be upbeat all the time. You won’t make it and might end up feeling bad for feeling bad. If I am sick then wishing it were otherwise would make about as much sense as sitting in a car with no wheels and yelling “Faster!”.

If this is difficult for you, given who is in your life, or you have no-one, then consider reaching out to others with the same condition, by finding a welcoming forum, or joining a support group, to seek friends and form a support network for one another,

One worry about joining support forums might be that you will feel defined by your disease. If so, try reaching out on social networking sites — not dating sites — where you can meet people from a variety of walks of life, with their own struggles to face, and who need to be heard as much as you do.

Everyone hurts, as the song says, and our share of that universal hurt can open our hearts to all who suffer, whether with physical pain or with bruises that are carried in hearts and minds. So much of that hurt exists hidden behind our eyes, unseen, unexpressed. Your strength and courage to make it through what is happening to you can inspire you, can lead you to open your heart to others in a way that can make a difference in someone else’s life, can bring their hurt into the open and help heal it.

Do not forget, though, to be kind to yourself, and to find those who will listen to you, who will open their hearts to you, and who will celebrate the achievements you make, even if they be the sort of thing others might take for granted, like making it to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, or to spend an hour at your desk, or to sit downstairs for a few hours. When you are sick, the smallest of things can become a victory. Do not belittle these things because others take them for granted,

One can also take pleasure in the activities of others. Before I got sick, I used to love walking and would happily walk sixteen miles just for the pleasure of it. For some years I had not only been unable to do this but my condition had worsened to the point that I was spending most of my time in bed. I was fortunate to meet online a friend who would tell me about her day, about the hike she had just been on, sharing with me photos and videos that she took just for me. It was a source of joy to share in her happiness, and a privilege that she “took me along” with her.

Whatever our efforts, in whatever way we ask for understanding, or accept imperfection, or try to open our hearts to others, we may find ourselves with relationships that are unhealthy for our psychological and physical health. Attending to your own behaviour is of little use if the other person cannot do the same. These may be long-standing relationships, or ones we have recently made, or are making. We might also feel that we cannot afford to be too choosy given our circumstances, that we should be grateful just to have friends, whatever the quality of the relationship.

In this context, the unhealthy other is not you but is the person with whom you are in a relationship.

Giving thought to your boundaries, what you can accept and what is damaging, is one of the most important things you can do for yourself, even if you have never done such a thing before. In fact, whatever your circumstances, if you have not thought about this before you need to start.

This is one of the biggest lessons that I have learned, not only in relation to my disease but in every way. It came to my notice with greater emphasis due to my illness as the stakes were higher, but I can see its importance in every relationship I have ever had, and will be aware of it in those yet to come, where the pattern of the relationship will be established early on.

Know what your needs are, what you are comfortable with, and let the people in your life know what your boundaries are. You do not need to ask for understanding, simply respect.

You do not need everyone in your life to follow a template of ideal behaviour. It can be workable just to agree not to discuss certain things that cause stress or disagreement. Respect can be enough if you have understanding from other quarters.

Particularly toxic, though, are those who want to convert rather than listen, wanting to overlay your reality with what makes sense to them, even if they have no knowledge of your condition or how you cope. You cannot allow others to make you feel guilty for making your own decisions about your health or what you need to do to help you face the future. This is plainly toxic behaviour that can be directly harmful to you. I suggest — only you will know best — that you tell them to stop imposing on you or, if they cannot, end the relationship.

A concern can be that the response to setting out your needs and boundaries might be seen as confrontational by the other and might lead to an argument. Fearing someone’s response is to accept the worst without having tried for the best. All you can do — in humility and in awareness of your own imperfection — is speak from the heart to begin a conversation. You have a right to express your needs in a relationship and not feel guilty for having done so. You are allowed to have expectations.

The basic feature of the unhealthy other is an unwillingness to allow us to own our experience, to determine how our disease affects us, to feel free to express ourselves confidently and with an expectation of respect. These people may label us, or see only how we affect them, ignoring how they affect us. They might appreciate that we own our words and actions, but they will not do the same for themselves.

The acceptance of imperfection is not always enough to allow this sort of behaviour to exist in our lives. We all have to make compromises just to get through our lives, and we all need friends who will tell us things that we do not wish to hear, who will challenge us as well as encourage us, but we have to be aware that the quality of some relationships can have a greater toll on us than we realise. The impact of the unhealthy other seeps into us, affecting the way we see ourselves, and can ripple outward into all our relationships.

Identifying the unhealthy other is a first step to limiting their power over you. The final step might be to let go. In fact, many would say that there is no space between the first and final step. Only you can decide that.

Whoever you are, whatever your circumstances, remember that you are not your disease, not the bruises you carry, not the bad person that you might think you are: you are bigger than all of it. I encourage everyone not to lose hope, to keep moving forward, and to look for the power of good relationships in helping us to be more than we can be alone.

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