Unconditional love vs. the Strain of Mental Illness: At what point do you break it off?

As friendships break down and patterns draw people apart, it feels painful to stop being in relationship with someone when you ultimately have to decide that their friendship is no longer healthy for you.

To me, ending friendships due to the lack of health is a controversial topic. As followers of Christ, we try so hard to be our Savior. We live our lives to resemble Christ. We aspire to treat others as we would like to be treated and as we would treat Christ. We strive to care more for others than we do ourselves. So what do you do when your friendships fall apart due to another persons’ health limitations? Doesn’t that make you a hypocrite? Doesn’t that make you a terrible friend?

Maybe. But I think choices involving relationships are more complicated than that. While it isn’t right to expect others to be perfect, if friends have serious and ongoing problems of wounding you and sucking enough life out of you to damage your well being, those relationships are ultimately toxic, and will probably be severed eventually. From my own personal experience of having depression for five years as a teenager and gradually working towards health, I was that friend who drained others. I was the one who complained way too much. I was the one who was hard to get along with, and I was the one who feels dependent. I was the person who had less externally positive things going for her than she did negativity. I was freaking miserable. And for a long time, I wanted to die.

At the time, I really hated the friends who ultimately left me during that time. By the grace of God, I made it into college and eventually lived long enough to be happy, but that was a bastard road to walk. Is it better to abandon our friends in mental illness or to try to walk together? I don’t have the answer.

On the one hand, being the friend or family member of someone with mental illness will make you drastically aware that you cant do much to save them. You can try. You can abide. But rumination and the weight of their sickness can also affect you. In cases of moderate depression that takes years to finally manage, the desire to become healthy is a tediously slow battle that you have to want personally. No one can give you the desire to make the grueling as hell changes you need to live a healthier life. It’s not like you can donate one of your kidneys and then your parent, child, sibling, or friend immediately doesn’t want to die. I wish.

Is it selfish to distance from people who are that hard to be around? It very well may be. As humans though, we cannot be God. We cannot pretend to be him. We don’t have his power. It helps to understand how much a person with depression or similarly related mental illness is already suffering. It helps to realize that if they treat us poorly, they aren’t in complete control of that. Distinguishing where mental illness ends and people trying to take advantage of you begins isn’t easy either. Is it an excuse for a person to hurt others if they are also seriously hurting? How can you tell how much control they have over it?

It’s not like diagnosis makes you worthy of sympathy and having no label makes you better, because those relationships aren’t always properly identified or applied. You can be miserable and never receive a label. You can be a jerk and just want the free pass. Where does it stop? Maybe we’re missing the point.

Are we hypocrites when we distance from people? Is it enough to pray for our friends who are hurting while still keeping them at a distance? How much honesty will they be able to bear? Will telling them the truth crush them? When past friends told me the truth, it had that effect on me.

I don’t know the solution. Prayer and setting a healthy example by your lifestyle and how you treat others is as best of a guess as I’ve got, which is no different than what I think for any other problem. You can disagree with me, but I guess I just believe that healing only comes from God. I know I can’t be like him. And as crappy as it is, you have to really want to get better and work at it for years, if not decades. I think it’s better to trust that God provides and he is good than try to be like him when I can’t bear up. When you have that feeling that relationships are ultimately unhealthy on an intuitive level and it’s like that nagging feeling of fear that comes on when you think of having to expose yourself to being around others? My guess is that the better response is to pray than to try to prop up a dead or dying friendship on the rationale that it makes you feel better.

The idea that your worth comes from what emotional taxes you are able to provide to others keeps you in this cycle of wanting to distance from unhealthy people but needing the validation their depravity taxes cost you. Have you ever noticed that? It’s like sometimes people (especially women) put up with bad friends because it makes them feel valued in terms of co-dependence with another person’s pain. Not that person. The sense of being needed that you being the bearer of that pain can provide you. Which is a lot over the top when Jesus already paid to shoulder the load with his death and resurrection. He would do a much better job of it. Why do we aspire to the position of replacing him as martyr on the cross? What if our value came from the healthy love he has for us, instead of being addicted to having to bear the weight of other people’s pain for our sense of belonging? His love is so much bigger and replenishing than that.

Our friendships can have a profound positive or negative impact on our spiritual health, and as patchouli as that sounds, the Bible warns us so many different times how the company we keep can be harmful for our relationships with God. Proverbs 14:6-7 says, A scoffer seeks wisdom and finds none, But knowledge is easy to one who has understanding. Leave the presence of a fool, Or you will not discern words of knowledge. 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” BUT, Proverbs 17:17 also mentions that A friend loves at all times, And a brother is born for adversity. Which is it?

I don’t know. The experiences I’ve had make me think it’s better to allow people to resolve their own problems as only they are capable of doing, but there is the feeling of abandoning your friends if you leave them in a state of pain. Does anyone have any thoughts?


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I am a second-grade teacher and pastor-to-be who loves people. I spend my weekends with friends or wandering the museums of DC alone and with a journal, trying to put words on the places of the soul that still feel wordless. I spent most of my days at school trying to learn patience through my students and running on sheer nerdy passion. I follow Jesus Christ, and savor that as my most important identity--that I am a child of God, as are infinite others, regardless of their other identities. Christ is my one thing.

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