You’d think you’d know what the triggers are–an image of the cause of death, an ICU room–but those things I can handle, in their odd familiarity. The triggers come from the most unexpected places, such as someone blaming me for their own problem.

Of course, this is simply “projection.” It happens. But when it’s happened to me, in various, and sometimes petty, ways in the last few weeks, I’ve felt something crumble inside. I can’t get away from the person fast enough. I know that I’m not to blame. I know that the other person is suffering in one way or another. Even if it’s just petty defensiveness, that’s a sort of pain, too. But here’s what else I know–that person is not taking responsibility for his or her pain or insecurity, and that person is willing to use their pain to hurt me. I do not feel safe around such a person.

My husband projected so much of his self-loathing onto me (and others), that after years of it, I couldn’t sort out the man from the illness or my involvement in it. But recently someone blamed me for something that was so ridiculous and such a caricature of projection that it became crystal clear to me that it was not at all my fault, and I started to recollect all the other things that weren’t my fault.

That would seem to be clarity, but then the trigger strikes again. They’ve made me an accomplice, made me feel responsible for their welfare. If I don’t play along, maybe they’ll hurt themselves. I am clearly doing some projection of my own. I’m carrying my husband’s experience everywhere, applying it to these everyday situations, as if the worst will happen if I bungle this interaction, as if I’m supposed to rescue people by absorbing their pain. People engage in everyday interpersonal relations, and they terrify me.

I’m working on this.

Despite the flight instinct, I don’t flee. I’ve established some healthy boundaries, I use some coping mechanisms, I deflect an attack that comes from a place of unreason and respond in a different way. The other person is suffering, in one way or another, and I have compassion, but I can’t help them if they’re not going to help themselves. I don’t give up on them, but I don’t give in to the manipulation, either. I wait it out. I’m there for them when they’re ready. To my great relief, I’ve actually ridden out a few of these episodes, resulting in renewed care and respect.

They’ve breached my boundaries. I’ve redrawn them, held my own, opened my heart a little while protecting it, too.  It’s hard, but it’s okay, and it may be my doorway back into the world.

Meanwhile, in the last few weeks and months, different people, in rapid succession, have shared their own turmoil about living with someone with mental illness. I guess I sent out quiet signals, and they sprung these stories onto me. I am surprisingly receptive. A person who loves a mentally ill person may bear the brunt of anger/pain/irrationality/false hopes/dashed dreams/insert your own rotten feeling here.  I can listen to the story as their story. This person is telling me how hard it is to live with and love and be loyal to someone with mental illness, and I affirm that it is. We don’t trash the sick person. We just acknowledge that it’s hard, for everybody. We remove the shame, chip away at one another’s isolation, dwell in the intractable puzzle of what is happening and what to do. This is pain, but it’s a pain that I can handle. This is a load that I can help carry. One person shared and ended with an apology for burdening me with the story, which was raw and real and heartbreaking. “What are you kidding?” I replied. “This is the most normal conversation I’ve had all day.”


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