Girl Interrupted


Ms. Mix,

Mine is a family in perpetual crisis. I have left home to go to school but the crisis follows.

In my pyramid of importance and priority my family is at the top, school/career follows, then my relationship with my boyfriend, and then me. Recently I feel my grasp on all these things is weakening.

My sister (with whom I am practically telepathic) has been going through some problems. She’s 17 (I’m almost 21) and has always been extremely intelligent, happy, outgoing and loving- but has recently been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and other health problems. She has been suicidal a few times. This summer I travelled three hours every weekend to see her and when I could get the time off (I work and go to school in the summer as well as the regular school year) I would go for weeks at a time to be with her. My parents are also going through a bit of a crisis. Both of them have highly stressful jobs and often have to go through counselling for the stress they incur there.

I am fairly stable- I work, go to school, live with my boyfriend, have two cats, listen to blues and live three hours away in the closest city. I am “the rock” of my family. I am the outlet. I am always there. The rare occasions I break down and cry in front of my family I feel immensely guilty because I don’t want to give them anything more to worry about. Today I talked with my mother on the phone about the stresses of her work and the recent “down” period my sister has been having. I listened to her cry, gave her advice: (“It has to get worse before it can get better. Take some time to do the things you love to do together. Take a stay-cation.”) Then after I hung up and was getting ready to go to class I totally broke down. Crying, praying, coughing, sputtering- Hoping the neighbours wouldn’t hear, hoping my boyfriend wouldn’t come home from work and see me in that state. This has been more and more common in the past year and it just shuts me down for the whole day. I feel exhausted and tired and just want to turn off my mind and sleep. Everything I have is for them. I have very often asked if they want me to quit work and school and come home and they insist that I don’t. I consider doing it every time I go home.

This is all a very long winded background for the reason I’m writing. They are the most important thing to me and I don’t know how to keep myself functioning in order to be there for them. I don’t know how I can help them! I don’t know how I can be there for them and still work and go to school and have a relationship with my boyfriend and get the laundry done and finish my readings and have a life. I went to therapy briefly but I felt like a lot of her advice was to let go of their problems and take care of myself- but I can’t take care of myself knowing they are in crisis. I can’t ask for help knowing they need it more. I was afraid of sending this because I’m afraid of them seeing it, recognizing that it was me, and then getting stressed out that I am so upset.

I don’t know what this is more- a letter asking for help or an outlet for me to vent my exhaustion and frustration. I graduate in April so I wonder if I should move back to help them or run far far away… (yeah right, as if I could really run away). My mantra is “don’t panic”. Thanks Douglas Adams.

I could really go for a mix tape, Ms. Mix.
Sincerely, The Rock

P.S. You’ll notice that “friends” aren’t on the pyramid. Those have kind of fallen to the wayside as I can’t be the supportive friend I want to be. I go out for lunch and drinks, I go see movies with friends at work or school- I don’t have friends I can talk to this about.They don’t need my problems.


Dear Rocky,

I hear ya. I am the “rock” of my family as well – the burden of being the only fairly stable one in a three-ring circus of stress, I suppose.

Since your letter was long, I’ll keep this short: your therapist is right, mostly.    (S)he has a point that you should be focusing more on yourself, but here’s what she didn’t get a chance to tell you (since you stopped going to therapy).  There are three reasons why you should take care of yourself more:

1) Keep this up, and you won’t be a help to anyone.  Your body and mind will rebel against this relentless emotional pace and you will have a full-fledged breakdown.  That’s a promise.  Take it from someone who knows…I’ve been there. It’s a very dark hole to try to crawl out of…

2)  By constantly being there for your family, by dropping everything to be there for them, believe it or not, you are preventing them from learning their own coping skills.  That doesn’t mean you turn your back on them, but it means you give some space for them to figure out their own solutions. If they are not taking any of your self-care suggestions (hint hint), and just insisting on going at their issues the same way over and over, then you need to limit how much of your physical time and emotional energy you expend.  One or more of them may “crash and burn” – or they may learn that they’re stronger than they thought.  Right now, however, you being 100% available to them denies them the opportunity for fend for themselves.

3)  You need to form your own identity beyond the moniker of “problem solver.”  Again, I know A LOT about this.  Believe it or not, you get a tremendous charitable ego benefit from being the savior of the family.  It’s cool to be the one everyone turns to, unless it becomes all of who you are.  By being so absorbed in their crises, you deny yourself the ability to discover what else you’re about.  The fact that you are willing to quit school, your job, your life for theirs is a sign to me that perhaps you’re hesistant to fully live in your world.  The only caveat to that is if a family member was seriously ill, dying, and no other family member could help them.

All of the above doesn’t mean you should cut them out and become a narcissistic beast.  But here are some concrete solutions to find some balance:

1) Insist your sister get into counseling and your parents find a more effective counselor.  Whether or not they do this is out of your control, but at least you put it out there. And while you’re at it, go back into counseling…if not with your original therapist, then someone you click with – and don’t bolt the first time they tell you something outside your comfort zone.

2) Talk to them on the phone of course, but limit the time.  You don’t have to say, “you’ve only got 30 minutes” but keep an eye on the clock, and wind it up when it’s time to go.

3) Schedule time for yourself and your boyfriend.  Just because you live together doesn’t mean you should forget date nights and autumn walks together and all that corny shit I hate talking about, but secretly love. 

4) Reconnect with your friends and explain what you’ve been going through.  If they are really your friends, they’ll understand.  And while no friend wants to only hear burdens from another, a real friend thinks you are worth the occasional dumping ground session.  You should have enough self love and worth to know that. 

I have a feeling that you won’t take most of this advice because you feel as if your family’s world will collapse without you doing the same thing you’re doing.  What I hope you come away from this is that in the end they must be responsible for themselves, you can’t save everyone, and you’re worth the time and effort outside of this one identity you and your family have built for yourself.  Good luck.

 10. “Dead End,” (The Whitest Boy Alive)  Rules.

09.  “How You Survived the War,”  (The Weepies)  Hideaway.

08.  “Disaster Button,” (Snow Patrol)  A Hundred Million Suns.

07.  “Half a Person,”  (The Smiths)  The Sounds of the Smiths.

06.  “I Still Care for You,”  (Ray LaMontagne) Gossip in the Grain.

05.  “You Never Wash Up After Yourself,” (Radiohead) My Iron Lung.

04.  “I Guess You’re Right,”  (The Posies) Every Kind of Light.

03.  “Pink Light,” (Laura Veirs) Saltbreakers.

02.  “Wait It Out,” (Imogen Heap) Ellipse.

01.  “I Am Part of a Large Family,”  (Great Lake Swimmers)  The Live Sessions.


2 responses to “Girl Interrupted

  1. You are a dear and you always make me smile, thank you

  2. For someone so snarky, I sure do attract the nicest readers.

    Thank you, Simone.

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