This fifth edition of Featured Advocates Month blog posts is written by AJ Jackson. AJ is a recent high school graduate heading to Holland College in PEI to pursue her passion in the Primary Care Paramedic program. AJ is a determined and active supporter of mental health. She joined Step Above Stigma this spring as a volunteer. She is also a volunteer for the Nova Scotia based non-profit organization called Pics 4 Passion as a mental health advocate.
In 2015, I was exposed to a very negative friendship. There was a girl who came into my life from an abusive and unhealthy background. She was a kind and extremely talented girl but struggling mentally far beyond my comprehension. I looked up to her, her stories were things I had only heard about or seen in movies. I heard things that absolutely broke my heart and I knew from very early in our friendship that it was going to be a challenge to cope and support her. Over time I learned more and was exposed to many traumatic stories and experiences that she had shared with me. I wanted to be there for her and it blinded me to the fact that it was taking a toll on my own mental state.
One afternoon in the summer we were hanging out and decided to go for a swim, little did I know what I was walking into. This was the first time I was personally exposed to self harm. This young woman had scars all over her body and looking back my heart breaks that she struggled so much. I was naive, so when she explained that she used self harm as a coping mechanism for the challenging things in life, it didn’t occur to me the severity and health concerns that went along with this particular coping mechanism. As time passed and even after the friendship had come to an end I still found myself struggling with the pain and trauma she had endured. I found myself dwelling and fixating on the negative aspects of the friendship and my mood changing.
About a year later, I found myself in a toxic relationship of my own. There was this guy who I had been friends with for some time and I was so excited when feelings developed, my first boyfriend, I was all grown up now. I was in my rebellious stage, trying to grow up too fast and have independence but I can honestly say it did not go as I had imagined. The guy I was talking to had severe mental health issues and did not have the knowledge or support needed to cope with them properly or in a healthy manner. About a month into this relationship things swiftly started to go downhill. His mental state was decreasing and was having a very strong effect on his actions and words towards me. It was hard for me in a sense because I remember seeing red flags from time to time but I was so convinced that I could make it work and that one day we would be happy, as you can imagine I was painfully misguided. Things escalated when he went through a challenging experience and that evening I had found myself in a place where he had convinced me that if I didn’t stay with him then he would hurt himself. I felt completely responsible for his happiness and well-being. This proceeded and the situation escalated greatly over a few months which was incredibly damaging to my own mental health. His behaviour and the situation was having severe effects on every other aspect of my life. My family and those who were close to me could see me changing long before I could, as I feel happens for many.
Now having shared these things I want to explain why these were key to getting to where I am and becoming the person I am today. Both of these people came into my life even before I was 16. These things were huge for me and play a key role in what I am sharing with you today. During and after these events, I repeatedly found myself in situations where I was overwhelmed and struggling with supporting and listening to the ones I love. It took me a while to realize that I was taking their struggles and hurt on as my own. Part of me believed that if I took on their pain and their sadness that it would ease the burden for them but unfortunately that was often not the case. My health and well-being was taking an enormous toll and I slowly began to realize that I was worsening the situation along with causing myself pain and hurting my own self worth by doing this. Even though I thought I was doing what was right and doing it out of love I was taking the unhealthy approach to being supportive.
Over time and with no shortage of struggle and practice, I began to learn how to separate myself from the situations enough that I was able to support the ones I love without taking fault or placing others burdens on myself. Having said that when the people I care for are struggling it still breaks my heart and it never gets easier to watch loved ones in pain but you can learn not to take on their burdens and still empathise with their pain. For me personally this was not an easy skill to obtain and I am still not where I would like or need to be. But I have learned things during this process that I will carry with me through the rest of my life which in a way makes me grateful for the negative situations I experienced.
I have spoken a lot and so I would like to end this with a small piece of advice. The people we love and are surrounded with are a big part of what makes life worth living. And it will never be easy watching them suffer. And the thing I learned and if there is anything I would hope you take away from this is that you know what you can handle and what is good for you. Your brain and your body tells you what your limits are and what you need. The best thing you can do for you and your loved ones is make sure you personally are okay and that you set healthy boundaries when supporting those around you. More often than not setting boundaries isn’t easy and can cause overwhelming anxiety, however in the end the healthiest thing you can do for your relationship. The boundaries you set will be different in every situation and what worked for me may not work for you and that’s okay because you are the only one who really knows what’s best for you. Take the time to learn your body’s signals and what you can handle. Whether that looks like telling them that you aren’t in a healthy head space to have those conversations or deciding to have more serious conversations in person rather than over the phone or social media. No matter what boundaries you put in place for your situation the most important things to remember are:
● Make sure both parties are on the same page and understand what is being asked of them.
● If you are overwhelmed or need to take a step back allow yourself to do so. Just do your part by making yourself available when possible if needed and have other resources or support options for you loved ones (i.e. Mental health hotline, professional support options, another friendly face, etc). You can do what you need for you and still support them to the best of your ability.
● Never sacrifice your mental health as much as you love someone. It is always a healthier option to take care of yourself first so that you are in your best condition possible to support others.
● Last but not least always remember that you are doing the best you can. You are worth, you are amazing, and you are loved. If you need support ask for help and those who love you can help you take the steps necessary to make sure you are healthy and safe (: