How To Help Others — Without Sinking Your Own Life Boat

Be a lifesaver without sacrificing your own happiness.

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Most families have at least one. It may be you. The stable, healthy, and sorted person who happens to be in the prime of life.

You are the person that finds yourself helping a family member with mental illness or disability, or simply an aging parent. As the steady one, it is part of your privilege to help those who are not doing so well.

If you are in this situation, you might be overwhelmed and ask yourself, “Yes, but how much do I give? Is there a line that is just too much?” 


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Give yourself permission to take care of yourself while you help others in the ways that are possible for you. 

Creating boundaries can be guilt-provoking and complicated.

Remember the lifeboat metaphor is an apt one for this situation.

Some individuals, no doubt, have healthy ships that can dole out whole lifeboats to their close ones in need. The other 99% of us have livelihoods that are held by maybe just a thread  or two. We simply can’t take it all on or we are in danger of sinking our own lifeboat. And then who can we help?


It's so important to remember to also be mindful of your own needs as a vital caregiver in someone else's life.

Here are 9 life-savers for helping your family with mental illness:

1. Begin by identifying what is important to you in your life.

These are the things that are non-negotiable, that you won’t sacrifice for anyone or anything. Is it your relationship with your spouse? Providing consistency and safety for the children in your life? The career you worked hard to establish? Money in your savings account?

Write these things down and draw a protective circle around them. No matter what happens with a family member, you will not willingly risk these vital aspects of your life. 

RELATED: I Left My Children When My Mental Health Failed


2. Figure out what you CAN do, and do that.

Do the stated spheres identified above remain intact? Then this is something that you can do. State clearly and consistently to your family member what you can and can’t do. Honor your word so that you don’t confuse your family member in need (or yourself) in future situations.

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3. You are not alone.

Often there isn’t just one functioning family member that can help. Ask for the help you need.

After identifying what you can do, communicate to other family members or friends that the person in need may need additional assistance that perhaps they are willing to provide. Where family and friends fall short, professional resources may be accessed. 


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4. "Help me so that I can help you." 

It is a frequent concern that those with mental illness or addiction refuse to get the help they need, even when it is available to them. Let them know, that they need to meet you halfway.

If they are refusing the treatment they need from professionals, let them know you cannot pick up the slack for their refusal. The suffering that has a solution they are unwilling to receive must not become your problem.

RELATED: Yes, You Can Have Depression And Still Be Mentally Strong

5. Self-Care

Yes, we hear a lot about self-care these days. For those taking care of family members with mental illness, you can double that need for self-care. How can you assist others when your basic needs are not being met? There are physical as well as emotional tolls to attending to family and friends with big needs. 


When going to visit my family member with mental illness, I used to do it on the cheap. I would be coming to terms with the deteriorating well-being of my family member, and then come back to a creepy shared housing rental with an overflowing toilet.

My own well-being would become so bare that a rude security agent would be enough to send me sobbing at the airport. It was after that I decided to save and invest in the best hotel I could afford when I visited my family member. I nourished myself with good meals, I danced to some local bands, and I saw comedy shows (laughter is the BEST medicine). Instead of returning with tears, I returned with stories.

Yes, some of it was sad, but it was also a joyous, full life experience. 

RELATED: Tough Love Is No Cure For Mental Illness


6. Food and Drink as Medicine (not as drugs)

When stressed it is tempting for most of us to eat our emotions, over-eat, and drink alcohol to try and drown them out. Be aware of your impulses. As much as possible, eat to nourish yourself. For me, that looked like getting some veggie bibimbap from my favorite Korean BBQ place.

Cut yourself some slack and have radical forgiveness when you slip up. A cocktail may be just what the doctor ordered after a long, stressful encounter, but when that turns into three or five drinks it’s time to re-evaluate how you’re dealing with stress.

Re-visit your self-care, can the cost of these drinks go towards a massage or other indulgence instead? 

RELATED: Mental Illness Has Always Been Around, Our Generation Just Understands It Better


7. Have your own schedule.

When there is a person in need in our lives, it can almost seem automatic that they become the center of our attention and our schedules.

Restore your sanity at the center by having your own schedule and sticking to it. Are morning yoga, afternoon writing sessions, and dinner with hubby and kids important to you? Do not sacrifice these mainstays of your schedule.

See and attend to your family member’s non-urgent requests when you are available. For your own health, never sacrifice your sleep. 

RELATED: 13 Signs Of Potential Mental Illness In A Child

8. Allow for and recognize chaos.

Mental illness, especially when untreated, creates illogical, nonsensical, and chaotic encounters. Recognize it for what it is — mental illness — and don’t allow yourself to be swallowed by the drama or bewildering reality. It isn’t you, it isn’t yours. Calmly do what you can do and back away from the rest when you can to take a break. There will be times you feel sucked in and this is just the nature of mental illness in relationships.


Forgive yourself, forgive your family member, and acknowledge each day as a new day. 

RELATED: 5 Things I Say As Someone Dealing With Mental Illness — And What I Really Mean

9 . Educate yourself.

There is no such thing as just “crazy.” There is mental illness, disease, addiction, co-dependency, and so forth, each with its own resources, groups, and fabulous books in which you can gain an understanding for your family member’s condition.


Take time to educate yourself to build your empathy and personal tool kit for relating with your family member in need. 

After reading NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman, I learned that genetically we all possess traits that, for some, end up being a cocktail of mental challenges.

If we are able to thrive in society (often because of small traits of these very same genetics), it is vital for us to understand and support our lesser fortunate siblings. Ideally, society itself will understand this importance and take care of everyone despite their neurodiverse disposition.

While the responsibility falls upon our own shoulders, we must do the best we can to continue to thrive and take of ourselves so that we don’t sink our own lifeboats. If our own boat stays stably on the surface, we can continue to be helpful and healthy life savers.  


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Cyndera Quackenbush, MA, offers nature-based readings and self-care retreats online and in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find out more here.