ON MENTAL ILLNESS: The Important Distinction of "Me" and "Not Me"

Jack Bragen
Sunday February 04, 2018 - 08:25:00 AM

An ancient comedian once said that he had "undying love" for his wife--he "wouldn't die for her." This line, which was probably humorous in the 1950's, points to a very deep mental health issue.  

I am not familiar with the specifics of identifying an unhealthy relationship. But it seems to me that in a codependent relationship, the identity of the "enabler" is lost. The "enabler" identifies more with the other person than with oneself.  

Enablers and other people who are in one way or another on the lower rung are subject to a lot of anger. Often this is bottled up. It can come out in weird ways.  

The situation of the enabler is where their sense of self is superseded by their perception of the other person. How, and why, does "me" get submerged?--you might ask. I am not sure. It is possible that the addict of the relationship, (or, if not addicted, the one identified as having a problem) is brainwashing the enabler. Tools of brainwashing could be almost anything. 

If the enabler tries to become free, the punishment from the other person could be verbal, could be tears, could be domestic violence, or could be any of a number of other methods--for maintaining control and dominance.  

The enabler is perhaps just as misdirected as the identified sick person.  

{Please note that in this week's column I am speaking of things that do not really address mental illness as a brain condition. I am speaking of dysfunctional relationships, one of the many things about which I am not an expert. Dysfunction doesn't always exist in the case of mentally ill people, and it isn't always absent in the population of non-mentally ill people. Issues of brain chemistry, medication, and pharmaceutical psychiatry often are not applicable to the subject of abuse.} 

Any of what I've said above could be wrong. However, I think I have been an enabler before. And in some of my relationships, my sense of self has been compromised.  

It is necessary to put ourselves first. That idea might go against some philosophies. In some religious or monastic practices, including some forms of Buddhism and some of Christianity, the individual is instructed that her or his purpose is to serve others.  

Lives of service do not work for everyone. Many of us will get healthy by resuming, strengthening, and fortifying our senses of self, not by losing the self. People who have been bullied all of their lives may have trouble learning to respect ourselves. We must have and we deserve self-respect and self-affinity. 

We need a clear perception of me versus not me. Someone else's pain doesn't have to be mine. Someone else's problem doesn't have to be my problem. This does not rule out altruism. However, it may rule out hypocrisy. 

I am not knocking noble self-sacrifices. When someone exhibits bravery, and is willing to risk his or her life to save others, or to further a worthy cause, it is one of the loftiest of human characteristics. What I don't like is where someone has a bad habit, their life is going down the drain, and the enabler is cooperating with this. This serves no one. 

Both Buddhism and Christianity teach unselfishness. You do not need to be selfish to choose your own well-being over and above cooperating with another person's warped ideas. The codependent person may cooperate because they are afraid of what will happen if they say "no."  

Service exists where we feel love, and not coercion. A codependency exists where we've lost our identity into the folds of folly of another person. Selflessness, the exalted state of being in which we have transcended personal needs, is at the top; loss of basic identity is at or near the bottom.