On Whittling Yourself Away
One of the questions that came up repeatedly after I wrote Sick Systems: How to Keep Someone With You Forever was, "Don't you have to hurt yourself as much as you hurt the other person to keep a sick system running?" The answer is: YES. You must pare yourself down small--very, very small, smaller even than you thought you could go--to live as the heart of a sick system.
Your system is powered by fear of you, it's true, and being feared can be empowering. But it takes more skill than most people have to keep people close to them with fear alone. You need other people to believe that you need them, that you'd collapse without them. As time goes on, you have to deliver greater jolts of need to get the same amount of care. Occasional well-timed spending sprees become shopping addiction becomes financial ruin. Reluctance to take your meds becomes refusal to take your meds becomes trips to the emergency room becomes hospitalizations.
At the same time, you must watch how thinly you whittle down your supporters. It's no good to let them be too much healthier than you--they'll catch on and leave. But it's no good if they collapse of exhaustion and force you to take care of them. The sweet spot is the point where they're spending slightly more of their resources on you than they can afford. Of course, this pushes them into a slow downward spiral, and unless you have more supporters in the wings to take their place when they fail, you have to reduce your expectations to meet them.
You may think you have standards. You don't. When you start, the two of you struggle to make ends meet on $600 a week, and you refuse to eat frozen steak. Then you have $400 per week, and you'll eat frozen steak but not canned vegetables. Then you have $300, and you'll eat canned vegetables, but you won't go to the food bank or apply for food stamps. At $250 you'll let your partner go to the food bank, but you won't go yourself, and you won't go to the soup kitchen. At $200, you still won't show your face in the soup kitchen, but you'll let your partner bring home food she dumpster-dove as long as she lets you pretend it's from the food bank. You adapt just like your partner does--smaller and smaller, fitting your spiral neatly into hers.
Eventually, your partner's spiral becomes so small that she can't fit into it any longer. She springs out. She's gone. You're alone. You go into a tailspin. Everything you relied on to support you is gone, and decades of self-neglect come flooding in; but just as importantly, you need to go into an extinction burst of neediness before you realize that your old tactics don't work any longer. There's an excellent chance that you'll end up in the hospital, in psychiatric care, or in jail.
If you realize you're the heart of a sick system, don't despair. There are ways out that don't end in involuntary commitment. You'll have to do something hard--in fact, you'll have to do the hardest thing, whatever it is for you, whatever it is you've built your system to avoid. But I guarantee you it's easier than crashing and burning.