I Couldn't Care Less: Laying Down the Law

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A hypodermic needle and a vial

Laying Down the Law

I'm not disappearing totally, you understand. I'll still be offering The Post my thoughts every time the amount to something coherent, important and original. But I won't be doing so every week because I'm being ruthless, mainly with myself. Because I'm a creature of habit who prefers to stick to familiar and comfortable routines and avoid big changes and this is why I never get anything done. And this is why I am precisely the sort of person for whom the idea of de-cluttering is important.

There's a piece of advice for carers that I first read years ago, I can't remember where. Do not fill your life up with people who are hard work and a drain on your time, energy and emotional resources. I've often wondered whether this was advice offered to carers simply because it is generically good advice or because it is advice that cares can be especially bad at taking. Because the trouble with this sort of person is that they tend to be needy and vulnerable. While some carers find that, like me, they are simply caring for a person like a spouse or a child for whom it would seem obvious that they should care, this isn't the case for everyone. Some people are the one out of several siblings who does most or all of the caring for a parent. Some carers are looking after a friend or neighbour who wouldn't be generally regarded and their responsibility. In short, plenty of carers are there because they have chosen to be. The problem as a result is that this sort of person does not easily walk away from the needy and vulnerable simply to protect their own wellbeing.

Over the years my wife and I have collected numerous people around us who take and took and a great deal more than they ever give back. One of them was an alcoholic who eventually died of liver failure. Another was a very complex case with all sorts of problems who eventually died of what was probably an accidental overdose. Both of these were very demanding cases who naturally only had a limited number of people still in their lives precisely because they were such hard work. And both of them were people for whom the effort required seemed to be worth it because of the impact on them if they were left alone and unsupported. I guess some of you may be aware that for a person with a drink problem any amount of intervention by any number of people who love the sufferer can be fruitless, but you can only find this out if you try. We've spent a number of years discovering the impact this altruism has on our marriage, realising that it sometimes works and often doesn't, and trying to lay down more ground rules for our interaction with those around us.

We have a 'friend' who is at the point where she has stretched our patience and is being – how can I put this? – edged out as a result. She can't even send a text message without help, so there is no danger she will ever read this. Her essential problem is that a combination of bereavement and depression has made her totally self-centred. We have gleaned this not just from our own experience but from how we have noted her being with other people who could be her friends. We aren't ruthless or heartless enough to cut her out or refuse to talk to her, but we have devised a few rules to make our lives easier. She has to do the running around now, she has to call us if she wants our time. We've done that, for ages, and it was never for us so we're not doing it anymore. If she wants us to get together for dinner, it is at our house, because she can never get her head round R's dietary requirements and anyway her cooking is awful. She is unaware of these rules, obviously, we have agreed them between the two of us and enforce them by stealth. What I hope you have gleaned from the first couple of paragraphs is that this is not the heartless abandonment of an old lady in need, but us finally putting ourselves first in another friendship with another damaged and demanding person.

The thing is that the world is full of people who need support and often they will need support of people who are ready to accept that this is going to be quite a one way friendship. It would be better for all of us, for so many reasons, if more people were willing to take some responsibility for those around them, so I don't discourage that. What I do suggest is that you never lose sight of your own needs and that you make rules to protect them. Go out into the world and so your best to make it better, but don't hurt yourself in the process.

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