Mercy put her hand over Susan’s mouth to stop the vomit from coming out. Susan had had way too much to drink even before we got the call to come pick them up to go to a Westlands pub. A typical night for early twenty year-olds in Nairobi, have a few drinks in the house to get warmed up then head off to a pub. This was a tactic we used to employ in university to avoid spending money at a pub getting intoxicated. Our logic was that since the pub’s mark-up on drinks was ridiculous, we would get intoxicated then go to the pub. Foolish, I know, but people in school don’t earn a salary, or have common sense for that matter. This very lack of common sense is what convinced Mercy that placing her hand over Susan’s mouth, to stop her from vomiting, would do anything other than cause a puke explosion. So there we were. Three guys and two girls in a Corolla picking pieces of sweet corn and bile off ourselves. BBQ chicken pizza is my guess.
Mercy swung into action. Profusely apologizing to us for her friend. “She usually doesn’t drink like this”, “She is going through a break-up”, “I’ll clean this up!” True to her word she had already begun cleaning up, using her own sweater, while trying to get her friend under control. But by this point the young men in the car had written them both off. Nothing good was going to happen from this point onward. The only certainty was that the pseudo-owner of the car, would have to now somehow clean the vehicle by morning, then explain to the real owner of the vehicle what that smell is. By the time we were arriving at the pub tempers were high. While covered in vomit, Susan still had the audacity to ask the driver, “Why are you angry? Haven’t you ever seen a woman puke before? Is this Jesus’ car?” (I have watered it down).
Mercy put her puke soaked sweater in her bag and slung Susan’s arm over her shoulder to drag her to the pub. The bouncers at the gates told her very sternly, “This one is your responsibility!” To which she agreed meekly. They then darted off to the bathroom to clean up and change. They reemerged a few minutes later with fresh but skimpier outfits. Young women often have a change of clothes in their bags in preparation of how a night will go. We on the other hand still had puke stains on us.
Being at the pub was not any better. Susan found some guy to keep buying her drinks. Mercy kept trying to manage her friend while we sat there around a barrel (because hipster pubs have something against tables). Then Mercy came back to tell us that their new friend was inviting us (them) to his place for more drinks. She asked if we were interested. We three lads gave each other a look that can best be described as concern for sticking it in this long. “We’re right behind you.” Once again, we shuffled the hot mess that is Susan to the new guy’s vehicle. Her and Mercy got in and the new guy muttered some directions. He knew as well as we did that once we got in that Corolla, our evening was over. So it was. They went one way and we went to other.
I did not need to know Susan and Mercy longer than that one night to know this was normal for them. They had a rhythm I was all too familiar. I have been a Mercy very many times in my life. Chasing after someone making all the worst possible decisions trying to clean them up and “change” them. Because, if only I could fix them, then they would see me and give me value in their gratitude. “Andrew is such a great guy!” I think to myself through a version of them that only exists in my head. But that is not how the real world works. Trying to heal other people to feel healed only leads to widened wounds. Depression is a monster which, if untreated, can make one question everything about themselves. But there is a symptom of depression that I only became familiar with in the last four years due to actively seeking help.
Manipulative caregiving is something very common when it comes to depression. A feeling that if only one can do a good external act, and change something for someone else, the internal wheels of change will begin to spin. But in my experience, as a manipulative caregiver, it often ends with this question, “Who asked you to do that?”. The painful part is not even the realization that all the good deeds, and vanquished self-prioritization, is not appreciated. What really stings is that question has an answer, “Me.” This behavior is not benevolent in nature, it is a manipulative effort to change the behavior of others by doing nice things for them. What is worse is that when the sentiment is not reciprocated it leads to confirmation bias that one is not worthy of it in general. Insidiously, this confirmation of perception of unworthiness gives a dopamine rush because people love to be right! Even when being right is counterproductive to their own health and development.
Manipulative caregiving also tends to become a habit. The depressed person moves from friend to friend, relationship to relationship and even coworker to coworker looking for cracks to fill. They tend to be able to find people who treat them horribly believing that they just need to work harder to earn this person’s approval and thereafter, the approval of the world. Always ends in tears because they reprioritize themselves to a lesser rung in their own lives to lift up someone who will not stop digging holes for themselves. Even worse is the other person will be the one to end the cycle citing “clinginess” or “lack of acceptance” as a reason to stop engaging. That is a mind trip if I have ever experienced one. Like someone dumping you because you “deserve better” when they are actively the worst thing for you. Yet, there you are. Chasing after them and their ability to destroy every aspect of your life.
Manipulative caregiving is also something abusers, whether conscious or not, are very good at spotting. A narcissist and a manipulative caregiver usually find each other because both of them know exactly what role to play in their relationship to keep getting the dopamine rushes. It is never anyone’s fault because everyone involved is making a choice to be there.
There is only one way to stop manipulative caregiving and that is to recognize it and knock it off. Prioritizing oneself and seeing oneself as a being of value is one of the best things anyone can learn in their lifetime. Trust me, you will not die if you ignore a phone call or WhatsApp message because you are doing something else of value to you. The people you are caregiving will figure whatever it is they want to figure out without you (and this is a good thing, despite the desire to be the hero). Learn to remove yourself from situations and relationships which you have to work to convince yourself “need you”. Focus your energies on people and situations which replenish you rather than drain you. Also, and perhaps most harsh, learn to not throw yourself at issues and people which others are avoiding. They are being avoided for a reason and that reason is not an opportunity to demonstrate how great you are at being the one that stays.
Even though advertising, books and social engagements are specifically geared to stop this from happening, you must learn to prioritize your peace of mind. Not in a controlling way just in a “this is not my problem” way. We must learn to know ourselves intimately. The good, the not so good and the unique. Know yourself well enough that nobody can use you against you. Because they will try. Trust that! Learn your values and boundaries and be firm at them. Not combative. Just firm. Knowing oneself is a sure way to avoid feeling excessive guilt for not being the ideal of another. Even if that ideal is a figment of one’s own imagination. It is OK to know that, “This one is not your responsibility”.