Cancer: Having an illness you almost die from.
Bipolar: Having an illness you almost live from.
Having a partner, friend or family member who is dealing with mental illness can be like riding a roller coaster, blindfolded in a storm.
I was raised with mental illness in my life. My father cared for his sister who suffered from numerous diagnosis including bipolar disorder. I saw her way up and way, way down. She was delusional in her mania and paralyzed in her depression. She was in and out of institutions during my entire childhood.
My first boyfriend was bipolar, though I didn’t know that until years later. I have been in more than one close relationship with men who suffered from bouts of extreme depression, had suicidal thoughts, self-destructive behavior or were bipolar.
According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, Major depressive disorder affects approximately 14.8 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older—about one in four adults—suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.1 Depression is the cause of over two thirds of all suicides.
How do we survive having a partner with mental illness?
Loving a person who wants to die or who can’t make a decision or who says she loves you one minute and “hates” you the next is not an easy thing to do. It can leave us feeling lost, unloved, angry, exhausted, frustrated, guilty, inadequate and resentful.
Watching our loved one suffer is heartbreaking and has a way of becoming all-consuming.
Our lives can become unreliable, unstable and unpredictable, ruled by mood swings that aren’t our own. Making plans can be difficult and it can seem like we are constantly walking on eggshells. If we are not careful we begin to compromise ourselves. We may become isolated and desperate, agreeing to things based solely on keeping our partner from having an episode and even doubting our own inner wisdom.
We too develop a sort of mental illness as a coping mechanism.
We start to spin on the hamster wheel of thought and it can be very difficult to get off. We, like our loved one start to believe the stories.
Fact or Fiction?
Fiction: If only I love this person hard enough, deep enough, good enough, they will get better or at the very least be motivated to get treatment or more treatment as the case may be.
Fact: We cannot fix the people we love and we cannot “make” them do what we want. We can support them emotionally maybe even financial or physically but better loving will not magically fix them. A deep, committed, long term relationship can however be a life line in times of crisis and inspiration in times of calm.
We can provide loving stability that offers strength and security but while doing so we must also love ourselves enough to set healthy boundaries. To take time alone or with our friends. Go to the gym, the movies or on a vacation. To say “no” without guilt. We simply must take care of ourselves if we expect to be any good to anyone else.
If we are on an airline and we hit turbulence they tell us to put on our own oxygen mask and life vest before we help the person sitting next to us. I have learned that the only path to loving another begins with self-love and self respect.
Fiction: I am to blame.
Fact: A person’s mental health is rarely in the hands of another. We as partners may indeed be “triggers.” Our words or behavior might trigger a thought or particular feeling in our partner but the fact that they are depressed or ill is not our fault. We all must be accountable for our actions or reactions. Mental illness or not.
I’ve heard “If I kill myself it will be all your fault” and I almost believed it.
Blame is tricky when deep emotions are involved. Often we blame others as a way to escape accountability or avoid admitting that we may have been wrong. Good clear communication is key in resolving conflict or concern with anyone, but especially when communicating with loved ones suffering with mental illness. We, as partners need may need to learn a new language. We may need to learn to speak with more compassion and listen with patience and a more open heart.
Fiction: Maybe he/she is right- Maybe I am (stupid, fat, boring, terrible in bed, lazy, etc.)
Fact: No. If you are being insulted or being called names the depressed person is transferring their own insecurities to you. Validating their bad behavior in the best way they can. Behaving in childlike ways not because they believe what they are saying but because they are lacking solid communication skills in that moment, regardless of how intelligent they might be.
It is important to note that when we are in relationships that leave us constantly questioning our self worth it is definitely time to reevaluate or seek help. Counseling may be a way of developing new insight and strengths, both as individuals and as a couple.
Fiction: He/She is just an asshole.
Fact: Probably not. Certainly in some cases that might be true but more than likely our depressed partners are lashing out because they are unhappy and afraid. Afraid that we will leave. Afraid that they will be alone. Afraid that they will never feel good. Afraid that they won’t be accepted. Depression and other forms of mental illnesses cause intelligent, wonderful, loving people to act in ways they would never act if free from their disease. He is probably not just an asshole but we do also need to keep in mind that having an illness is no excuse to act like one. Here again are where boundaries are crucial.
We don’t necessarily choose who we love. It just happens and when we find ourselves in a challenging relationship we become forced to ask the age old question;
Do I follow my head or follow my heart?
Before making that decision I think it is important to consider that while we are experiencing a myriad of feelings, our loved one is feeling far more. He is unsettled, confused, terrified, lonely, regretful, embarrassed, sad, angry, guilty, frustrated, sick, tired and possible the worst of all, he is feeling shame.
If we can offer kindness and sympathy without making excuses, if we can provide a safe haven in the storm and be a soft place to fall, our loved one will have a far better chance of finding peace and joy in a world that is often very dark.
I will never suggest that partners of a person with mental illness compromise their own beliefs or integrity or tolerate abuse of any kind.
I suggest only that we commit to learning about our partners illness and make a conscious decision as to whether or not it is something that we choose to take on. If we decide to be with this person I suggest that we use all available resources. Therapy, support groups, natural medicine and nutrition, meditation, exercise—whatever it takes.
Encourage or insist on treatment of some kind and never, never forget to put our own life vest and oxygen mask on first.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Maraya Maxson (used with permission)