I have a mental illness. This will, I suspect, come as a surprise to exactly none of you. I’m pretty open about it in general. I’ve been thinking about doing a post or series of posts on this topic for quite a while, but been at a loss for how to approach it. So I thought I’d go with one of my favourite formats and write a handy checklist.
The way it actually feels to live with a mental illness is something that cannot easily be described to people who have not experienced it, and that’s not what I want to try to do here in any great lengths. There are already many brilliant writings on the subject. However, the thing I’ve stumbled across time and time again, in both my own experiences and those of fellow sufferers, is that often friends, family and romantic partners sincerely want to help but just don’t know where to begin. Since this is (mostly) a blog about relationships, I’m focussing primarily on intimate partners in this piece, but most of the advice can be extrapolated to also include other people close to the sufferer.
A word of caution, first. I feel I can write about this topic with reasonable authority, but my experience is my own, and I can only speak from my own perspective, informed by things I’ve witnessed and people I’ve spoken to. When in doubt for how someone would prefer to be treated, the best advice is always, always to just ASK.
So without further ado, the care and feeding of your partner with mental health issues.
Know That They Can’t Help It
This one’s tricky, because as a sufferer I do still firmly believe that mental health, in itself, is not an excuse for bad behaviour in most cases. However, sufferers of mental illnesses will sometimes behave in ways which their more mentally typical partners may find difficult to understand. Please know, first of all, that they are not acting out or doing it for attention or trying to make you feel bad.
When I have one of my emotional “episodes,” as I’m going to call them, it’s like I step out of my body and I’m watching myself, yet I cannot control it. My demon takes over, and while most of the time I can quiet it with medication, sometimes (like, for example, when the doctors fuck up my prescription and I am forced to go cold-turkey for five days!) it is stronger than I am.
Understand that your partner cannot just “snap out of it.” They wish they could even more than you do, believe me. To quote one of my favourite bloggers, Cliff Pervocravy, “feelings are real. That’s not a warmfuzzy affirmation, that’s neurophysiology.”
Know That You Can’t Fix It
Because you can’t, and this is absolutely no reflection on you, as a person or as a partner. Mental illness is a tangled web of experiences and brain chemistry which even highly trained professionals sometimes struggle to understand or make better.
I had a friend once who, when I was put onto antidepressants, said “you need to dump your boyfriend. People in happy relationships don’t take psych medication.” I also once had a friend who said “what have you got to be depressed about? You’re in a relationship.” No. No no no! A good relationship can be a wonderful thing and help no end in healing processes or just with day to day coping, but it is not a cure-all. To suggest that it is, A) is demeaning to the sufferer and their experience, and B) places utterly unreasonable expectations on the partner.
Don’t beat yourself up when you can’t make it better, but…
Support Them in Getting Help
This might mean attending doctor’s visits with them, if it’s something they’d like. It might include gently reminding them to take their prescribed medication regularly. It might involve cheering them on when they do take steps towards getting treatment, because seeking help for a mental health problem is a huge and difficult thing. It might mean just stepping back and letting them know you’re there for them if they need any additional support alongside their work with professionals. Ask your partner how to best support them in their journey through treatment.
Look After Them…
…to the best of your ability. Nobody is expecting you to fix it (see point #2, above.) But there are things you can do to help. Things that work for me are lots of cuddles, hugs and a listening ear when I’m feeling low, as well as making me laugh or taking me out to do something fun to take my mind off it. Sometimes, a cup of tea and a chat will do wonders to lift my mood. Gently reminding me to get enough food, fluids, sleep and exercise, and generally take good care of myself is good if it’s not done patronisingly. Ask me what I need, and accept that I sometimes might not know. Allow me to have times where I am simply not okay.
Look After Yourself
This is generally good advice for life, but I think it’s worth mentioning again in this context. Remember you’re important, too – please do take care of your partner, but please try not to become completely burnt out, because this will just do harm in the long run to both of you.
Be aware of your own needs and limitations, express them in a kind and loving way, and make sure that you give yourself time and energy to take care of these needs.
Don’t Hold It Against Them In Fights
One of the things my ex used to do was pull out the “you’re just crazy” card in arguments. I’ll be blunt here, Nomad and I have fought in the times we’ve been together. Sometimes mildly, sometimes viciously. But he has NEVER used my illness against me or called me crazy. When I get down and call myself crazy, he challenges me on it – which is exactly what I need.
Please do not ever, ever call your partner offensive names or use their illness as a way to put them down or dismiss their feelings.
See The Person, Not The Diagnosis
I understand that the diagnosis of a mental illness in your partner can be frightening. The prescription of psychiatric medication can be frightening. But remember, if and when they are diagnosed, that they are still exactly the same person you knew and loved before. The label put on them by a health professional doesn’t change who they are.
In fact, a diagnosis can be a tremendously positive step – after all, how can one hope to get the help one needs without knowing what’s wrong in the first place?
I hope this is helpful in some way. Thanks go to all the other sufferers I’ve spoken to whose wisdom and experience helped inform this piece, and to my beloved Nomad for being a wonderful role-model in how to be a good partner to someone who’s mental health might be more challenging to deal with. Part two in this little series on mental health in relationships will be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future.