Navigating the difficult journey of loving someone with a mental illness is a daunting task, requiring more grace and resolve than most people think they’re capable of. When we look at someone who has a physical illness or disability, we can see how cruel it would be to leave a person in the midst of that difficulty and the sacrifices required by the partner to make it work. But, mental illness is often an invisible ailment, and even when we know why the ones we love behave the way they do, it doesn’t necessarily make it easier to accept that behavior or live with it.
Friends and family members on the outside looking in at these relationship are often frustrated by what they see and hear. I know because I have friends and family members who have expressed concern over the years about my choice to stay with J, my partner. And they’re not altogether wrong about some aspects and their concerns are valid. But, what I want them to understand is when you choose to begin a relationship with someone with a mental illness, the rules are just different than being in a relationship with someone without a mental illness.
I have said this before and I will say it until the day I die: J has treated me worse than any ex ever did. This is 100% the truth. Sometimes this is because I broke up with them or they broke up with me before getting to the stage J and I are. But mostly this is because none of my exes lived with a mental illness the way J does.
When I met J in 2007, they were everything I wanted in a partner. They were kind, compassionate, gentle, funny, fun to be around, and up for adventure. We used to spend an entire weekend just randomly going on miniature road trips because we’d be out for lunch and suddenly go down a dirt road just to see where it ends. We’d drive and talk and listen to music and we loved every minute of just being together, exploring.
J took me all over North Alabama and Southern Tennessee, showing me their favorite scenic views and hidden trails. Back then we didn’t have internet service on our cellphones. We didn’t have smartphones. We just had each other. And it was enough.
For these and so many other reasons, it was easy to decide to spend my life with them. I saw it as a lifetime of road trips and music and hand holding and sunsets. Not a bad gig.
However, shortly after we moved in together and had a child, J died; or at least, the J I’d known for the year prior to our marriage died. I found myself living with a stranger and it terrified me.
J’s easy, calm demeanor became mean, quick tempered, petty, and impatient. J frequently spoke down to me, insulted my intelligence, and snapped at me if they thought I wasn’t being respectful. If the J I’d been dating and having adventures with was Dr. Jekyl, the J I was married to was Mr. Hyde. And it was scary.
On more than one occasion I loaded our child up into my car and drove away to my parents’ or a friend’s house. I always came back because J always apologized for their behavior after they’d calmed down, but after living this way for 6 years, I left J completely. I packed some of mine and our child’s belongings and went to my mother’s home, four hours away from J.
While I was gone I gave J an ultimatum: get in to see a psychiatrist, get in with a therapist, get a diagnosis and meds, or we are never coming back. With a lot of reluctance, J agreed. And received a diagnosis that didn’t surprise me: Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder.
The timing of Mr. Hyde’s arrival wasn’t coincidental either: more than likely a mild form of bipolar had always been there, but the extreme stress of getting married, starting their career, becoming a parent, and moving to a whole new state, all within 2 months and all at just 23, caused J’s brain to essentially skitz out, triggering the rapid cycling symptom and severe swings that hadn’t really been noticeable before.
While devastating for J, this news brought so much relief to me. J saw this diagnosis as a death sentence and it forced them to reevaluate everything they thought they knew about themselves. I however saw this as the light at the end of a dark and potentially dangerous tunnel. Finally with these answers we could get J the help they needed. We had options. We had potential. We had hope.
But, medication and therapy doesn’t make a mental illness magically go away. Like any illness, what works for one person may not work for another. And sometimes meds that worked at one point will suddenly stop being as effective. Treating mental illness is a constant uphill battle to find the delicate balance of meds, isolate the triggers, and undo possible years of indoctrination about what it means to be mentally ill and what it doesn’t mean.
It’s a tough road. Even tougher when you think to yourself, “Wait…THIS isn’t what I signed up for.” And I have thought that on many occasions. It’s even harder to figure out where you stand and how far you’ll go for that person when you have well meaning friends and family members who pull back in horror when you relay to them what your partner has done or said.
“I would never stay with a person who said/did that!!!” – friend/family member who has never been in my position
“Do you really think the meds are going to do anything?? Maybe J just needs meditation and to cut out gluten…I follow this blog about…ect ect ect…” – friend/family member with almost no knowledge of brain chemistry
“Can’t they just…stop themselves before saying/doing those things??” – friend/family member who doesn’t really understand how mental illness works
I’ve heard all these and more. And the most common is the hardest one to swallow.
“So…when is enough….enough? At what point do you leave?”
I don’t have the answer for that one. Because I don’t know. I assume that if it gets to that point, it will just click and I’ll decide I’ve sacrificed enough, taken enough, and given enough. I hope I know myself well enough to know when there’s nothing more I can do and staying in this situation will just lead to misery for both J and myself. I really do. But, for now, I don’t have that answer.
Every day I’m living in the moment, riding J’s swings, anticipating the highs and lows as best I can, and trying my damndest to love them through these things because underneath the layers of mental illness and childhood trauma, the J I fell in love with is still there. I catch them in moments where the meds click together just right, and therapy has brought about a breakthrough, and it’s just been a really good day and my J walks in the door and for a moment, all is right. And for a little while…that is enough.
So, what can I tell friends and family members who are looking on as the ones they love try to build a life with someone who is mentally ill?
For one, I’d tell you to listen. That is the first thing, and possibly most important thing, you can do. By listening you’re signalling to your loved one that you care about their relationship and their feelings. You’re also allowing them to be open and honest with you about the relationship, something that is crucial to keeping abreast of the situation behind closed doors. Sometimes being in a relationship with someone who is mentally ill is dangerous. If the person refuses treatment and is a threat to your loved one, you’ll want to be aware of it, but your loved one won’t be telling you those scary details if you haven’t laid a foundation of listening first.
As best you can, reserve judgement. This doesn’t mean you can’t make judgements or have concerns, but reserve them: keep them in mind, but leave them there, unless explicitly asked by your loved one. Loving someone with a mental illness can feel so lonely because you know you can’t trust most people to not freak out or judge you for staying, especially if they’ve never been in your shoes. So, reserve your judgements. Make mental notes, but unless asked, keep them put away.
Don’t go onto the internet and read about the mentally ill person’s condition and then start spitting Wikipedia facts at your loved one. Don’t do that. That doesn’t actually help at all. I promise you: your loved one has probably already done that a million times, or heard it a million times, or read it a million times. If you yourself are not the mentally ill person’s therapist or psychiatrist, you don’t actually know what you’re talking about. No amount of Googling will make up for the experience of their actual therapist/psychiatrist.
Do voice concerns if you see signs of actual abuse. I’ve used this analogy before because it is so, so true: relationships are like Pointillism. The closer you are to the painting, the less you see. It’s all just a mess of dots. But, if you take a few steps back, the picture begins to come into view. It’s a situation where the further you are from it, the clearer it becomes (up to a point, of course.) Your loved one lives with their nose right up to the canvas. They’re in the middle of the dots. And even if they have an idea of what the picture might look like, there is a distinct possibility they won’t see everything you see because they’re just too close to it.
So, if you see signs of actual abuse, speak up. But, don’t expect your loved one to automatically believe you. It’s hard to see the truth when you’re wrapped up in someone else’s mental illness and it is so easy to become wrapped up in it. Speak up anyways. In love. And then patiently wait for them to come around. (If you’ve already created a layer of trust through listening, then they will.)
Try to forgive the person they love and try to see beyond the stigma and the mental illness. This will be so hard for you. Because you aren’t in a relationship with them. You aren’t building a life with them. So this isn’t going to be easy. But you have to try. For the sake of your relationship with your loved one, you are going to have to try to love their partner and accept them as well. Your loved one will notice and you will further build upon the foundation of trust that you will need if they are ever in real danger.
And finally, be willing to help your loved one get out of that relationship if ever they call on you. Maybe that means letting them crash at your house while their divorce is finalized. Maybe it means watching their kids for them while they deal with that person. Maybe it means a lot of different things based on the situation and the needs. Either way, walk the walk. Don’t just say you’ll be there if ever they have to get out…actually be there.
In conclusion, I know this is asking a lot of you. And I know how hard it is to stand by while your loved one stays in a relationship with a mentally ill person who hurts them (I watched my mother live this life up until her death.) But, by listening, reserving judgement, loving and forgiving, and providing an out if ever they need it, you are allowing your relationship with your loved one to grow and you are making it so much easier on them.
Before my mother died she felt safe enough with me to discuss things about her relationship that she had only ever told a marriage counselor because I did the work of listening, reserving, loving, and forgiving. And while she never ended up taking the out we offered, she knew it was there. And that made our relationship so much more real than it had ever been before, regardless of anything else that happened right before and after her passing.
I want this for you and your loved one. And it is possible. So, I’m asking you to not give up on them and not give up on the person they’re in a relationship with. A mental illness is NOT a death sentence. It is just a facet of life; a more common one than most people realize. And the more we release the judgements and denounce the stigmas, the safer people with mental illnesses will feel about seeking treatment and embracing their illness. And that right there is a win-win.
Until next time…