Love will always have its share of ups and downs. Love when you or your partner, family member or friend is struggling with a mental illness is no different, but it may involve different demands. I have suffered from various mental health issues for the majority of my adult life, and so has my best friend, my sister and a past partner. The word chaos comes to mind when I think back on these relationships. Through it all, however, I have learned how to best care for a loved one who is struggling, while also caring for myself.
Don’t make assumptions
You’ve heard the phrase: “Assuming makes an ass out of U and ME.” While this may be true, looking like an ass may be the least of your worries when you assume how your loved one is feeling or how you should help them. In the depths of my sister’s Anorexia, a friend asked me, “Why doesn’t she just eat?” This may seem like a reasonable question to someone who hasn’t had a voice in their head telling them they “aren’t good enough,” but to my sister, it was just another person who would never understand her struggle. If someone has allowed you into their mind, avoid stereotyped assumptions of their illness. Let them describe their thought process and feelings to you, and remember to think about them as the person that they are, and not their illness.
Speak up and set boundaries
It is crucial that both people are comfortable speaking up if they feel as though they are not getting what they need from the other. Remember: no one can meet expectations if they do not know they exist. Sometimes this means sitting down and having a difficult conversation. Sometimes it means having to hear or say something that we really rather wouldn’t. But despite the potential for discomfort, clear boundaries and open communication can improve both partner’s understanding of one another, and decrease the risk of hostility or resentment.
Leave it to the professionals
I love my therapist! And although I am sure she would write that off as some sort of emotional transference, I truly believe that she has been one of the major factors in my recovery over the last year. It wasn’t until I had hit rock-bottom, however, that I realized how badly I needed professional help. My parents couldn’t help me, my partner couldn’t help me, drinking just made it worse, and you know what: That is okay! This is something we need to recognize in ourselves and in our loved ones – we simply cannot always help. I know we all want to know exactly what to say or do to help those we love, but sometimes it requires more than we are capable of giving, and that is okay.
Have a crisis management plan
One of the most important things we can do for our loved ones is ensure that they are well-prepared in the circumstance of a mental health crisis. If your loved one is struggling, what does he/she do to find momentary peace? What distraction methods have they found helpful to bypass self-harming tendencies? It is crucial that we understand the signs and symptoms of a mental health crisis and attempt to determine their severity and the subsequent course of action. Take the time to sit down with your partner or family member and write this plan down. Be sure to keep it in a safe but accessible place, so that it cannot be forgotten in a moment of crisis.
And finally…Have patience.
Montaigne said “we undo ourselves with impatience.” This sentiment should be tattooed on our wrists, posted on our walls, and read to us at night. Two years ago, in the midst of my first recognizable manic episode (pre-diagnosis), I simply did understand what was happening to me. The speed-talking, the incessant need to keep moving, the inability to stay focused – it was all new to me. And while I didn’t realize it at the time, it was all new to my partner, as well. If I didn’t know how to help myself, how could I expect him to? It may not always be easy, but as you move forward in a relationship where one or both partners have a mental illness, remember to be patient. Be patient with yourself, with your loved one, with your understanding of the illness, and with progress.
These suggestions are just that – suggestions. They are not steadfast or constant rules and they will not work for everyone. Every relationship is different, but with compassion, communication and patience, we can create healthy relationships that prosper through mental illness.
About Stephanie Brash
I live in Hamilton, Ontario and have a brilliant, beautiful daughter named Skylar. I am in the unique circumstance of having multiple quasi-diagnoses, and while they do bring about many difficulties, I have an amazing support system and am proud to be able to share my story and struggles with those who can use them!