Thus far I’ve talked about my personal experiences with mental illness and addiction. It’s easy to get caught up in how it feels for me, but what about how it feels for my loved ones? My husband— my mother— my friends? I have lost a lot of friends in the past because I tend to shut them out during depressions. It’s easy for me to be there for my friends when I’m manic but I have a difficult time being there for anyone when I’m in a deep depression. I feel disconnected from the world. I just can’t find the energy. I have stayed in bed for days, not answering the phone or responding to messages. I have been very selfish in the past, feeling like no one understood me and I was better off alone. Somehow things are different with my husband. He has shown me so much patience, kindness, understanding, compassion and acceptance that I can’t help but want to become a better person for him and for myself. I want to be virtuous and altruistic and be there for him like he is for me. He started coming to my therapy sessions to support me over two years ago and our relationship has changed irreversibly. We have learned to communicate and love in an entirely new way.
While mental illness and addiction can effect entire families and friends of suffering individuals, I’m going to focus on what it’s like for the significant other or partner; they have a special role; A thankless role. They are often over-looked or misunderstood. One of the most difficult crosses the significant other has to bear is the feeling of guilt. Guilt for feeling annoyed, angry or exhausted when their partner is making life difficult. Guilt for not being there or understanding— for not being able to fix everything. An individual with mental illness can be very emotionally erratic and draining. There are times when I’m unstable and there isn’t much that can be done for me. Trying to fix everything is something my husband would love to do but it’s impossible and continually trying would suck the life right out of him. He has mastered the art of dealing with my particular brand of crazy and we have found a way to cope and communicate seamlessly. I once thought it was impossible for me to be in a healthy relationship. I just didn’t know how I could be there for another person. In the past I’ve felt like I was torturing my partner with every emotional outburst and I didn’t know how to stop. I always ended up feeling guilty for putting them through so much. I know now, that it is possible to be in a productive, happy, healthy relationship and it’s one of the most valuable, cherished gifts I have ever received.
Here is an example of how I feel during an anxiety attack and how that, in turn, effects my husband. We were at a training course for his job, which in itself was tiring for him. He needed all the support I could muster. The two of us had been living out of a motel for nearly two weeks to attend two different training courses in two different cities consecutively. I was already stressed and dealing with a fair amount of anxiety but I was handling it pretty well, in my opinion. On the last day we were there, I had to get up early and pack our things. I had forgotten to take my morning dose of a medication that I take three times per day. This particular medication lowers my anxiety tremendously. The two of us were in the grocery store when suddenly confronted by two cheerful, energetic young ladies from the training he had just finished. Their spirits were high, most likely from completing the training they had all endured together. They seemed out-going and immediately struck up a conversation with my hubby as we stood together in line, waiting to check out. I stood there holding my husbands hand listening to them chat– waiting for an introduction or a chance to say something–no such chance occurred. I was frozen for no apparent reason. I felt excluded and extremely awkward. I didn’t know what to say and I felt insecure. I suddenly felt as I did when I was an overweight preteen in a group of pretty girls. I slowly walked away and hid myself in a little Starbucks stand within the store. One of the girls must have noticed my sudden absence and said something because I saw one girl pop her head out from the isle and remark “Oh, there she is…”. I got up and walked to another isle as to not be bothered. I probably looked like any other shopper but I felt like everyone could see right through me. I felt that I must have looked insane or like some kind of shoplifting drug addict– the way that I was moving tactically from place to place, looking over my shoulder with each step.
After I had waited long enough to assume the girls had checked out and left, I returned to my husband. I was still in panic mode. I told him I wanted to go immediately. I felt so insecure and just wanted to seclude myself. I didn’t want to be exposed to the public eye any longer. I asked him, angrily, if he knew how incredibly uncomfortable that situation made me and inquired as to why he hadn’t realized something was wrong and rescued me. Why did he just stay in line? Why didn’t he follow me and protect me. I thought he cared more and knew me better than that. I cried a little, letting my emotions go, even though I knew somehow that I was overreacting. I knew that the situation I was in wasn’t going to hurt me. I knew that most people wouldn’t even understand why I was panicking. I soon realized that I hadn’t taken my medication and I was blowing things out of proportion. I took my dose when we returned to the motel, unfortunately it’s not something that works immediately. An hour or so later I was feeling close to OK. I was, at least, able to see that everything would be OK.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had an anxiety attack in public. During certain points in my bipolar mood cycle I’m particularly sensitive to social stimuli. I literally feel like I’m naked in public. I’ve been supported and guided through such struggles. But what about my husband? How is he affected by my anxiety— my mood swings— my actions? What can I do to support him? He loves me and he is willing to put up with a lot in order to be with me. It’s up to me to meet him halfway and do what I can to enable our relationship to grow and flourish over time.
One of the most important things in any relationship is honest communication; however, honesty can be difficult in a situation like this. He has to feel comfortable telling me how he feels and I have to be there for him. I can’t get offended because he got upset. I have to listen and validate what he is feeling. He is allowed to get frustrated with my irrationality. Sometimes he just needs to vent whether it be to a therapist, a friend, or me. We do whatever it takes to be healthy, emotionally and physically. He doesn’t always know what to do and that’s OK. One rule we made a long time ago is that no matter how angry we are, we aren’t allowed to turn down a hug from the other person. I used to get angry and explode with emotion. We found that if he just hugged me, I would calm down even if I didn’t want a hug in the first place. The same goes for him, though he’s always been better at controlling his temper. We also make sure we spend quality time together where we are each present and engaged in whatever cooperative activity we have chosen. Sometimes we play a game or take a walk and sometimes we just need to have a deep conversations. Something my therapist taught us when we first started joint therapy, is the different languages of love. Basically, people have different ways of showing love and feeling loved. Words of affirmation, acts of service, gift giving, quality time and physical touch are the five most common ways of showing love and affection. Just because we don’t show our love in the same way doesn’t mean one of us loves the other more. She also taught us that if we both expect to give 60% and receive 40% we will never be disappointed. I have primarily focused on romantic relationships throughout the blog but these principles can be applied to nearly any relationship. Whether you are the one dealing with metal illness, or it’s someone you love, make sure you take the time to open up honest lines of communication. Respect them and try your best to meet them half way. Realize that they are going through their own struggles and you can learn to be there for them in your own way. You don’t have to understand, you just have to be there.