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Loving Someone with a Mental Illness

I often write about what it can feel like to suffer from a mental illness, but I have neglected one major aspect: a mental illness never affects just one person.

For every person with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder or PTSD, there will almost always be someone in their lives who loves them. And it’s fair to say that their suffering is as real and true as the person with the mental illness.

I can write on this topic from both sides of the fence. I have suffered from major depression while in a serious, long-term relationship and know what I put that person through. I have also seen the other side, where in my dating career, I have been with a chronically suicidal female with borderline personality disorder, someone with severe obsessive compulsive disorder and depression, as well as someone with anorexia nervosa coupled with anxiety and depression.

The Rule of Opposites Do Not Apply Here

They say opposites attract, but in my experience, the opposite has been true. When I was unbalanced, I sought out relationships that were unbalanced. Now that I have gained control of my sanity, I have settled into a comfortable, meaningful and long-lasting relationship with someone who also has control of their sanity.

The reason I say this is that if you happen to suffer from a mental illness, I personally believe that there is a higher chance that you will end up involved with someone who also suffers.

How Can I Love You When You’re So Far Away?

Living with someone with major depression is almost like having a long distance relationship, in the same house. They are there in body but their mind is off in space. They are constantly thinking, and you can tell by the expressions on their face that they are not thinking happy thoughts. When asked to discuss it, they may respond that nothing is wrong and to not concern yourself.

But how can you not concern yourself? You love this person and yet you are having to sit idly by as they suffer in silence.

It can be a difficult situation for both parties. Beyond urging your loved one to seek psychiatric treatment, there isn’t a whole lot you can do besides being supportive and understanding. Do not judge, do not assume and always remember to not take it personally. So many fights in relationships are caused by one partner assuming that the other partners emotional withdrawal says something about them, instead of something about their mental illness.

Why Can’t You Just Snap Out of It?

Telling your loved one that ‘it isn’t as bad as you think,’ or ‘why don’t you just snap out of it,’ can be extremely hurtful and counter-productive. If it was possible to simply snap out of it, then obviously that person would have made that choice long ago. Depending on what your loved one suffers from, educate yourself about the symptoms and treatments. Read memoirs about the illness from people who have experienced it and learn to communicate more effectively and compassionately with them.

The principles of cognitive based therapies apply quite perfectly when figuring out how to love someone with a mental illness. Be compassionate, non-judgmental, non-confrontational, do not assign blame, express empathy and be available.

And one more thing. Tell them that you love them, even if they don’t have the energy to say it back.

The Completely in Blue website is here. Chris is also on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

35 thoughts on “Loving Someone with a Mental Illness”

  1. I hate when my family will say oh so and so has anxiety and they just had enough of it one day. Or I get depressed too, just go out and get around people. Or when I am hypomanic someone might say just stop spending money. My husband likes to ignore what I am going through. He wasn’t always like that but I think he’s getting tired of it all. I can’t blame him and I really shouldn’t put words in his mouth. But I hate when people say to snap out of it. It really annoys me.


  2. I know what its like to live with someone who has a mental illness. It can be tough sometimes especially when both husband and wife have a mental illness. I have bipolar disorder and my husband has depression. My husband can sometimes lose his temper to a point that it turns into a rage. I try to give him sometime alone for him to calm down, but its not easy. I have major crying spells which causes both of us to become emotionally upset. One thing I have learned is that there is understanding and compassion and empathy in our relationship and when he has a problem I comfort him and when I have a problem he comforts me. I think that is what being married to a person with a mental illness is like.

  3. My husband has depression and I have bipolar disorder. We’ve been married 30 years and have been supportive of each other. It gives us both a lot of empathy and understanding. We’re able to tell each other “I’m not okay” and be comfortable with that. We also have learned to have a sense of humor about things, we joke and laugh on a daily basis. Overall, we are happy to be with each other, through whatever trials our mental health brings to us.

  4. As a person who has been diagnosed with Bi polar type 2 (or now they think it may be borderline personality disorder because the frequency of my mood fluctuations has drastically changed) and who has also been a lifelong ‘survivor’ of multiple mental health ailments ranging from Depression, to anxiety and panic attacks and agoraphobia; one thing which I find very difficult to overcome at times it the destructive negative cycles that can be set into motion because of feelings of Guilt. I have lost some amazing people during my life who were really great friends as well I sacrificed some good relationships because I thought “I wasn’t ready” when in fact it was in part because I did not have control over my mental health or my fluctuating emotions. When I was on a ‘high’ I could be very social, bubbly, caring and funny but once that low would set in watch out, Frankenstein’s monster would be unleashed. I was not critical of myself at first, it was always the other person fault or my partner was the big bad guy, but now that I am becoming more aware of my illness and informed about the cycles that have been present throughout my life I see that I must take responsibility for my actions and work to correct those destructive patterns. I am very fortunate that I have the love and understanding of a good man who has entered my life and he is able to provide some balance and stability which was much needed, yet it is hard now that I have an awareness of all the harm that I caused in the past, not just to myself but to so many others whose lives that I touched, and when I have those low moments or depressed days where all hope seems to be absent it is very easy to get sucked into the negativity that my mind creates. I am learning to utilize cognitive therapy and positive self-talk but the road is long and full of many bumps especially if you are an over emotional and sheltered person such as I am but I have to say that is it amazing that there are so many caring, understanding and compassionate people in this world who are willing to stick it out through the tough times to support and encourage the ones that they love, sometimes all it takes is one person to give hope to another and push them through to a new day. It is never easy to live with any sort of illness whether it be of the physical or mental health variety but there are always lessons that can be learned from them and we have so much strength within us just waiting for us to tap into it.

  5. Yes, it is difficult at time but we do somehow find the where-with-all to stay connected and be there foe each other … My wife suffers from Scizo affective Disorder, OCD, and PTSD and I from Dysthimia, MDD, Social Anxiety Disorder, PTSD , And BPD …This has for the most part given us the empathy toward each other to be able to be a support … I would not want life with any other person … We are soul mates …

  6. I am the Father of a teenager diagnosed “Bipolar I, Mixed, Severe”. I guess I could just stop there, but, I won’t.

    Our daughter showed signs from infancy. She cried longer, had very dramatic temper tantrums. She was our 4th child, so we knew this wasn’t normal. We took her for help the first time when she was about six years old. It was a group therapy sort of thing from our HMO. The other kids in the group were dealing with. We had to fight the HMO just to get her in to see one of their Psychiatrists, who eventually diagnosed her.

    It has been a long hard road since then. She turned 18 this week, but, it is clear that our parenting obligations aren’t about to end, probably until we die. Her older sister has accepted the idea that she will have to step in after that. We were nearly 40 when her sister was born.

    Her fits of rage, self harm and physical harm to us has landed her in the pediatric psych unit eight times. She is in a therapeutic non-public school and recently finished a two year stint in residential treatment near home.

    Even with all of this, we still have friends and family members who think that all we need to do is come to the realization that we just need to tell her to behave (aka “snap out of it”). I try not to fly into a violent rage of my own, as I hear this again and again, sometimes multiple times from the same person. I don’t know if these people really think that with this being our 4th child that we didn’t think of that, say, 16 years ago? We did tell her to behave, calm down, snap out of it, knock it off, grow up……etc.

    That didn’t work.

    I think one of the signs that you are dealing with a mentally ill person is that nothing you do as a layman does work. I would tell my other kids to get out of bed and go to school or they were grounded, and it worked. With this child, when I did that, she might tell me to go “f” myself, and slam the door in my face (at the tender age of 12).

    After exausting every trick in our experienced parent arsenal, the only thing that helped was years of intensive therapy and medication. I didn’t want that to go there, but, we did, and it has helped. She is not cured, because there isn’t a cure, but, it has made life a bit easier for all of us. That said, the battle continues, and will continue. We really don’t know what will happen on any given day.

  7. A year ago, my wife of 20+ years was diagnosed with Bipolar One and went thru’ a huge manic phase culminating with a psych hospital stay. All 4 of us ( we have 2 pre-teen children) went thru’ a very difficult time, as can be imagined, in the months before the hospitalisation. And I can’t say it has been great since, owing to huge amount of resentment towards me ( the hospital stay was involuntary – my doing of course, but in my wife’s interest, but she won’t even admit she had a problem or a diagnosis of BP). For years before, I used to be accosted by huge mood swings, but I didn’t know it had a BP cause. I only heard of BP when things started to get really out of control on the spending, the drinking, the hypersexuality and intended affairs (interrupted which got me in more trouble). I love my wife, and she might love me at times, and for the sake of my wife and our children I put up with (too much) crap. The stats on divorce are very much against us @ 9 in 10 ending in divorce where there is a BP spouse, but I live in hope that we can continue to work through this, but I have to say that some days I am despondent that our marriage will survive (today being one of them). But with 2 pre-teen kids, failure is not an option (at least not for now). Fortunately, I can roll with the roller-coaster… BTW, my wife refuses medication or to see a psychiatrist, but fortunately to now, no significant re-lapse just the regular mood swings. My daughter says ‘why did this have to happen to our family’, and my only response is ‘it could be much worse, at least we have Mum to love’.

  8. 4 years ago my psychologist, nurse practitioner, diagnosed that I was bi-polar and have ADD. I went to her because I was having trouble in collage with the Interior Design program. Art was never a problem. So my therapist and I concentrated on the ADD until I recently accepted My bipolar 2 disorder.

    I have been married for 33 years and my husband has Alchol Addiction and depression. Some how we have made it this far. We are relieved to know that I have bi-polar 2 and now that I am working on myself through sharing and not blamming he is figuring out what to do about his Alchol abuse.

    I have been in therapy for years because of 2 traumas in my life. So it has been hard to find out what the true root was. My aunt, has bi-polar and so does my niece. Lucky for my niece she was in her teens and got help right away. My aunt, in her 80’s was cast out by my mom and dad for her bi-polar. My dads father is a total mystery, he died when my dad was 7. My dad told me he neverknew the cause of his death. My grandmother was obese and so is my cousin. All of this is on my father’s side of the family.

    What is difficult for me right now is my past relationships they think that I should take on being responsible for my past. I have already taken on far too much guilt and blame in my life. I keep reminding myself that the bi polar gave me a lot of behavioral problems which isn’t who I am. The real me inside is whole. I am planning to go into a 6 month DBT program as soon as I can. I try to be pro active.

    It was so good to share at this moment.


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