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.