Caregiver mental health is important. The last couple of weeks were quite a struggle for me. Maybe this was related to the constant speed of life or the change in seasons. I'm not sure, but as a spouse to someone with mental illness, I take on extra responsibilities and my mental health as a caregiver comes into play.
Mental Illness and Caregivers
Recently I was asked how I cope with caring for a partner with mental illness. Do I cope day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, or does it vary? What a complicated question.
Mental illness can impact a family in many ways, and the children of parents with mental illness need loving support. Children are very sensitive and sometimes clue into differences in behavior that adults miss. As adults, we are often caught up with other concerns: our careers, finances or the latest Netflix series, to name a few. We sometimes forget to pay attention to those around us and may overlook subtle changes. Children, on the other hand, notice everything. I say this from experience: children of parents with mental illness see and feel all of it.
If you belong to a family with mental illness, you need a support group. Between the genetic factors of mental illness and their coexisting conditions and effects (addiction, codependency, criminal activity, divorce, abuse, and more), families with mental illness need a place to sort it all out with people who share their experiences. Different from one-on-one therapy or chatting with a friend, you can find strength, validation, and belonging in a support group for families with mental illness.
In every marriage with mental illness, taking care of the caregiver is as important as taking care of the mentally ill spouse. Too often we focus on the needs of the mentally ill spouse and forget that the partner supporting them needs love and support as well (The Role of Caregivers for People with Mental Illness). Without much-needed support, caregivers can experience burnout. Not only can their health be compromised if they experience caregiver burnout, but they will also be unable to support their mentally ill spouse. In every marriage with mental illness, taking care of the caregiver is essential.
Mentally ill spouses often feel that finding ways to give to your spouse is impossible. When it takes all the will you have just to get out of bed in the morning, tending to someone else can seem laughable. And yet, the more I have shifted my focus off of my own suffering and onto the needs of my husband, the stronger my marriage becomes and the better I feel about myself. I think it's important for mentally ill spouses to give what they can to their marriages.
When a marriage contains a mental illness, you should make a wellness contract to create boundaries.With a 90 percent divorce rate for couples in which one spouse has bipolar disorder, I realize how blessed Jack and I are to still be married. But our marriage has not survived for 16 years just because we love each other. Our marriage has survived because we made a straightforward contract after my bipolar 1 disorder diagnosis, and both of us have kept to it. He promised to stay with me for better or worse, and I promised to be med-compliant and to attend therapy in an effort to become as well as possible. Our wellness contract is helping our marriage and my mental illness.
Last year on my birthday, I became very ill with Strep Throat. I only agreed to go to the ER when I began shivering with a high fever, believing my ear was about to explode. As they wheeled me in for a CT scan, I started wondering, how on earth could I have let myself get this sick? Since my bipolar 1 disorder diagnosis at 21, I’ve practiced the art of ignoring my own needs. If addressing my needs didn’t fit into my environment, I numbed out. I refused to listen to the needs of my body and soul, even if it meant I was ignoring symptoms of my mental illness.
Two things happened last month that stirred me to revisit an often-examined question: Am I too involved in my adult son's life (Ben has schizophrenia.)? Have I "stolen his manhood and his rights" by insisting on treatment for his schizophrenia? One reminder came in the form of a reader's book review on Amazon.com for Ben Behind His Voices, calling it a "Testament to Abuse of Power and Parental Authority," the only one-star review in a sea of 5-star praise and gratitude. Clearly, a man with an agenda, so I didn't take it too personally, but this is not the first time I've been called an over-involved parent. On the other hand, I've also been criticized by others for not "stopping" Ben from dropping out of high school, for "allowing" my son a period of homelessness in Idaho and "letting him fail" when he gained and then lost five different jobs after he returned.
Two weeks ago, I went back on antidepressants. I say "back" because I took them during a protracted period of depression several years ago, but weaned myself off of them after about six months because I didn’t think they were doing much for me. But two weeks ago, after weeks of urging by my husband and a close friend, I went back to my psychiatrist and he felt I should try an antidepressant. I am beginning to feel better, I must admit, and if I’m being honest with myself, I white-knuckled it through the winter and early spring, knowing I was in depression, and refusing to do anything about it other than hide and eat (food is my self-medication of choice). But I felt defeated, walking into the doctor’s office, as if I was a failure. So after putting on 25 pounds and crying every day for a month, I gave in and got myself some help.