Love Can Heal, But It Doesn't Heal Mental Illness
Love is a powerful force, but when it comes to loving someone with mental illness, we have to think about how to love through a different lens. We all likely have seen this type of story before where someone with mental illness or trauma falls in love, finds happiness, and suddenly all pain and hardship disappears for good. These stories put the emphasis on the partner as some type of savior, valiantly rescuing a "broken" person through the power of love. These savior stories create unrealistic expectations of what it's like to love people with mental illnesses as if the right person can rescue them from their darkness and pull them back into the light.
Darkness comes in many forms: Posttraumatic flashbacks, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, self-harm, hallucinations, disordered eating, and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness are just some examples. I am more than my anxiety disorders and sensory processing sensitivity, but these qualities have been a part of me since childhood and always will be. Managing our mental health is an active and lifelong process that isn't always linear. Some days are great, but some days, the darkness takes over. Loving us in dark times doesn't mean rescuing us from the darkness. Instead, it means stepping into the darkness with us and loving us just as we are.
Consequences of Ignoring Negative Emotions
The savior stories lack the essential components of connection and empathy as the hero loves from a distance. It's difficult and unpleasant for the rescuer to step into the darkness with the person they love, empathize, and understand. People more naturally want to pull the person out of the darkness and into the light as quickly as possible. It makes sense on the surface, but it ignores the reality of mental illness.
Darkness is a normal part of life for us, as much as we wish it wasn't. When the people who love us try to cheer us up before acknowledging our pain, give us poorly-timed advice about gratitude and positivity, take our symptoms personally, and keep their distance from us when we're struggling, it tells us that the people who love us don't want to be with us when we need them the most. We try to hide away the parts of ourselves that our loved ones don't like, but our darkness doesn't go away.
We just have to face it alone. Darkness feeds on our shame, and when we feel that parts of us are unacceptable and unwelcome in our relationships, shame flourishes, giving darkness even more power. We become trapped in our darkness even longer.
Connection and Empathy Communicate Unconditional Love
I know this must take a toll on the partners of people like me in relationships. It's hard to watch someone you love suffer, and it's hard not to overidentify too much with some else's darkness. Some people might not be able to handle the intensity of their loved one's emotions, in which case boundaries and communication are important to offer loving support while protecting their own wellbeing.
For others, practicing taking steps toward rather than away from their loved ones in dark times can reduce shame and increase connection, feelings of love, and empathic understanding. In my hardest moments, the best thing someone can do to help me is to sit with me, see me and love me for exactly who I am, and let me know I don't have to face it alone. Even on my hardest days, I know I have people out there who will sit in the dark with me. Knowing that is everything.
We may not be able to save the people we love from the effects of mental illness and trauma, but we can be with them when the darkness hits, and that expression of love can make a world of difference.
Sabatello, J. (2021, March 1). Love Can Heal, But It Doesn't Heal Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, April 20 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/relationshipsandmentalillness/2021/3/love-can-heal-but-it-doesnt-heal-mental-illness
Author: Juliana Sabatello
Thank you for such a very well explained article. I’m hoping I’ll share it with a family member I’ve reconnected with last year after the death of her mom to Covid-19. We hadn’t spoken in over 7 years, (like many others), and still don’t speak when my life was falling apart and the more I needed help the less I got. I was abandoned and forgotten and feel this person disowned me after a decision to stop contact with my mother all those years ago. My sister in law is this person who accepted my reaching out to her after her dear mother died, and I was so glad as I’d always loved her but couldn’t control anyone’s feelings about what I’d done about my mother (which left her and my brother to help care for her alone). There was much animosity and I was outcast. Going forward to this past year, she’d become a good source of friendship I needed, and much help when I had to move last fall. I could have never done that without her taking charge. That’s what she does and she’s full steam ahead. I feel my need for help at that time was a “Project” for her. It helped her focus on something else other than her moms death and the pandemic which left her unable to see family.
It became obvious that she felt she believed she was “fixing” me and when I didn’t meet her expectations of adoring my new place like I should have because “I had everything to look forward to”, but I was still depressed and have oftentimes been triggered by many things that brought my C-ptsd front and center. I have many reasons for my depression, anxiety and C-ptsd, that was diagnosed while divorcing my now ex husband over 7 years ago.
Each time I’ve tried to be as honest as I can about how I’m feeling, I’ve been attacked in emails from her saying they just don’t know how anyone can help me when I refuse to quit living in the past. A very traumatic past.
A house doesn’t fix your mental illness no more than any one thing or many things can. I’ve been alone all these 7+ years to the point where I’ve not seen a human being I know for months This was also the case before the pandemic so it’s only exasperated by what became more isolation and more loneliness if that’s even possible. It’s just myself and my dog I’m so grateful for, but nothing can take the place of human contact and TOUCH. I feel starved for a real hug from someone I care about who’ve also all but disappeared.
I am afraid of what’s still to come and how hard it is to handle most days. I feel guilty and ashamed by not doing things to make my new place a home. I want to but I can’t! It’s hard to take care of me and my dog who I love more than anything but my issue about going outside to just walk has also become impossible. I feel like people can see something is wrong with me from a distance and I know that’s crazy too. I feel I don’t fit or belong anywhere, for quite a long time and it’s getting harder to ask for help when people like my sister in law think I’m just lazy, so they pull back, which makes me pull farther back and isolate even more. I’m sorry this is so long and drawn out but I’m speaking from my heart and soul which have both been in too much pain for too long. I have no support system as you do that I’m so grateful you and others do have. It’s all the difference in the world. I do and have been seeing a great counselor but mostly by zoom even though she’s encouraged me to come in person. It was my only outing that did me any good. Now it’s even harder to get showered, dressed, or simply brush my teeth or eat. I feel very much like no one will ever be here for me and my heart is also so full of love alongside the deep pit of emptiness. I’d love to one day find love. Real love. Unconditional love, but I can’t love myself through all my struggles and know that would not be healthy for myself and anyone who might get involved with me.
Thank you for reading and hearing me
Thank you for commenting. It sounds like you have been through so much in your life and haven’t had reliable support to help you through it. It’s devastating when people turn away from us when we need them the most. I wish you all the best and I hope you have good things coming for you.