Loving Those with a Mental Illness: Advice for Friends, Family, and Partners
Once upon a time, Mary was diagnosed with a mental illness. Despite all the medication she took, her myriad hospital visits, and her weekly therapy sessions, Mary was not getting better. At night she would lay in bed staring at the ceiling unable to sleep. Her mind was always racing with discombobulated thoughts. Then, in the mornings, her anxiety would creep up on her while she would get ready for work. As such, during work meetings, Mary’s voice would tremble with fear. Would they know? She would think. When she finally made it home from work, Mary would cook dinner and turn on her favorite Netflix series to distract her from her routine life. Simon, her cat, was her only company. But Simon generally ignored her and slept most of the day. And these monotonous days of work, managing her illness, and Simon’s rejections, made Mary feel lonely, misunderstood, out of place, and unworthy.
Mary was not getting better.
I’ve been Mary. Well, except I didn’t have a cat but a dog named Olive. And little Olive never ignored me. Other than that, this description is scarily accurate.
This is called social isolation. And when living with mental illness, social isolation is dangerous. Mary never got any better because she was missing a vital ingredient in her treatment concoction: a support system of loved ones.
But Mary didn’t feel she count on anyone because a few years after she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, her loved ones sort of vanished into a web of nostalgic memories. Her parents constantly berated her for being unmotivated to push harder in her studies. Every other day they told her she needed to snap out of it and think positive. Then, when she turned to her friends, they suggested yoga and eventually stopped answering her messages. Behind Mary’s back, they would criticize her on being too dramatic and unpredictable. And finally, the person Mary thought she could trust the most, her boyfriend Tom, one day told her he couldn’t handle her Debbie Downer personality anymore. He needed someone more “fun.”
So Mary was left alone – with Simon.
Even though I made up Mary, her story is actually quite common for those inflicted with a mental illness. And that is probably because loving someone with a disorder is hard. Well, loving anyone with a health condition is already difficult enough. But somehow mental illness is just confusing because it is harder to see. So people leave and it is often because they feel incompetent. Someone once told me that they wanted to “save me” by helping me overcome my disorder. In other words, they wanted to fix me. When they realized they could not, they became so frustrated they withdrew and left.
It has always been my firm belief that when there is love, there is way. Maybe I am old school in that sense. That is why I decided to write about this topic. I wanted to share some insights as to how I like to be loved by my friends, family, and partner. So this blog post is for those who feel frustrated in that their efforts are not having the impact they hoped.
Advise for friends
They say that friends are some of the purest relationships because they are chosen not ascribed. But these relationships can also lead to conflict and frustration if we lack the proper tools to understand those we choose to call our friends. So here are some small pieces of advise for those who may have a friend, or two, living with a mental illness, particularly bipolar.
Advise for family
Family dynamics are as complex to me as is defining the word “the” to a non-native English speaker who does not use articles in their native language (yes, this is hard – try it). Everyone’s family is different and dysfunctional in their own way. Regardless of the size and structure of the family, family to me is the following:
A person or persons you love and hate at the same time related to you either by blood or adoption. They are your headache and your fast-acting painkiller at the same time. They are the ones whose 17 phone calls you ignore but when needing to reach them, you curse for not answering your second call in a row. You want them to leave you alone but when they do, you want them to show you they love you with some bit of attention (how dare they!). They are the ones who coldy respond, “Okay, bye” after you tell them “I love you” before hanging up the phone. When you are sick with strep throat, they are the ones who push your “lazy” butt out of bed to go to school but are the ones who make a fuss about you looking a little thinner.
Family is and will always be a paradox of ironies for me. And in mental illness, they can either be our greatest cheerleaders or contributors to the problem. Ultimately, the question I would like to pose for families of people inflicted with a disorder is:
What do you want to be to your loved one - a contributor of wellness or of illness?
If you answered wellness, good there is hope. And if you answered illness, I’m not sure why you are reading this blog post, you sadistic-horrible-human-being.
The thing is that everything is complicated: family, mental illness, recovery, management, etc. Then there is the intersection of culture and religion and morality and work ethic and social values and so on and so forth.
You get my point. This stuff is hard. So when trying to love a troubled mind, we end up doing it wrong even if we have with the best of intentions. And these are some reasons why:
We lack the tools and knowledge to understand what mental illness is
We think that our loved one’s troubles are somewhat a reflection of us
We pay more attention to society’s expectations rather than our loved one’s limitations
We drank the “mind over matter” Kool-Aid that essentially argues that we can control everything with our mind, and it’s all a matter of positive thinking
We are too religious for our own good and leave our wellness and illness up to God
Is this striking a chord? Sorry. Truth hurts. So what can you do as a mother in distress or a sibling who wants to be supportive of your loved one’s recent diagnosis of anxiety, depression, bipolar, etc.? Here is a list of three action verbs you can implement to better love your person:
Thinking it’s your fault (e.g. self-blame and guilt are not constructive)
Pushing us to be someone we cannot be at the moment (e.g. happier, more care-free)
Telling us to think more positive
Reminding us to trust in God, or another spiritual entity
Listening to the criticisms of other people and focus on our relationship
That what you feel and you cope is different than what we feel and how we manage
To be more vigilant because we often don’t wish to your burden and so we will tell you everything is okay when is not
That you too have a life you need to fulfill and that you are not our caretakers
That our behaviors, even if odd, may spring from something greater than ourselves and that we are trying the hardest we can
That we love you and appreciate you even if we don’t always voice it
Educating yourself on our disorder (e.g., read books, articles, listens podcasts, talk to professionals)
Asking us if we would like for you to join us during our therapy sessions
Cheering us for the little we accomplished during the day but also holding accountable for what we managed to slip (
Reminding us, but not harassing us, over our regular management strategies (e.g., attending therapy sessions, taking medication, proper nutritional habits)
Listening before judging
We don’t want to make our illness the excuse for our limitations. All we ask from you is for empathy and kindness when our limitations feel greater than normal.
Advice for partners
And finally the best for last – relationship advice, the bipolar edition. I once read a New York Times Modern Love column titled Out of the Darkness by Mark Lukach that changed my perspective on what a relationship enduring this illness should be about. I won’t reiterate the whole column (you can read/listen to it here) but I’ll just say this: we all want a Mark in our lives.
Essentially, in his column Mark shares that his wife Giulia was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a sudden outburst of episodic depressions. During the period before and after her diagnosis, Mark writes that his wife’s depressions looked like she was stuck between the static of two channels for months at a time. Her existentialism reached conversations on death all of which Mark patiently and bravely listened to without judgment. At the patient and understanding care of her husband, Giulia managed to overcome some of her most difficult episodes with dignity.
So … what does this mean for the rest of us? There is hope. We can have healthy and thriving relationships despite our illness. But like any other relationship, they take work, stability, and empathy. The difference is, loving someone with a mental illness takes just slightly more of these adjectives. So using these adjectives I want to share some insights into how I better receive love by my partner.
A relationship takes WORK.
Dating is fun and games. A committed relationship is also fun and games, with the added work to sustain it. Thus, everyday you need to wake up committing to the relationship and to the work it will take to make it through one more day. So if you are not willing to wake up with this mentality on the daily basis, reconsider your reasons for a partnership. But if you are, good, you can keep reading.
I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of relationship advice since this post is about love in the times of mental illness. So the of kind of work a relationship blessed with a disorder requires can look something like this:
the act of educating oneself in the topic of our partner’s specific diagnosis
Reading how-to books
Reading first-hand accounts of the disorder
Perusing through psychology articles
Reading blogs like … this one
Asking others to share their insights
Attending events (e.g., conferences, seminars, workshops)
the act of actively supporting and/or involving yourself with your partner’s treatment regiment
Attending support groups for spouses/partners
Attending therapy with your spouse on the regular basis
Adopting healthy eating habits along with your partner
Establishing an exercise routine to encourage your partner to stay active
Helping your partner stay on top of their medication plan
Checking in on the regular basis to monitor mood changes and identify triggers
A relationship takes STABILITY.
All relationships need stability and security to grow. But we need a little bit more of it. Since our disorder (specifically bipolar) manifests in much personal and internal instability, we need to have an external environment we feel we can count on. The sun won’t turn purple tomorrow and the rain won’t all of sudden start to burn our skin. The same principle applies with our relationship. We can’t be with a person who one day is committed to us and the next is ready to pack their bags and leave. One day they show affection and the next they are cold. We cannot be with someone who week after week promises they’ll join us at a support group but last minute they decide it’s too far for them to drive to.
So what kind of stability do we need from you?
Knowing we can count on you to pick up the slack when we are unable to
Knowing that you will love us in all of our moods and that our depressions won’t turn you off
Planning for the six months, a year, or five years together
Having the confidence to share our vulnerabilities with you without the fear of scaring you
Knowing that you don’t see us as a burden but as an equal partner
A relationship takes EMPATHY.
There’s a saying I heard somewhere that conveys that women don’t need to be understood, we just need to be loved. Yeah, I don’t know that’s true for me. Part of the human dynamic is to create connections around matters we can relate to. Connecting with someone is to understand them because in a way you have gone through a similar experience. However, how can someone not afflicted with an illness understand? That is hard to do. So we have to employ the good ol’ practice of empathy.
It is common for people to confuse empathy with sympathy. And for the purposes of this section, I think it’s important to define them both so that you can see why empathy in matters of mental health is necessary.
It’s easy to sympathize. It’s harder to empathize. That is why it’s essential that a partner not afflicted with a disorder keep this difference in mind. The moment we start judging others based on how we overcome challenges we lose.
Remember, your experience does not equate mine and mine does not reflect yours.
It’s as simple as that.
Tune in to OWN IT’s next episode, Individual Therapy or Support Groups: Choosing the Right Fit.
Follow me on Instagram @jackie_loweree for updates, links to the blog, inspirational quotes, pretty pictures, and more.
The Ins and Outs of OWN IT: A Blog on How to Show Bipolar Who's the Boss
A blog for people with mental illness written by an unstable, unpredictable, and uninhibited woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder
Covers all topics including relationships, coping mechanisms, entertainment, and everyday resources
News and updates available on Instagram @jackie_loweree, and if you don't have an Instagram, no problem, just check my site - all posts will be here
Disclaimer: OWN IT is a first-hand account of bipolar disorder designed to orient those diagnosed with mental illness. It by no means intends to offer medical advice. If you are diagnosed with an illness, or think you may suffer from one, please seek professional help. Otherwise, take my words lightly and have fun reading!