Relationship Tips If You Have a Mental Illness
Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
I’ve been with my partner for four years. Before that, I’d pretty much decided that I was a woman, I was enough on my own and that was that. Then I met J. (I’ll at least give him some anonymity), and those plans were revised. Here are some things I’ve done over the years to get me and my partner through the rough patches that come with having a mental illness.
1. Have “The Talk.”
Each and every person I’ve been in an intimate relationship with has had The Talk with me. This is an extraordinarily difficult and awkward conversation in which I tell the lucky guy that yes, I do in fact have a chronic mental illness, and despite outward appearances I do in fact get all kinds of “hot mess crazy” sometimes. And yes, you — as the lucky guy — will have to deal with that too, if you want to be with me. The Talk never gets easier, and it sucks. But I think that it’s the only fair thing to do, and the more interested I am, the quicker I’ll have The Talk. If the lucky guy is going to run (which has happened), I’ve found that running when I’m slightly less invested is easier for everyone — especially if my bipolar disorder is the reason he’s running. And if that is the reason somebody runs from you, you have my full permission to hate that person for a while.
2(a). Make it clear that you’re having an episode.
If you’ve been alone during your episodes until now, this will be a big adjustment, but it’s worth it. Your partner needs to know you’re having an episode, and not just randomly angry or sad or energetic. I can be all of those things, but if any or all of them is bipolar-related, I try to make that clear. It’s a matter of literally saying, “Hey, I’m having some crazy happen right now. As in bipolar, medication-inducing, chemical imbalance kind of crazy.” J. has told me that this is enormously helpful, because then he knows that the reason I’m sobbing into my pillow and haven’t showered in three days really isn’t because of him – it’s because I’m bipolar and in a bad place. When you’re just starting a relationship, this is particularly important, since the your partner isn’t a fortune teller and can’t read your mind.
2(b). Make it clear what you need during an episode.
This is a much harder one, and I’m still working on it. Most of the time, my episodes are depression-related and not manic. And it’s all I can do to say that I’m having one. But if I need my partner to go away and leave me alone so I can be dirty and snotty and tearful in peace, it’s helpful to tell him that. It’s also a good thing to reassure your partner you’ll be back once you’ve mopped yourself up off the floor and become reacquainted with soap. If you’re living together, let him know if you need him to do the dishes because you can’t handle living right now, much less the dishwasher. This may or may not go over well, but getting that info out into the open is really important. On the opposite side, if you need him/her to stay, tell him. (That one actually applies to any and everyone who supports you in your illness. Tell that person to stay. It’s really OK to do. I promise.)
3. Make a worst case plan of action.
This is one to do when you feel stable. It’s a worst case scenario plan, and it’s specific to you. For me, worst case is that I have to go back into inpatient treatment. My partner and I had a serious conversation about where I’d like to go, and how that would work for him. He’s never had to do it before, but I have — so I told him everything I could remember and gave him some idea of when doing this would be necessary (aka, if I want to harm myself or others). That way, if I’m in crisis, I don’t have to explain what needs to happen — we can refer to the plan. I’ve actually had an ex drive me to the psychiatric hospital before, and it was hella scary to do without any kind of plan.
4. If you can’t get better for yourself, do it for your loved ones.
When I’m depressed, I don’t care if I get better. Getting better is rarely something I do because I value myself and I want to care for myself. I realize this is not what you hear in therapy, so just consider this as me slapping some reality down and take it or leave it as you will. When I’m depressed, I tell myself that my family (including my partner and my cats) would be devastated to lose me. (Maybe not the cats. But I digress.) And therefore, I have to get better. Because even if hurting myself sounds good to me, it would never sound good to them. So I take the pill, or I go to the therapy appointment, or I get out of bed. Because people love me, and they want me around. And that is absolutely the only thing that gets me through sometimes. Once I’m feeling a little better, I’ll do it for me. But in those bad, bad times, I do it for them. It’s a helpful service they have no idea they provide.
The big concept I’d like to leave you with is communication. Don’t hide your illness from your partner. It’s not worth it. You are worthy of a relationship, even if you have a mental illness. Even if you’re a terrible putt-putt golfer. Even if you can’t remember to put your clothes in a hamper and not on the floor. Whatever – you are worth it, and you can make it work. I hope these steps help you, and I completely understand about the clothes. If you’ll excuse me, I should probably go load the dishwasher.
If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
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