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3 Things to Know When Supporting a Partner With Mental Illness

Editor's Note

This story has been published with permission from the author’s partner.

The ornament.

In the midst of frantically packing boxes, it seemed to happen in slow motion. It was just a Christmas tree ornament, but it was special to him. The look on his face when it shattered was one of sadness and acceptance, mourning and understanding. He knew it was not significant in the big scheme of things, but he had had it for so long that it had become a special part of his Christmas routine. She got a broom and dustpan and while he thought she was going to throw it away, she instead gently placed the pieces into a box. Somehow, she was going to put the broken pieces back together.

For the next few months, she worked on it. Matching up the slivers of glass until slowly the ornament began to resemble its original shape.  Each edge that was glued together left a small crack, like a scar. And as each piece came together, she started to realize this was not unlike what he had done for her three years before. But instead of an ornament, the broken pieces he had put together were the shattered pieces of her life.

The gift.

When she presented the restored ornament to me, she wrote these words which accompanied the gift:

“I was broken into a million pieces. Anyone else would have called me a lost cause and tossed me away. But you picked up all my little pieces, and promised to help me spend my life putting them back together.”

So often, relationships haven’t lasted in my world, and I have felt the pain of being tossed aside and known the feeling of being worthless. However, as fairy tale as it may sound, things were different when I met the woman whose broken pieces would become my lifelong passion.

My partner struggles with severe depression and anxiety.  She has spent her life fighting to live with her conditions, trying every combination of medication possible, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, mindfulness — everything. Always trying to put together her broken pieces.

Three things to understand when supporting your partner.

As a partner, there will come a time when you have to accept this person may never do things like hold a steady job, or they may have fears about things that seem so little to you, yet are near debilitating to them. You don’t understand it. You cannot relate to it. You wish you could change it (or worse, you think you can change it). And when you are brutally honest with yourself, you start to think there is no way you can keep up your end of the relationship bargain for the rest of your life.

Here are three things that helped me realize I could hold up my end, and why it was so worth it.

1. Realize your partner is sick.

When I met my partner, our relationship was platonic and my mission was to help her find a way to become happy and independent. We began establishing a level of trust that allowed me to challenge her — to push her boundaries and break through them one at a time. One of the largest challenges was employment. I had seen her do things only a “strong and healthy” person could do, so I was certain she could do anything, despite knowing she lived with fibromyalgia as well. My intention was to get her back on her feet, as a friend, and help her establish independence after an abusive relationship had taken all aspects of independence from her.

Even when our relationship became more than platonic, I wanted her to have the freedom to leave at any time — never to feel trapped or dependent. I kept challenging her to keep looking, keep an open mind and that something would turn up.

Then one day… I finally understood.

She worried herself sick about finding a job. She was drowning in the guilt of not contributing financially, and the anxiety she was feeling was eating her alive.

My eyes were opened. She was not “lazy,” she was not “taking advantage of me,” she was not a hypochondriac. She was sick.

She wanted more than anything to one day tell me she’d found a job, but the reality was her physical illness meant she was not compatible with traditional employment. The stress of searching, applying, wondering and worrying was making her sicker, not better.

If your partner woke up one day and had a 102-degree fever and couldn’t find the strength to get out of bed, you would realize she was sick. However, when an illness is not so visible, it is easy to forget or fail to recognize it is an illness at all. But when you do recognize the situation for what it is, it is impossible not to have the same compassion. In my case, the compassion was so overwhelming I just wanted to make it my life’s mission to care for her needs in ways that are as real as those you would use to care for visible illnesses.

Build the trust necessary to know when you can challenge them to get past their barriers, but be understanding when those barriers seem impervious to your efforts — they are ill, but they are trying.

Try to treat those illnesses you don’t understand the same as you would with illnesses where empathy is easier to find. Then, protect them from the world with which they simply are not compatible, and find joy in knowing they feel safe in the bubble you are providing.

2. Support your partner in the things that bring them joy.

My partner told me many times her happiest “job” was to care for and make life better for me. I resisted this because I didn’t want to feel like I was not contributing to things like household chores. I didn’t want her to feel used. She is in an endless pursuit to make things in my life more organized, and delights in bringing me snacks and meals while I work in my home office. So, finally, I let go and watched with awe how happy she was to do things, both large and small, that she felt would make me feel more comfortable, organized and cared for. I saw how her health, physical and mental, was made better by expending what energy she had in the way that brought her joy.

And then there is the joy she finds in writing for The Mighty. It may sound cliché, but if only one person is able to see one of her articles at a moment in life they think they cannot go on, and finds comfort and encouragement in those words, that one life is enough to make all of her writing worth it. She is filled with humility and pure joy when she receives feedback from a reader that they found solace in an article she wrote. It brings me tremendous happiness to be able to provide an environment where she can spend her time doing something she loves, something that makes her feel valuable.

There is the joy she finds in our new home. Six months ago, we purchased a new home. Every morning, she is awake before me, busying herself with refilling the many bird feeders she has built with her own hands, or sitting quietly on the patio listening to her new “friends” making happy sounds in the trees around her. We spend hours in our “shop” (AKA, garage) dreaming up new things to build — and the quality time together is better than any reward a traditional job might bring.

So, when you see something that brings joy to their life, embrace it, support it, invest in it.

You never know what it may bring to your relationship (like time spent building with wood), or even to the world (like an article that brings comfort and understanding to someone in a dark place).

3. Embrace the differences.

The life I am building with my partner is far from “typical.” We both find having space of our own is a healthy way to “recharge our batteries.” So, we have separate bedrooms. Sometimes, we stay up all night doing things like learning French together, playing virtual reality (VR) games, playing the guitar, reading the Bible, building birdhouses, repairing something in our home, cooking, watching movies. Not a traditional way to spend the hours between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., but a wonderful bonding time for us.

Embracing the uniqueness in your relationship can strengthen the bonds you have and bring a special kind of happiness to your lives.

You can choose to be upset about all of the things you cannot do because of your “differences,” or you can embrace those differences and explore all of the unorthodox ways you can build a life that is unique, full of joy and unconditionally supportive of each other.

Build something beautiful with the pieces.

We are all broken in some way. Together, you can make it your mission to help pick up each other’s pieces. Invest in the process of rebuilding each other, rather than tearing each other down. Embrace the differences, not only between each other, but also the ones that make your lives different from everyone else’s.

No one is a lost cause, and no one deserves to be tossed away. 

In building a unique and different life together, enjoy the discoveries that bring you together in ways you may have never imagined.

Original photo by author

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