A few weeks ago I read a really interesting blog post, How to love someone with a mental illness. It’s well worth popping over to have a read. But falling out of my mouth, at the time I shared it on Facebook, was “love them the same way you would love someone who didn’t have a mental illness“. Isn’t it obvious? Well, maybe not.
First let me be clear that I’m not at all critical of the post. I wouldn’t be recommending you read it if I was. Actually I think she describes very well some of the difficulties of loving someone with a mental illness. I guess though what concerns me is why is loving us any different?
The writer says of her husband something that my ex-husband experienced too:
“He has watched the women he fell in love with, the happy, go lucky, larger than life lover drop into a deep depressive
hole with no escape.”
Many of us have been that person who fell into the deep hole of mental illness, but many of us too, have been the one to watch helpless as the person we love and thought we knew, almost disappear before our eyes. The person we knew appears to have vanished, and we are left wondering just what is real, what can we do to help this, and will we get the person we knew back?
Maybe I’ve been fortunate to have been on both sides of the fence. It at least gives me some perspective on what is happening, although for each person the experience of mental illness is different, so just because I have been through depression doesn’t mean I will completely understand someone else’s depression.
I can vividly remember when I was depressed, fighting for my life, and was still in my marriage; I would regularly be told by ‘well meaning’ (don’t you love that term?) people how lucky I was to have my husband. They told me that he was so good to me and it was so great that he had stood by me. I knew I was probably meant to be grateful but it actually just left me feeling angry and belittled. What I heard them saying was that I was too much, and that I didn’t deserve the love my husband had for me.
Actually it just gave me more ammunition to hate myself (and my husband). Had I simply become his social project? Was he simply ‘doing good’, even his duty ,by sticking with poor Cate? I’m quite sure that’s not what the people were saying, but mental illness has an incredible way of distorting everything and so that is what I heard. I used it as a way to hurt myself, and my husband.
Mental illness does make the relationship road a very bumpy and potentially heartbreaking one, particularly when it is a life-long issue. But so do other difficulties in life.
We don’t have the exclusive rights to ‘difficult’.
Other people, with other challenges, can also be ‘difficult’ and can make relationships hard work.
Try loving someone:
♦ with a chronic physical illness. Throw in on top that it is a so-called ‘invisible illness’ and it is difficult for anyone. It’s not just the physical symptoms that feature but the emotions surrounding the symptoms, and the lack of hope for recovery.
♦ at the same time as trying to love and care for a disabled child, or an ageing parent.
♦ who works 90 hours a week and just isn’t there. Maybe they travel for work regularly too, so they’re not even there at the end of the day.
♦ who has a high-profile, public life. Yes, they probably get paid better for it than you will ever be paid for having a mental illness, but money doesn’t make love any easier.
There are endless scenarios, and I’m not at all taking away the pain of mental illness but at the end of the day, it surely comes down to this. We are all humans in need of the same thing. Love.
Maybe I’m being simplistic, and I certainly am no expert on love. I’m more an expert on avoiding love, but now I find myself constantly challenged to think repeatedly about what love means to me. When I say ‘I love you’, what do I mean by that? Am I prepared to love the mental illness too? Am I prepared to love all the challenges (other than mental illness) that this human being puts it front of me?
‘For better or for worse’ or ‘in sickness and in health’ (both in, and outside of marriage) is easy to say but not so easy to do, especially when the person we love is doing un-loveable things and maybe hurting us.
A while ago I wrote about my view of What Love Isn’t; about the difference between what I had been taught about love when I was growing up, and what I found love was not to be. It was quite a difference, and I guess that’s why I have been an expert in the past at avoiding love.
I don’t want to dare to attempt to define love, because what I am sure about is that it is different for each one of us, dependent on so many factors. But I do find myself always coming back to what I learnt as a child, while I continue to develop my own definition.
I have to get past thinking that it is just a nice passage from the Bible that I learnt as a child, and it’s just words. For me, I have to break each part down into what that means in loving the person I do. I have to make a conscious choice to do each part. I don’t pretend that it’s easy to do, but it’s what I’m working on right now. And actually, it helps me understand and know exactly what I mean when I say ‘I love you’.
What occurs to me though, is that if I take this definition and use it as a guide to how I love someone, I also have to use it in how I love myself. Regardless of the situation, I deserve the same love from myself as I offer to someone else. I have my own needs and in honouring myself, I have to try to make sure my needs are met. That’s not always easy when the other person is consumed by mental illness, or any other ongoing challenge. I don’t have the easy answer but I know I have to take care of myself. It’s a ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’ scenario. If I don’t ensure I am getting adequate oxygen there is no way I can ensure the person I love gets the necesssary oxygen too.
Loving someone with a mental illness is not easy, but then loving anyone is not easy. It is even more difficult when we have our own issues and needs, which can’t always be met. But again, that can be the case in relationships regardless of the presence of mental illness. So how do I love a person with a mental illness? Exactly the same way as I would love any other human.
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
– Lao Tzu
“Those who love you are not fooled by mistakes you have made or dark images you hold about yourself. They remember your beauty when you feel ugly…your wholeness when you are broken…your innocence when you feel guilty…and your purpose when you are confused.”
– African saying
- What Love Isn’t (infinitesadnessorwhat.wordpress.com)
- How to love someone with a mental illness (therealsupermumblog.com)
- 5 Tips If You Love Someone With Mental Illness (psychcentral.com)
- How to Love Someone Who Is Bipolar (livestrong.com)