As I have learned more about my own mental illness and sat in group meetings with others dealing with mental illness, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the statistics for those of us with this burden. Regardless of what statistic you’re viewing–divorce rate, ability to hold down a job, mortality, etc.–it’s pretty depressing. I feel very blessed that, so far, I’ve been able to beat those odds. I credit a huge part of that to the amazing support I’ve received from loving friends, family, and my persistent and patient husband. But, so many others are not so fortunate. Trust me, I can see why it would be so hard to live with someone battling these types of demons. However, I also know that most of us have a lot of love and good to offer as well. So, if you have someone like me in your life, here is some advice I’d like to offer in how you can best love them, help them, and how to stay close–even when things get frustrating. While this advice is probably most beneficial for significant others, it is also quite helpful for friends and family.
1. It Isn’t Fair
The sooner you can lose the idea of “fairness”, the better the rest of this will go. You’ve probably heard it before, “Life isn’t fair.” But for those affected by mental illness, this is even more true. This isn’t a 50/50 relationship. You can’t keep score. You won’t always get what you want. Even if we want you to have it as much as you do. It may require more energy, more happiness, or just more stability than we are capable of offering.
Just remember, it isn’t fair for us either. We are at least as frustrated as you that we are plagued by irrational thoughts, upset over seemingly small things, angry, depressed, confused, and otherwise afflicted.
2. No fighting allowed
One of the biggest things that isn’t fair is when it comes to fighting. Your love for us must supersede your desire to express negative or angry thoughts. This isn’t like “normal” people who can have a fight and then kiss and make up. While we may be capable of that during stable times, at other times a fight can result in drastic reactions from us, including a trip to the hospital or worse. This is a greater burden than anyone should have to carry. I acknowledge that completely. But it’s there, anyway.
3. What you say sticks with us
When you say something negative, whether in anger or in an effort to help us see things from your side, it sticks with us. It just circles around inside our minds over and over until we either believe it’s true or hate you for saying it. Or both. I often tell my husband that I know he is entitled to his feelings and he has a right to say them. But, if he chooses to express them to me, I will most likely hold on to them forever. I will probably interpret them to the far extreme of their meaning, beyond what he intended me to hear. But for me, words often speak louder than actions. It’s part of that irrational thinking. You can spend 98% of your time doing acts of love and kindness for me, but if you spend the other 2% telling me that you’re unhappy or disappointed in me in any way—that is the only message I will believe.
4. Your faith in us can make all the difference
When you tell us we can beat this (in a supportive, understanding way—not along the lines of “just get over it!” or “snap out of this!”), it makes our load easier to bear. We often don’t believe in ourselves, so your faith may be the only thing carrying us through those dark times. If you can continue to hope when things seem hopeless to us it gives us something to trust in to keep on trying.
5. We need consistent reminders that you love us
We don’t feel very lovable much of the time, so it is easy to convince ourselves that you no longer do. Tell us in as many ways possible. If it’s verbal, be specific. Tell us you love our smile, the way we make you feel (on a good day), and especially let us know any and all goodness we bring to your life. Show us by bringing home flowers or chocolate or our favorite movie. Do the dishes, take out the trash, or unclog the sink that won’t drain. Spend an evening doing the things we like to do, but be patient and understanding if we don’t feel up to it every time you offer. Remember that reaching out to hold a hand, or offer a kiss, or a hug can make all the difference.
6. See us, not the illness
It’s really hard when you treat us like we are only our illness. There is a person underneath the symptoms. It’s painful for us to not be able to be that person all the time, or sometimes ever. But when you treat us like we are that person, it feels easier to get back to that. My husband fell in love with a happy, outgoing, flirtatious woman. When he treats me like that girl—instead of a downhearted, fragile, miserable lady—it is so much easier for me to remember that is who I really am and to find the motivation to keep trying to be that person.
7. Often we live much of our lives in fear
We are afraid of what might happen if we get out of bed and the day brings more than we can handle. We are afraid that someday you will get sick of the drama and walk out on us. We are afraid that we are the worst thing in your life. We are afraid that this mess will consume us and eventually there will be nothing left of that person underneath.
This fear can make it really hard to function in a “normal” life. It can make it difficult to make even the simplest of decisions. We don’t always know what to say to you in times of conflict or stress. We are afraid that being honest with you will bring down shame and judgment. Or that you won’t understand. Or that you will be disappointed.
This fear can make it difficult for us to trust you. Not just one time, but over and over. So, if you’re feeling frustrated because we seem closed off, or shut down, try to remember that we quite possibly are just afraid. Frustration from you will only perpetuate the problem. However, reassurance from you can calm our fears and help rebuild our courage. I can tell you from personal experience, this is just as frustrating for us as it is for you.
8. Good days aren’t just luck
Those good times don’t just happen. They aren’t a result of life suddenly being easy. They are a hard fought win. We work hard to achieve stability and happiness. Be proud of us on the days we succeed. Don’t take our effort for granted or downplay what an awesome achievement that is. And enjoy those times with us!
9. It isn’t a “relapse”; it’s a “flare-up”
When we obtain stability for a period of time, it can be easy to get comfortable and to think that we’ve finally found a “cure” and we’re “fixed”. So, when the next crash or crisis hits, it can be as frustrating and devastating to our loved ones as it is for us. So often this crash is viewed as a sort of “falling off the wagon”. Like we had something figured out and then we just gave up trying to be happy and decided to embrace the madness or the darkness again.
Instead of viewing this a regression, see it as a relapse. Certain illnesses, like MS, have phases. There may be a period of relative wellness, followed by a flare-up, or a worsening of symptoms. That is how it is for mental illness. These phases vary in length from a day or two to even years at a time. But don’t assume that we are giving in to feeling awful or irrational. Recognize that it is all part of the cycle and we don’t like the flare-ups any more than you do.
10. We are strong
There are a lot of negative connotations with mental illness. That is because people often look at it from the wrong side. When you keep that underlying person in mind, you can view it from a different angle. You can see that instead of being weak people, prone to giving in to dark thoughts and feelings, to confusion, or irrational behaviors; we are actually strong people who keep trying—even when it feels like all the odds (and sometimes the entire world, too) are against us. We wake up in the morning even when just the small act of breathing is almost too much to bear. We get out of bed even though every single day is a battle. We keep fighting even when it doesn’t seem like there is anything to gain by winning, and it seems like we will never win anyway. Just because you cannot see or understand the foe we battle, it is no less real or significant than any other health challenge in life.
And even though I’ve told you can’t fight against us, you can fight with us and for us. When you truly love us and support us, you can battle our demons with us. You can add to our strength, especially when ours is running low.
This post first appeared on Real Imprints.