Loving While Living With Mental Illness
Over lunch the other day, a friend and I were comparing concerns. We live with similar co-occurring mental health issues—general anxiety, bipolar disorder, and ADHD, most notably—and find solace in laughing freely about the ridiculous trappings of it all.
“A lot of times,” he said, “I can’t tell what’s being bipolar and what’s just…like, low blood sugar.”
Oof. I feel that. Or, I guess, it’s more accurate to say that I don’t know how it feels to not feel that.
My partner of (nearly, he reminded me last week) five years likens a relationship to “a hall of mirrors,” referring to the way that they reflect on us as much as our partners, magnifying us and creating confusion about where each individual begins and ends.
But when you’re also a person who is, we say politely, non-neurotypical, it’s easy to become fixated on your own reflection, trying to determine what’s you and what’s your disorder or ailment. Like Narcissus, we may even fall in—not out of self-love, but out of self-loathing, or a deep, powerful desire to parse our “real” selves from the parts of our brain that don’t quite work right.
All relationships are difficult, because human beings are difficult and we’re pretty terrible at talking to each other or expressing our needs or seeing our loved ones with any degree of objectivity. When you love someone who lives with mental illness, though—or, conversely, when you are a person with mental illness who is trying to love and be loved—there’s a kind of third party involved. An impish little liar who dances around and flicks matches and sings “you’re crazy, you’re crazy, you’re crazy.”
A Spy in the House of Me
Living with mental illness is like having the worst roommate of all time. Their timing is always awful—barging in when you least expect it, staying entirely too long—and they make it hard to get much done.
And because for most of us, there is no halcyon time to remember when we were normal (or whatever), there’s nothing to compare it to. I don’t know what it’s like to just be tired and associate it with going to bed late. I don’t know how it feels to be upset about a single incident and then not upset once it’s resolved. I don’t know what it’s like to be worried about a specific bad outcome and then relieved after the danger is passed.
And a lot of days, honestly, I suspect that nobody does. But the idea that someone might is the thing that keeps me in a state of perpetual mood management.
Am I sad because I just read an extremely upsetting article about inequality in my city, or am I extra sad because it’s also One Of Those Months When I’m Always A Little Sad? Am I angry because I slammed my finger in the drawer, or am I extra angry about it because I forgot to take my meds today and now my fuse is extremely short?
How would a normal person feel about this? Am I reacting like a normal person would? Am I striving to be my most normal today?
“I am a spy in the house of me. I report back from the front lines of the battle that is me. I am somewhat nonplused by the event that is my life.” —Carrie Fisher.
In relationships, this constant questioning is particularly exhausting, because it is based almost entirely in conjecture. Rarely do our family members or romantic partners—even super, super close ones—have a clear picture of the tempest inside. Which means the questions are both asked and answered in a one-sided laboratory.
Am I being fair to my partner by being upset about this thing? Would a normal person be upset by this? Would a normal person be more upset by this?
Neurologically, research has found that people living with various mental health issues—like bipolar, for example—may have a harder time reading the emotions of others. Dr. Kelly Ryan, a PhD at the University of Michigan’s Prechter Longitudinal Study of Bipolar Disorder explained in a blog post that this problem with “accurately recognizing or accurately perceiving others’ emotions,” can lead to “misinterpretations of situations and interactions and regulating positive emotion, as measured by performance tests and neuroimaging.”
When you can’t trust your own brain, it’s easy to seek things which give you a more concrete source for the confusion. Something that makes everybody feel better, or makes everybody feel a little more loose. And so, people who already live with mental illness are more likely to become dependent on substances—another wedge that makes loving, supportive, healthy relationships hard.
This also makes people with mental illnesses easy marks for those who prey upon folks who don’t feel stable. Despite widespread panic over the supposition that mental health is the main driver of gun violence (and not, say, a violent culture or violent masculinity), a non-neurotypical person is not statistically likely to hurt you. They are, however, extremely like to be hurt, especially in an intimate partner relationship—which can lead to further mental illness, or further symptoms of mental illness.
The Florida Coalition on Domestic Violence explains that “domestic violence can cause an adverse ripple effect on the emotional and psychological state of a survivor,” increasing and exacerbating depression, PTSD, or other ailments. And, they note, “over 50% of women who live with a mental illness have previously experienced some sort of trauma such as physical or sexual abuse (either during childhood or adulthood).”
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Which means if you love someone who is a survivor of previous violence or abuse—and odds are, you do—there is an additional level of internal struggle that they’re trying to manage. All day. Every day.
And for that, we ask you to be patient.
The Gaslighting is Coming From Inside the House
We talk a lot, in spaces of mental wellbeing, healthy relationships, and intersectionalism about gaslighting—an abusive tactic used to create doubt. When a partner or friend gaslights someone, they make them feel crazy, like their emotions or memories are untrue or somehow skewed.
Living with a mental illness, though, often means doing the gaslighting yourself. To yourself.
No human being is so saintly, so patient that a relationship with a person with mental illness is never exhausting, never infuriating. I imagine it’s hard for the partner of a person with a brain like mine to, when they’ve really reached the tipping point, to throw their hands up and say “you’re insane” and storm out.
I imagine this because I say it to myself on the regular.
Unfortunately, we live in a time and a society where healthy relationship patterns are not a part of the regular public school curriculum, and where the trapping of rape culture are as pervasive as the messages that crazy people are all unable to be cured and are doomed to walk the earth with wild hair and wide eyes, making claw hands at the Normals, so alone and scary. We teach kids—especially boys, but not only boys—that there are an acceptable range of emotions, and that anyone who deviates from them is incorrect. Girls are “hysterical,” men are allowed to be angry and nothing else.
But relationships need more nuance and texture than that—particularly when one partner is experiencing a wider range of emotions or realities on a given day.
Which is to say: I already know I’m crazy. I already don’t know when it’s causing me to do the things that drive you up the wall. I already can’t tell what’s normal. I’m already terrified that I’m making you upset without noticing. Thank you for not pointing it out to me. Or, if you do, for pointing it out in a loving way.
One time I was talking to my partner about something related to food or eating (or not eating) and I thought I was being relatively healthy. He, though, who is keenly aware of me and my suite of issues, turned to me and said “I feel like that scene in Ghostbusters. Hey, Eating Disorder, can I talk to Hanna now?”
It was a very gentle way to note that I was getting into dangerous territory and I appreciated that he a.) knew what to look for, and b.) could bring it up in a way that wasn’t accusatory.
Perhaps one of the most loving things you can do for your non-neurotypical is know them well enough to help them be the spy in their house, so to speak. Ask them what it feels like, what it looks like, what to look for.
And if you’re the non-neurotypical in the relationship, help your partner love you by telling them. Let your partner, your family, your friends take over the watch every now and then. If they love you, they’ll gladly do it—because, I’m told, one of the worst parts about loving someone who lives with mental illness, is the helplessness of it all.
In spite of all of this difficulty, non-neurotypical folks crave and even need relationships. Research has shown that while lasting, healthy relationships are often made more difficult by illnesses like bipolar, they are also exceedingly important for those who live with them. Committed, loving relationships and supportive friendships are demonstrably good for a person’s mental health—which makes it all the more critical that both parties are willing to deal with the hard parts.
Sometimes it’s the disorder. Sometimes it’s an outside stimulus. Sometimes it’s just you, personally. And sometimes you need a KIND bar.