"MY HUSBAND gets angry," Sarah wrote on HealthCentral. "It makes no sense when I'm in crisis ... I can't help it when I'm crashing or in a panic. He cannot understand ..."
A loved one who doesn't get it - a good many of us have been there. Back in the old days, my response would have been along the lines of a suggested reading list for her husband. Then, perhaps, a dialogue could start.
But my thinking has come a long way since then. I am a patient, but I have also experienced first-hand the frustration of a loved one.
At least half of the queries I get from readers come from loved ones, including family members and sweethearts. Without exception, they are at a loss and their stories are heart-breaking. They are the innocent bystanders of our illness.
I've also had ample opportunity to listen to loved ones at various mental health venues, plus I am forever engaging them (or, rather, they are engaging me) in conversations in coffee shops, on public transport, everywhere. I have also had an opportunity to sit in with a DBSA-run friends and family support group.
Believe me, our loved ones see our illness far differently than we do. We may complain that they don't understand us, but far too many of us fail to recognize the horrible abuse we have put them through.
No question about it, to live with a person with a mental illness is to live in an abusive relationship. Until we own up to this hard cold truth, we will never make peace with ourselves and our loved ones. We will always be stuck in our recovery, perpetual victims, always finding fault in the people who love us, always blaming our outrageous behavior - illness-related or not - on our illness.
I cannot disclose what took place in our friends and families group I attended, but I can mention this much: A father was in tears, at the end of his rope. I felt I needed to jump in, but as a patient. We put you through hell, I said, or words to that effect. But you are the best thing we have going for us. We can't do it without you ...
I noticed the look on his face. I noticed the others in the room were listening intently. No doubt, they had heard this before, but from fellow family members. What made my little homily significant was that this time the words were coming out of the mouth of a patient.
At last, came the thought, someone who understands.
Understanding. Isn't that what we are all looking for?
Back to Sarah: First I acknowledged her concerns, but then I suggested it would be more constructive to view matters from her husband's perspective:
When YOU act up or act out," I wrote, "HE is the one who suffers." Even the most compassionate person in the world can only put up with this for so long.
Loved one's hate the "can't" word, I continued. "You may think you are asking for sympathy and understanding. A loved one interprets this as a complete lack of sympathy and understanding from you."
They need to be hearing that we - the ones living with mental illness - are taking responsibility, even if we are having difficulty managing. Something along the lines of: "I really appreciate this makes life hard on you. It's not easy for me to control my behavior at times, but I'm working on it, and I could really use your help on this."
Now, I advised Sarah, instead of an adversary, you may have an ally. You've owned up to the problem. You've accepted responsibility. You've acknowledged your loved one's feelings. You've given him a reason to hope.
Believe me, this is music to a loved one's ears.
"If your husband is to understand you," I wrote, "first you need him on your side. You need his good will and support. For that to happen, you need to be the initiator, you need to set the good example. If he's smart, he will start to respond positively."
SIGN UP FOR MY FREE EMAIL NEWSLETTER
Coupled with this is the reality that loved ones need to see tangible signs of change. Talking a good game is not enough. If your loved one strongly hints at something, then you need to be acting on it. If this means putting the top back on the toothpaste, then put the top on the toothpaste.
You can also score brownie points by taking your own small initiatives, say by getting out of bed in the morning 10 minutes earlier.
Naturally none of this is easy when you are the one who is ill, but the stakes are enormous. There are no guarantees, but we are talking the difference between a sympathetic loved one who represents by far the best thing going for you and a stranger in your home and in your bed. Believe me, from one who has lived both sides of this equation, the effort is worth it.
As I concluded to Sarah: "Your old approach hasn't worked. Time to try something new."
Reviewed July 15, 2106
Follow me on the road. Check out my New Heart, New Start blog.