My Partner Has A Mental Illness — And So Do I

June 24, 2015  |  


When your partner has a mental illness, it’s important to tune in to their behavior and emotions. At times, they may rely on you to recognize whether they are well or entering an episode. But when your partner has a mental illness and you suffer from one as well, caring for each other and the relationship can put a strain on everyone’s health.

When I met Aaron, we were both in a treatment program for people with mental illness. We had support groups together, and the shared experience helped us form a bond fairly quickly. Aaron and I would talk about our home lives and our experiences during breaks in treatment, but we never discussed our diagnosis. Not only was it not encouraged, but it also seemed pointless to talk about an entry in the DSM-IV when we’d already shared so much in the support group. Right before Aaron left the program, he confessed that he’d like to see me outside of therapy. I wasn’t surprised; I could tell by his body language that he was interested in me, but I was a little concerned about getting involved with another person with a mental illness. Still, I thought, who am I to judge? We’re in the same position, and I can’t discriminate against him anymore than I can against myself. So, I agreed to go out with him.

Once we were no longer in the treatment program, Aaron and I spoke every morning and every evening. His job at a recording studio was at night, and my marketing job was during the day, so we had to adjust our schedules to communicate. After a few days, I noticed that Aaron sounded more agitated than when I’d first met him. He’d started talking a lot about his boss and how he didn’t like working nights, especially because he wanted to take me out on a date. I was flattered that he wanted to see me but concerned with the angry language he used about his job. Clearly, work triggered something in his disease. He started getting down on himself in the weeks that followed.

As Aaron began talking negatively about himself, I found myself trying to help him. I practiced positive self-talk with him. I gave him suggestions on how he could talk to his boss to make the work environment better. I fully understood Aaron’s position because my situation was similar: working a job that triggered my disease while recovering from a bad episode at the same time. Still, I began to feel resentful. Here I was struggling every day to focus and lift my depression and all the while I was focusing on someone else’s recovery. Not that I wasn’t concerned about what was happening to Aaron. I cared about him, but I was caring for his issues more than my own. Plus, he never took my advice.

After a month of talking on the phone, Aaron planned a date for us. He was to pick me up at my house, and we would go to dinner. On the evening of the date, the time of our meeting came and went. I gave him 45 minutes grace — an admittedly long time — before leaving a message asking where he was. There was no response. I called again 45 minutes later, now worried that something had happened. Once again, I received no response. I then took off my date clothes, washed off my makeup and watched a movie with my roommate, slightly worried, a bit disappointed and mostly livid. When my anger subsided, the litany of negative thoughts began in my head: Aaron couldn’t come because I’m not worthy of love.  Why can’t I ever have a successful date? Only another person with a mental illness will ever want to be with me.

The next morning, Aaron called me full of apologies, and with a story involving his mother, his boss and some keys. It didn’t really make sense to me, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. We made new plans for the following weekend and continued our conversation. Aaron still sounded depressed, but he talked about wanting to take me with him on a job he could have traveling through Europe. He told me that he intended to convince me to marry him. I wanted to believe his promises and aspirations, because, hey, I’m worth all of that. Still, Aaron’s statements didn’t sound right to me. I told him to talk to his therapist and take his medication. He told me that he had stopped taking his meds and stopped seeing the therapist because she wanted him to accept his diagnosis, which was something close to schizophrenia with suicidal ideation.

Knowing that Aaron had stopped all treatment for his disease scared me. Could I handle even being friends with someone with a very serious, untreated mental illness? What effect would being around someone who rejects their treatment have on my ability to maintain my own? I talked to Aaron on the phone for a few more weeks as he got increasingly delusional and became suicidal. All I could do was encourage him to get help, but since he refused, there was nothing more I could do but limit my contact with him and focus on my own difficult recovery.

I learned that he entered the hospital a week after our last conversation, and I hope he obtains the help he needs.  I’ve also learned that, at least when I’m in a volatile state myself, I can’t take care of anyone else’s mental illness. It’s like being on an airplane: you always put on your oxygen mask before helping someone else. Right now, one oxygen mask is all I can handle.

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