when you love someone with mental illness.

Hi there.

Perhaps you’re here because you love someone who struggles with depression, or anxiety, or who is bipolar or has struggles with food, or compulsions that drive a lot of their day. Or maybe you identify as someone who struggles; either way, welcome here.

I’ve been listening to a song on repeat lately [Appointments by Julien Baker], and although I’m not sure if it’s about mental illness – it’s what I hear in it. Call it therapist bias. Either way, art is subjective – so even if I’m off base, I’m okay with that.

Here’s the first verse:

I’m staying in tonight
I won’t stop you from leaving
I know that I’m not what you wanted, am I?
Wanted someone who I used to be like
Now you think I’m not trying
I don’t argue, it’s not worth the effort to lie
You don’t want to bring it up
And I already know how it looks
You don’t have to remind me so much
How I disappoint you
Suggest that I talk to somebody again
Who knows how to help me get better
Until then I should just try not to miss anymore

As I played it probably 17 times in a row [not even joking, this is a quality of mine that drives my family members slightly nuts], my heart ached as I replayed conversations with clients over and over. Conversations that sounded a lot like this song. I thought of the teenagers sent to me by parents who, with crossed fingers, hoped that therapy will make their kid ‘normal’. I think of the folks sent by spouses to get help [which really is often code for ‘please make my loved one into the person they used to be’.] I think of the pain held by clients who feel desperately burdensome, and fear that their people won’t be able to endure the work of being in their corner much longer.

I think of the pressure and shame and pain and heartache that people struggling with mental illness carry when loved ones implore them to get better. To be better. To get over it. To get back to ‘normal’.

Sometimes, it seems like connection and presence and even love are linked to getting better. To being well. To not struggling. To getting over their mental illness.

This is so hard.

Loved ones. I can assure you that your person who struggles would absolutely love to be over this. To feel like the person they once were again. To not wake up every day panicky or afraid or wanting to die. They are not trying to make your life difficult. But they are keenly aware that they are. And this adds to the work of living every day.

Here’s the thing though.

The person you love who struggles may get better. Or they may not. But what I do know is that they do not have to get better for you. So that you can be comfortable. So that your own anxiety can calm down. So you don’t have to worry or get emergency phone calls or wonder if they are alive.

I get that these are all things that would be amazing. And I would love them for you. And I know without a shadow of a doubt your mentally ill loved one would love these things too. And for themselves. They would love to stop feeling like shit and like a burden and hating themselves, or the feeling of being in their bodies, and pain of being in their lives. They would love to feel something other than panic or pain, or frozen, or rage, but in spite of their efforts – they can’t. And sometimes they can’t even put in the effort, because there is simply no energy. Or maybe the thought of being better is too terrifying and they can’t move.

But whatever the reality is, hear this. Your loved one needs to know that you love them even if they don’t get better. Even if they wrestle and struggle for the next decade or more with their illness.

Maybe it’s hard to feel love for your loved one. This is understandable. There’s a lot of chaos and uncertainty and work that can come with caring about people who struggle with mental illness. You might feel angry. Your own insecurities may get triggered. Your needs in relationship may not get met. You may get weary. Yes. Yes to all of it.

But please know that if their illness stresses you out, they are ultimately not responsible for fixing your stress. They are probably pretty invested in keeping themselves alive and functioning, and caring for your discomfort and inconvenience is simply just added work. And truly, your discomfort and stress and inconvenience is really your work.

Caregivers. If you are struggling to find love and compassion for your people who struggle, this is probably a good sign that you need to take a deep breath and take a step back. It’s a sign that you need to take care of yourself. Please don’t pressure or demand or eye roll at your loved one who struggles. Trust me, they most likely already feel like shit and a total burden without sensing your impatience and frustration at their struggle. They know their illness adds work to your life without blame or shame or questions about when they’ll get back to their old self again.

I understand that you are probably exhausted. And frustrated. And maybe mad and sad and a whole host of other sensations. And you have all sorts of entirely justified and real and important feelings. Mental illness can be a rollercoaster. Sometimes you need to figure out how to get off. But you can’t force it to stop, as much as you’d like to.

Loving someone with mental illness doesn’t mean you don’t have boundaries. You need boundaries. You’re allowed to say no. You’re allowed to take breaks. To step back and breathe and tap out. You need a team. You need folks in your corner that you can lament to and be carried by. Because this journey is hard, and for some, it can be long.

Folks living with mental illness, please hear this: you need to know your loved ones will sometimes let you down. They are people too, with limits and breaking points. With bodies that get weary and worn. They are allowed to say no and still love you. Sometimes they won’t have the capacity to be at the hospital. Or take the call. Or do the work you need done for you. And sometimes they’ll love you enough to help you see that you can actually do it yourself, even if you don’t think you can. And even if it feels like they don’t love you, please know that they do. They just also need to love themselves.

And for both those who struggle and those who love the strugglers, somewhere in this journey there needs to be space made for grief. For sadness and sorrow for the life that is longed for, for the life that was and is no longer, and for the reality of the hard parts of what is here at the moment.

Pushing your loved one to get better so you can avoid grief isn’t the answer.

Grieving is. Accepting what is, and learning to live in the adjusted reality is kind of important. Accepting what is doesn’t mean giving up hope. It means grieving what is or isn’t at the present moment, and allowing what is and what will be to unfold in it’s own way and in it’s own time.

And perhaps, if those who love those who are struggling can work at doing their own work – then maybe this sense that love isn’t hanging by a thread and hinging on healing can help create some more safety for your loved one. Perhaps this constancy of care and affirmation of love, even if it’s love from a distance at times, could create a safe and soft landing space where shame and burden aren’t leading the change. And perhaps this could create an atmosphere more conducive to growth. Being afraid or insecure doesn’t create an optimal environment to grow for me, and I can only assume that it doesn’t help those struggling with mental health issues either.

So, there’s the thoughts of the day. I welcome your feedback, your experiences, or your points of disagreeing – I’m open to hear and learn from you out there, those who have been and are in the trenches of navigating life with mental illness either in your own life of the life of someone you love. Wishing you courage and honesty and bravery to face your own feelings on this hard journey.

One thought on “when you love someone with mental illness.

  1. Nate says:

    This is so beautiful. Hard. But really profound. The constant fear of being a burden on everyone around me is exhausting. Having grace for my partner’s humanity is a reminder I need. But also it’s helpful to see it from the other side. Every day I battle guilt over being “unreliable” or “unavailable” or “not capable.” Some days on the outside I think I look lazy. But on the inside I’m screaming and fighting as hard as I can to survive the day.

    Thank you for this. We’re both talking it through now.

    Liked by 2 people

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