Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Be With Your Emotions”

Sorry for the late post today. I thought I had a draft saved for the next poly fiction list, but apparently not. Depression messing with my head, I guess.

So, today I’m finally going to take a look at some of the standard poly advice and how it applies (or more often doesn’t) to those of us struggling with mental illness. Starting with some of the most common “coping with jealousy advice” — take time to be with your emotions.

Take everything here with a large grain of salt. Everyone’s mental illness is different, everyone heals, grows, and learns to manage at a different rate, and what works for one person will be a disaster for another. Nothing that follows is “One size fits all”.

Standard Poly Advice: Be with/Sit with your emotions

We hear this one a lot when it comes to dealing with jealousy or other negative emotions in poly relationships. I think the general point is meant to be “spend some time watching your emotions so you can understand exactly how you feel and what is making you feel this way.” Which isn’t exactly bad advice, in fact it is damn good advice…usually. If I’m not in a major depressive episode or anxiety attack, yeah, I’ll sit with my emotions, spend the time to understand what is going on, then figure out how to deal with them.

When my mental illnesses are out of control?

You want me to sit down with the metastasized monster that is tearing my mind apart and spend time with it while it uses my out of control emotions to pummel me? Are you out of your freaking mind? Uh uh. No way. Go directly to jail, do NOT collect $100 when you pass Go. Unless you want to see me go from depressive funk to unending downward spiral, ain’t fucking happening.

This is the mental health equivalent of seeking out your stalker, handing them a club and saying “Hey, I’m just gonna stand here while you attack me, okay?”

NO.

Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: Use Your Logic

It is damn hard to engage the logic circuits when your mind is messing with you. Combine mental illness with jealousy or other relationship problems and it gets even harder. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying it will help. Sit down and make a “Pro/Con” list, draw a Venn diagram, make a MindMap, assign numbers to things that are happening and try to come up with a mathematical proof to explain what is happening vs how you are feeling. Or do something else entirely. But if you can engage your logic circuits, they can act as a reality check on your out of control emotions. “I feel like Dan is neglecting me, but if I actually write down everything, he does a lot for me. Reality check. I am not being neglected.” Will this make you feel any better? Maybe, maybe not. Logic has limited control over your emotions. But it will give you some truth to hold onto when your mind tries to lie to you and sabotage you. It will help you avoid damaging your relationships by throwing around emotion- and mental illness-driven accusations. It will help you go to your partners and say “So, this is how I feel. Based on x, y and z, I get that my feelings aren’t matching up with reality, but can you work with me to help me not feel this way?”

And you know what? If you manage to engage your logic circuits, and you look through it all, and see Sheila really has been canceling most of your dates to spend time with Paul, you aren’t just imagining things because of jealousy? Having that stuff written out will make it easier to talk about and focus on what matters, without getting side-tracked (or worse, having your concerns dismissed because of your mental illness).

 

That’s it for today folks. Sorry again for the late post. Sunday, my mental health willing, I’ll follow up on the last post with a more clinical look at depression, its symptoms, effects, and most common treatments.

I’ll get back to the poly fiction series when I’m a little saner. In the meantime, Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill will continue next Wednesday.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness Blog Series.

 

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Polyamory and Mental Illness Blog Series

  1. Polyamory and Mental Illness (Guest post by Clementine Morgan)
  2. Facts About Mental Illness for Poly Partners
  3. Opening Up About Mental Illness
  4. How Can I Support my Mentally Ill Poly Partner? (Part 1)
  5. How Can I Support my Mentally Ill Poly Partner? (Part 2)
  6. A Rant: “I Know I am Being Irrational Right Now”
  7. When Polyamory and Mental Illness Collide (Part 1)
  8. Living With Depression
  9. Polyamory Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Be with Your Emotions”
  10. Depressive Disorders and Polyamory
  11. Polyamory Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Communicate, Communicate, Communicate”
  12. Polyamory Boundaries and Mental Illness
  13. Living with Anxiety
  14. Anxiety Disorders and Polyamory
  15. Mental Illness: The Course of Treatment
    1. Recognizing Your Need Help
    2. Getting a Diagnosis
    3. Treatment Options
      1. Medication
      2. Talk Therapy
      3. Alternative Therapies
      4. Alternative Medicine
      5. Home Care
      6. Treatment Intensity
        1. Treatment Intensity and the Impact on Polyamory
    4. The Treatment Roller Coaster
  16. Fucked Up Parts of Mental Illness: Punishing Myself for Having Fun
  17. The Wrong Diagnosis (Guest Post by Michon Neal)
  18. Polyamory and PTSD (and other trauma and stress-related disorders) (Part 1)
  19. Polyamory and PTSD (and other trauma and stress-related disorders) (Part 2)

The Mental Illness blog series is on hiatus for a few months. It will resume when I finish the series on abuse in polyamorous relationships.

Living with Depression

I hadn’t meant to start introducing the different mental illnesses yet. I hadn’t meant to write this post this week. But for reasons that will hopefully be obvious it is the only post I could write. Here then is a look at depression from the inside.

Depression is hell. Depression is a different hell for everyone. My hell is icy. I sit in 80 degree weather shivering, cold down to the marrow of me with no way to get warm. The cold goes so deep it locks me up. I can’t move, I can’t think. My brain is a clouded fog. Focus is a faint memory. One of the torments of hell is remembering being able to move, to think, to get off your ass and fucking do stuff, knowing that once upon a time that was only yesterday you were capable and functional and goddamn useful and today you are a frozen lump, unable to think beyond the constant mental ravaging of how you should be doing this, or you could be doing that, if only you weren’t such a useless pile of shit.

Depression, the first shrink to ever help me said, is anger turned inward. It’s when all the hateful, horrible things you would never dream of saying—of even thinking—about anyone else become the unshakeable truth of who you are. It’s sabotaging everything you are, everything you believe in, everything you try to do, not because you mean to sabotage yourself but because you hate yourself so much you can’t do anything else.

Everyone’s hell is different. But this is my hell. This is my depression.

You can’t live like that. You can’t live hating yourself that way, destroying yourself that way. So you stop living. Your mind shuts down, your body slows and freezes, and all the hatred and horror and self destruction get buried under the ice of nothingness. Because being nothing, doing nothing, reducing yourself to a frozen lump on the couch that can never get warm is the only way you can protect yourself from the way you are trying to destroy yourself.

You know you could feel better. If you go out with friends, if you get out in the sun, if you exercise, if you go see your boyfriend, if you do anything other than playing endless games of solitaire until you’re ready to set fire to every pack of playing cards in the world. But you can’t. The ice numbs you, makes it impossible to think of warmth, of happiness, of friends, and fun, and loved ones. If you can melt the ice you can manage to get moving—but if you melt the ice you find the self-hatred underneath, saying you don’t deserve to be happy, you don’t deserve the wonderful people in your life, you don’t deserve anything.

Did you know that people who are put on anti-depressants are at an increased risk for suicide? That’s why. The anti-depressants, when they work, take the ice away. They leave you able to move, and think and feel, and with no retreat, no defense, against just how angry you are with yourself, just how worthless and hopeless and useless you think you are. And there’s a knife, or a rope, or a gun. Or a car to drive off a cliff. You can think now, you can act now, you can end it. That’s why anti-depressants kill. That’s why you aren’t supposed to go on anti-depressants without medical supervision, preferably psychological supervision, able to help you navigate the self-hatred and catch you if you are in danger of leaving the ice while holding onto the self-hatred.

The scary fucking thing is knowing it’s all a lie. I am a good person, I’m not useless or worthless. I’ve touched a lot of lives and kept my family going through some impossible times. I may not be Mother Fucking Teresa, but I don’t deserve the thoughts and nastiness I’m directing at myself. I know that. I just can’t stop it.

I’m pregnant. Big news, wonderful news, happy news. But the hormones trigger my depression. It’s why I schedule myself five days off of work every month when I get my period. I know that when the hormones kick in, so will the depression and anxiety, and for a few days I’ll be a wreck. The human body is a wonderful thing. [sarcasm] I know for those few days my hormones make my mind lie to me, I know that I just need to wait it out, indulge in some comfort food, and the lies will pass.

But this isn’t just a few days. This is past 2 months now, with no sign of stopping. My work is suffering, my friendships are suffering. My relationships? Well thankfully Michael’s been down this road with me already. He holds me tight and tells me it’ll be okay, and the evil thoughts in my head are lies, and we’ll get through this together. Hunter I haven’t seen much of the past few months, but we’re supposed to get together tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll be able to go see him. Hopefully.

I’ve learned to use the anger. Dig down through the ice with meditation or long walks, or by letting stupid irritations build up and build up, and build up until real feeling bursts through. Take the anger I feel at myself and redirect it. Turn the anger into an adrenaline rush which is how I got up off the couch to sit down and write this. Still can’t think clearly enough to put together one of my usual posts, but with the energy I can at least pour out my thoughts and feelings and fears.

Fears. I am scared. I’m scared because I know this isn’t going to end in a few days. My relationships will survive—I know my relationship with Michael is solid and I believe my relationship with Hunter will weather this. My friendships will either survive or they aren’t the right friends for me. My work? God my work. My clients are waiting for me, my writing is completely halted, my social media…well, at this point it’s more “What social media?”

My family needs me able to work. Able to bring in money, and build my business because until Michael is medically fit for work (for the first time in 5 years I can say that in time he WILL be fit for work, huge, huge, fucking deal, but he’s not there yet), until then I’m the only income my family has. We can’t afford for me to fall apart like this—which of course becomes one more log on the self hatred everyday that I don’t manage to keep up with my work.

Grateful. I am so insanely fucking grateful that I know what is causing this. That I know it is temporary. That in 7 months or so, the baby will be born and this will pass (assuming I don’t miscarry, but hell, gotta think positive, right?). I remember what it was like when depression was an unending hell with no rhyme or reason. When I had no idea why I was in hell and no hope of escape. I am so goddamn lucky to be able to point to the calendar and say “Then. I’ll be better (mostly) then.”

I am lucky beyond words to have Michael, who has stood with me through 6 years and one other pregnancy, who knows both the depths of the ice and the horror of the self-hatred and holds fast through all of it. Who will believe in me when I can’t believe in myself, and give me an anchor to cling to, a connection to the world, when I’m lost to everything else.

The adrenaline is gone now. The tears still trickle slowly down to fall on the keyboard. For a few minutes, I can think enough to recognize just how much of my mind is closed of to me, terra incognita so I can be protected from myself. It hurts now, with the ice and adrenaline both gone and the feeling is like a knife in my guts that is so horribly familiar and yet never the same twice.

The ice will close in soon. I’ll struggle through it, using numbed and weakened hands to fumble through my days, using what spoons I have to do the absolute necessities first, so that at least when the ice becomes to much to fight, my family will have been fed, and I’ve done a bit to take care of myself, and maybe gotten half an hour of work done. And try not to hate myself too much for all the things I am failing to do.

This is my hell. This is my depression. For the next 7 months, this is my life.

Hell is different for everyone. So is depression. This is mine.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.



When Mental Illness and Polyamory Collide (Part 1)

The Complexity of Mental Illness and Polyamory

In some ways, mental illness and polyamory actually go very well together. The larger support network can be a huge benefit for someone dealing with mental illness, while the increase in available support also means that no one person gets overwhelmed trying to support the mentally ill partner all on their own.

But vague generalities almost always sound good. It’s when you get into the nitty-gritty that the problems develop.

*********

This post can’t cover the entirety of the interactions of mental illness and polyamory. Both mental illness and polyamory are so varied that an entire book couldn’t cover all the interactions. My goal here is to introduce some of the ways they interact, so you can get a feel for the variety of interactions possible. More interactions will be covered when I  get into reviewing the various types of mental illness.

Manic NRE

Most of us are familiar with new relationship energy. The hormonal high that turns our brains to mush, pumps the libido up to “10” (whatever that may mean for each of us individually) and can strain existing relationships to the breaking point.

If you don’t have or know someone with bipolar disorder you may not be familiar with manic episodes. These bursts of energy, optimism, and irrationality can last anywhere from hours to months. During a manic phase it will seem perfectly reasonable to spend your life savings on shoes or to quit your job and start a new career throwing sex toy parties (when you have no savings, a family to support and have never even used a sex toy). It isn’t uncommon for people in manic phases to have so much energy they don’t sleep for weeks on end.

My own experiences watching someone go through manic NRE have been (relatively) mild. For which I can only be grateful. I don’t think it takes a quantum physicist to look at the brain-drain of NRE, the irrational exuberance of a manic phase, and see how these two combined can be a very bad thing.

OCD “Fairness”

Just like we all experience depressed days, we all have a few OCD tics. The difference between your obsessive need to always have the toilet paper hanging over the top of the roll and someone with OCD is that while it drives you crazy when the toilet paper is facing the wrong way, and you correct it whenever possible, someone with OCD will not be able to leave a public restroom until they have checked every stall to make sure the toilet paper is hanging properly. To not do so is to court a mental breakdown.

The romantic comedy “As Good As it Gets” with Jack Nicholson, while having all the many, many flaws of romantic comedies everywhere, was one of the few truly good representations of extreme mental illness in the media. Not everyone’s experience of OCD will be like that–if only because the movie simply could not give a good view of the obsessive thought side of the illness. But still, damn good portrayal.

Now, we’ve all run across the dangerous idea that poly relationships should be kept fair. That if you sleep with A one night, you have to sleep with B the next night. If 1 takes you out for an expensive night on the town, then 2 needs to take you out somewhere just as special. Most standard poly advice points out how ridiculous this is, and suggests that treating your partners as individuals with their one unique needs, wants and desires is healthier than obsessing about treating them both (or being treated by them both) “equally”

In general, I agree and have no quibble with this. However, I have known people with OCD whose compulsion was keeping everything balanced. If they stamped their left foot, they had to stamp their right foot. If they hang a picture on the right side of the wall, they have to hang a picture on the left. Do you see where this is going?

Someone with an OCD balance compulsion may need to keep a “balance” in their poly relationships. If they sleep with partner A one night, they have to sleep with partner B the next, if they buy a present for partner B, they need to buy an equally valuable present for partner A.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

A Rant: “I Know I am Being Irrational Right Now”

Some 7 years ago (give or take) I was sitting in a room with three other people in my poly network. My PTSD and anxiety had been severely triggered, I was not thinking clearly, I was feeling jealous and persecuted. Long experience with my own mental illnesses allowed me to recognize that what I was feeling and experiencing in no way matched up with reality.

“I know I am not being rational right now, but this is the way I am feeling…”

I needed their help. I needed their support. Most of all, I needed them to understand what I was going through and why my reactions were so out of sync with reality.

What I got was long lecturing responses about how it was completely unreasonable for me to feel the way I was, how everything I was saying was wrong, how I clearly didn’t know what I was talking about and X, Y, and Z proved it.

I took a deep breath and tried again. “I know that what I am feeling doesn’t make sense, I’m not saying anyone has done anything wrong. I just want to tell you how I am feeling and why I am feeling this way. I feel like…”

Cue more protestations of innocence, how I was completely off base to accuse them of…, how I was being irrational and unreasonable and the reality was that everyone had been going out of their way to be supportive and what can they do to make me understand that the things I am saying are completely wrong and unrealistic.

We went through 2 or 3 more variations on this before I gave up and walked out.

 

Let me state the obvious:

When someone is coming to you in a mental health or emotional crisis to trying to explain how they are feeling and why, telling them all the reasons they are wrong to feel they do doesn’t fucking help.

If you missed it, please check the fifth heading on Facts About Mental Illness for Poly Partners:

Mental Illness Is Out Of Our Control

This actually applies to any strong emotions, whether related to mental illness or not. Emotions are irrational, unreasonable and not under our control.

Exception: Super-human Zen Masters, Buddhas who have achieved Enlightenment and other masters of esoteric traditions may have gained level 20 skills in emotional control. I’ve never met one, but I’ve heard legends.

Not being a legendary uber-human, your mentally ill poly partners will feel things that are completely unreasonable. If they have reached the point of being able to tell when their feelings are irrational and unreasonable while feeling them, that is great! That is 300 level of mental illness management. Recognize this. Celebrate it with them. Help them figure out what they need to find their emotional balance and get past the irrational feelings. Sometimes it will be as simple as “I understand why you feel that why. Can I hold you for a while so you know you are not alone?” Other times it will be a lot more complicated. Sometimes there won’t be anything you can do except let them know you understand and are there for them.

But by all that is fucking holy, if someone in an emotional or mental health crisis comes to you saying “I know my feelings aren’t real, but I need you to know this is what I am feeling” or any variation on that theme do not attack them, do not get defensive, do not waste time and spoons trying to convince them that what they are feeling is irrational. Just listen, and let them tell you what they need/want.

Please, for the love of little green apples.

Next week we’ll start reviewing some common problems in poly relationships and how they can impact (or be impacted by) mental illness.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

How Can I Support my Mentally Ill Poly Partner? (Part 2)

Part 1

Learn Our Cues

When my anxiety gets bad I start rocking in my seat. Just moving forward and back, forward and back, while I type or read, eat or chat with friends. It’s a little idiosyncrasy that can tell you a lot about my mental state. After six years living with him, I know when Michael is spiraling into a self-hating depressive funk. His attitude, self-expression, and especially tone of voice change are warning signs, and I know to batten down the hatches for a rough time. I also know approximately how long his funks last. A few years ago, I could reliably expect them to last at least a week. Now that he is finally on the proper medication and getting competent help, they usually pass in a few hours.

Your poly partners who are dealing with mental illness will have their own cues. Some of those cues you can pick up fairly quickly–like my rocking. Others will take time to understand and recognize. When you are familiar with your partner’s cues you can do two things:

  1. Prepare yourself for the coming (or current) phase so you aren’t blind-sided later by big problems appearing “out of nowhere”
  2. Ask your partner what you can do to prevent the problem from getting worse.

If you see a partner who has panic attacks in crowds is giving off cues that an attack is coming you can ask, “Would it help to leave the party?” If you see someone falling into a depressive spiral sometimes—sometimes—you can stop it before it starts (Sex was always a good way to stop Michael’s spirals if I caught them early enough. Still don’t know why, but I’m not complaining.)

Shut Down the Idiots

Stigma against mental illness is pretty rampant in the US, and from I can tell it isn’t any better in the rest of the world. Having people you thought were friends gang up on you for “being a party pooper,” blame you for trying to come out and socialize while dealing with depression, and tell you that if you can’t get over yourself and start being cheerful you aren’t welcome anymore is horrible. Having your partner hold you in place and force you to listen while they tear apart what little self-esteem you have after depression is done with you is a special kind of hell. Having your partners stand there ignoring the conversation while you fight through the tears and despair to defend yourself alone because they “thought you were handling it” is not that big an improvement.

Don't worry, dude. Darth got your back.
Don’t worry, dude. Darth got your back.

If you see your mentally ill partner taking shit from anyone over their mental illness, they need and deserve your support. If they are coherent enough to speak for themselves, then stand at their back, put a hand on their shoulder, ask them if they want to get the fuck out of there, whatever you can do so they know they aren’t dealing with this shit alone. If they are at the point of being incoherent, are starting to give cues that the situation is getting beyond their ability to handle or are turning to you looking for help shut the idiots down. Do it politely, do it rudely, do it by force choking them into submission. Whatever the hell works for you. But get it done.

If you can, discuss with your poly partner(s) how they prefer to handle these situations before it comes up. Boundary-wise this is their mental illness and their decision on how to handle it. If you don’t have a chance to discuss it, follow their lead as much as possible—if they are willing and ready to fight, back them up. If they indicate they want to get the hell out, help them get out.

Just don’t leave them alone with their back to the wall while some fucking idiot shreds them to ribbons.

Don’t Be Afraid to Push (Sometimes)

This is last on the list for a reason—get everything else down first. That said, after you’ve listened, got your head wrapped around how our spoons work, learned about your partner’s mental illness(s), know how to recognize at least the major cues, and have your partner’s agreement, sometimes pushing can be a good thing.

One of the best things you can do for depression is go outside, get sun, fresh air and exercise a bit. One of the hardest things to do, when you are in a major depressive episode, is actually get yourself outside and motivated to get moving. So giving a poly partner dealing with depression a small push

“Hey, let’s make our date tonight a walk around town. It might help you feel better, and we can get a snack at (local store) while we’re out.”

can be a good thing. Sometimes. If someone with social anxiety is afraid to go to a movie theater because their anxiety might be triggered, then maybe encourage them to try, and if they are triggered you can leave immediately.

Pushing someone with a mental illness is kind of like exploring boundaries in kink: sooner or later you are going to hit a landmine. Something that you thought was safe turns out to be a major trigger and the backlash can last for weeks (months in some cases). So only push when your partner has agreed that sometimes it is good for you to push. And only push when you understand enough about your partner’s illness to recognize when pushing is making this worse.

 

There may be more things you can do to support your poly partner(s) struggling with mental illness. The best way to find out? Ask them!

But these should get you started.

Next week I’m going to give myself permission have a little rant about one of my personal pet peeves about the way people respond when I (or anyone else with mental illness) is being completely irrational and knows it. See you then!

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

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How Can I Support my Mentally Ill Poly Partner? (Part 1)

Watching someone you love suffer sucks, and if we are being totally honest, in a lot of ways it sucks even more when that suffering spills over and messes with your own life, which mental illness has a bad tendency to do. Even worse, with mental illness there so often seems to be nothing you can do to help.

The fact is, you may not be able to help. Helping someone with mental illness is extremely difficult, and a lot of professional therapists and counselors struggle with it. It seems to come a bit easier to those of us who have “been there, done that.” But I think that is less because we are able to offer real concrete help, and more because simply being there sends the very important message of “You are not alone, I’ve been there too. You can get through this.

So no, you probably can’t help your mentally ill poly partners. What you can do is support them.

What does it mean to support someone with mental illness?

It means to help them help themselves. To give them what they need so they heal. To maybe, for a little while, take care of them when they can’t take care of themselves.

Most importantly it means to let them know you are there for them, and they are not going through this alone.

Let’s get down to some nitty-gritty.

Listen to Us

Polyamory on Purpose
You are getting the generic picture here. Know why? Because I went to the “Listening” category on Wikimedia Commons and could not find a single picture of one person listening to another. Says a lot, doesn’t it?

We know our mental illness and our needs better than anyone. That doesn’t mean we know everything, or we always know what’s going on. But it does mean no one else knows better. A therapist, shrink, or psych researcher may know more about our diagnosis, but if you read through the DSM there’s a lot of “OR.” For example:

Generalized anxiety disorder can be diagnosed if you have 2 criteria from list A AND (1 criteria from list 1 OR 2 criteria from list 2)

That isn’t actually what the DSM says about general anxiety (we’ll get to that in a few weeks), but it is the general format of the diagnostic criteria. A mental illness might have a dozen recognizable symptoms, but you only need 2 or 3 in a given combination to qualify. So while professionals might know a lot about anxiety in general, they actually know very little about the mental illness of the person actually sitting in front of them on any given day.

Which brings me back to the point above: listen to us.

Listen when we say something triggers us. Pay attention when we tell you what helps. If we say we are hurting, and we have a lot of different ways we say we are hurting, believe us.

Be Patient with Us

Think back to the last time you were really jealous of something (or perhaps really anxious about something), how obvious was it to you what you were going through, how you were expressing yourself, and what had triggered your emotions? Sometimes figuring out what is going on in our heads takes some work, and that’s true for everyone.

For someone with mental illness, it is ten or a hundred times as true. We are often not going to be able to tell you what is going on. We will often not be able to tell you what set us off. And we for sure and certain can’t tell you how long it will take us to work through our problems and come out the other side. Whether we are talking about a panic attack, a bipolar phase or the full long hellish process of recovering from PTSD, we can’t tell you how long it will take or what is involved, or why we are suddenly curled up in a ball on the floor weeping our heads off because someone dropped a spoon on the floor. (Yes, that happened. Yes, I am still teased about it to this day. No, it was not just a spoon. It was covered with marinara sauce.)

Speaking of spoons

Understand that We Are Spoony

If you aren’t familiar with it, go over and read Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino right now. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Back?

Okay.

Christine invented spoon theory to explain lupus, but it applies equally well to mental illness.

Imagine for a minute that you are never sure if what you see is real or your imagination. You need to go through every moment of everyday actively ignoring someone whispering in your ear and constantly using subtle clues and deduction to determine what you can trust and what you can’t. Even when it is obvious which is which, you need to work to ignore the false images. And when Barney is dancing around between you and the person you are trying to talk with, it can be damn hard to concentrate on the conversation even when you know Barney isn’t real.

Now imagine living like that for 26 years.

The day my partner got on medication to control his hallucinations he put down his cane and hasn’t needed it since. He was literally putting so much energy and effort into managing his mental illness he stopped being able to walk unaided.

Getting rid of the hallucinations didn’t fix everything. He’s still mentally ill, still spoony. But he has a hell of a lot more spoons now than he did a few short months ago.

Some days I only have three spoons. Those days I go through in a fog, barely taking care of myself. I hoard those three spoons, not daring to use them for anything, in case my kids get hurt or sick or their is an emergency. Image copyright Wolfgang Sauber
Image copyright WolfgangSauber          Some days I only have three spoons. Those days I go through life in a fog, barely taking care of myself, barely aware of anything outside of my head. I hoard those three spoons, not daring to use them for anything, in case my kids get hurt or sick or there is an emergency.

For most people, the way mental illness restricts our available spoons and leaves us unable to function normally won’t be as easy to understand, or as dramatic, as what Michael went through. There is a reason I use hallucinations as an example and not depression (which is one of the major causes of my spooniness).

But whether a person has depression, or schizophrenia, GAD or OCD, their mental illness is, in some fashion, making them spoony. Understand this, and accept that when we say we cannot do something we are not playing around, or making things up, or being lazy. That pushing ourselves a bit more very often isn’t the answer. That we are at the end of our spoons and literally cannot do this thing that is as easy as turning on the water and standing under it (because it ain’t that easy.)

Learn About Our Mental Illness

Just because everyone’s experience of an anxiety disorder is different doesn’t mean it can’t help, a lot, to learn about the mental illness(es) your loved one is living with.

You can speak with a professional, research online, get books from the library, or just ask us. Talk with other people who have the same illness, and people who have other illnesses (misdiagnosis happens, and sometimes another perspective is golden). Join forums, seek out support groups. I wouldn’t go as far as subscribing to psych journals (they are extremely expensive and sometimes unreadable by the lay person).

But definitely take some time to educate yourself about what we’re living with each day. You can’t support us if you don’t know what we are going through. You can’t discuss our treatment with us if you don’t know what the options are, as well as their drawbacks. And it does no good to listen to your partner say they are in a disassociative state, if you have no idea what that means.

How Can I Support my Mentally Ill Poly Partner? (Part 2)

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

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Opening Up About Mental Illness

This week we’re going to look at the whens and hows of telling poly partners about mental illness. If you don’t have mental illness yourself, stick around because we are also going to be talking about the best ways to respond when a partner tells you about their mental illness.

Opening Up About Mental Illness

When to Open Up About Mental Illness

opening up about mental illnessMuch like telling someone you are poly, opening up about mental illness is a very personal thing. I tend to favor telling people as soon as possible, up to including it in my dating profiles. Anyone who is scared off by my baggage isn’t someone I want to date anyway.

Sadly, the completely undeserved stigma and shame associated with mental illness can make it hard to open up about. Especially if it means opening up to someone you are really attracted to, who may drop you like a hot potato as soon as you tell them.

My suggested guidelines on opening up would be as follows:

  • If there is any chance of a panic attack or other crisis interrupting a first date, they need to know ahead of time.
  • If you have reason to believe your illness will have a large impact on any relationship or ongoing interaction, they need to know shortly after the first date.
  • If you have reason to believe your illness will not have a large impact on a relationship—for instance if you’ve been in poly relationships before and never had significant problems, and your illness is well enough managed that it does have a large effect on your daily life—you can just let it come up naturally in conversation.

How Do You Open Up? And How Much Do You Share?

The most important thing you can do is be matter-of-fact about it. Don’t apologize for your illness. Don’t make a big production of it. Just say:

  • So you know, I get panic attacks. When I get hit with one I freeze up and start shaking and moaning. If that does happen while we’re out, please just give me space and it’ll pass in a few minutes. (Or “please call my doctor” or “please just hold me for a bit” or whatever it is they can do to help—most people hate feeling helpless when someone they care about/are interested in is hurting. Letting them know what to expect and what they can do to make it better helps a lot.)
  • Hey, I really enjoyed our date last night, and I’d like to do it again… You too? Great! Look, um, the next time we get together I should probably tell you a bit about my anxiety disorder. I don’t want to scare you off, but it does cause problems sometimes.
  • Yeah, I’d love to go to the carnival with you, just let me grab my meds… Yeah, crowds freak me out sometimes, so I have an as-needed anti-anxiety I take when I’m getting overwhelmed.

Simple and to the point. If they ask questions, you can either answer or say you aren’t comfortable talking about it right then. If the questions are important things your date/partner/potential lover should know, but you aren’t up to answering them immediately, just suggest a better time.

  • Would you mind waiting until we can sit down together?
  • Can I send you an email with all the details, talking about it makes me anxious. Ironic, right?
  • How about we set aside time tomorrow for me to answer all your questions—we don’t want to be late for dinner.

When Someone Opens Up About Their Mental Illness

Listen without Assumptions

It can be hard to keep your mouth shut and your mind open sometimes—and that doesn’t just apply to mental illness—but it can be vitally important. Sometimes things you think are supportive, like how you understand about panic attacks, your brother got PTSD while in the army, prevent you from hearing about the person right in front of you. And just because the best thing to do for your brother was give him a wide berth and let him bring himself down, doesn’t mean the person in front of you doesn’t do better being wrapped in a blanket and held until the shakes pass. Maybe the meds your aunt took had massive side effects and caused more problems than they  helped, but those same meds might be the only thing able to help the person in front of you, and they’ve been on them for 10 years with minimal side effects.

Stigma against mental illness is an even worse assumption. After the intro post for this series went up, and Clementine opened up about her very personal and very difficult experience, someone posted on Reddit “This is why I could never date someone with mental illness.”

Now, I fully get not being able to date a specific person because their mental illness causes needs beyond your ability to meet or cope with. But to take Clementine’s story and use it to paint a broad brush across everyone with mental illness? Leaving aside the way it is completely dismissive and erases the entire point of Clementine’s post, it is wrong and prejudiced to dismiss all mentally ill people with one sweeping condemnation.

If you do have a knee jerk reaction about not being able to date someone with mental illness, please sit on it. Listen, learn about the person in front of you (as opposed to the caricature in your head) and move forward on that basis.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions

When they are done telling you what they need to tell you, it is okay to ask questions if you have them. You can also share your own experiences if you can do it in a way that doesn’t erase their experience. “When my brother has panic attacks, this helps him. Does it help you also?” Is great. “I know how to deal with panic attacks because my brother has them” falls under “Lose the assumptions” above.

Some questions you might want to ask include:

  • What kinds of things trigger you?
  • Are there any signs I should watch for to tell me you are having a problem?
  • What can I do to help if you get triggered?

Don’t feel like you need to ask questions—sometimes it’s better to learn more over time. And if the person you’re talking with isn’t comfortable answering questions immediately, don’t pressure them. They told you what they feel you need to know, and there will be time later to get the answers you want.

What if I really can’t deal with this?

I called mental illness baggage above, and some might see that as further stigmatizing people who are mentally ill. The thing is, we all have baggage. Part of my baggage is my children, my ongoing custody case, and the fact that I am very publicly out as poly. Any or all of those things may make me the wrong person for you to get involved with. Baggage isn’t necessary the bad stuff, but it is the stuff we carry with us. I heard once that the good relationship is one where your baggage and your partner’s baggage fit together easily.

Everyone’s mental illness is different. My mental illnesses put a lot less overt pressure on a relationship than Clementine’s, but cause a lot of complications in the sexual aspect of a relationship. My partner Michael deal with illnesses that require a great deal of emotional and practical support from the people around him (mostly me, but also his friends, other partners, family, etc.).

Just like not everyone would be able to date me because I am so blatantly out and they can’t risk being outed, not everyone would be able to be in a relationship with me because someone with a very high libido might not be able to deal with the challenges my mental illnesses create in having a healthy sex life. And not everyone has the mental resources, patience, and flexibility to deal with the way Clementine’s C-PTSD triggers feelings of jealousy and support her as she works through them. And a lot of people aren’t able to give Michael the emotional support he needs as he battles with his illnesses.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

If someone opens up about their mental illness, and you realize that either you will not be able to meet their needs, or they will not be able to meet your needs, that is okay! Not everyone fits well together, and there is nothing wrong with saying a few dates (or even a few years) in “This isn’t working for me. I like you, but I don’t think this relationship can meet my needs. No one’s fault, just things not fitting right.”

If you think you won’t be able to meet their needs, then tell them that. Explain what you can offer and what you can’t, and let them decide if what you can offer is enough, or if it will only leave them frustrated and needing more.
Should go without saying, but:

Whatever you do, do not say or imply that a mental illness makes someone “damaged,” unfit for a relationship, or an unhealthy person to be around. Not only is this cruel and highly damaging to someone already struggling with emotional or mental problems, but it is false. Just because they don’t fit in a relationship with you, or you can’t have a healthy relationship with them, doesn’t mean there aren’t other people out there who do fit with them.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.



Facts About Mental Illness for Polyamorous Partners

Before we get into the intersection of mental illness and polyamory I want to take a look at a few facts about mental illness. This post is primarily written for the poly partners of people dealing with mental illness, but will be generally useful to anyone interested in the basics of mental illness.

What is Mental Illness?

Mental illness is defined by the Mayo Clinic as:

…disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors.

If only it were that simple.

Mental disorder, the term used by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry and Psychology V (DSM-V), is a very broad category which has a bunch of very different issues lumped together. Everything from psychosis to major depressive disorder to autism can fall under the mental disorder umbrella. Basically, everything within the DSM is considered a mental disorder.

Within mental disorders are several very vague and ill-defined categories of which mental illness is one. Some sources use mental disorder and mental illness interchangeably, some have stopped using mental illness entirely, some separate mental illness from other categories of mental disorders, and some overlap mental illness with other categories of mental disorders.

This blog series will cover the following categories from the DSM-V:

  • Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders
  • Bipolar and related disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders
  • Trauma- and stressor-related disorders
  • Dissociative disorders (formerly known as multiple personality and related disorders)

After discussion, with other poly-folk who have experience with various mental disorders, I will be covering developmental disorders (such as autism and ADD) and personality disorders in a separate series.

Mental illness is usually diagnosed (when it is diagnosed at all) using either the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). I am more familiar with the DSM, so will largely be referencing that criteria. (Apologies to my international readers—I realize the DSM is largely a US system, but I feel it is better to stick with the system I know.)

Okay, but What is Mental Illness?

The dry facts of how mental illness is defined and the different disorders we’ll be covering don’t really help in understanding what mental illness is, do they?

Part of the problem is science doesn’t really understand what mental illness is either. The best I can give you is what one psych teacher told me once ten years ago.

Mental illness is a normal mental function that has grown to such an extreme it becomes life disrupting.

This same teacher asked the class a series of questions, all of them straight out of the “Do you have OCD?” playbook. Questions like:

  • Who counts their steps?
  • Who gets stressed if their underwear doesn’t match their outfit?
  • Who can’t leave the house until they’ve turned the lock twice?
  • Who avoids stepping on cracks in the sidewalk?
  • etc

By the time he asked ten questions, everyone in that class had their hand up. And he told us to look around and gave us a minute to recognize that it wasn’t just any one of us, it was all of us. Then he explained: it’s normal. Just like feeling depressed sometimes is normal. And feeling manic sometimes. Like feeling anxious, or being self-absorbed or being a little bit paranoid.

If you haven’t had that occasional moment of walking home late at night and feeling like someone is following you, then you are the first person I’ve met who can say so. The difference between that feeling and what is commonly called paranoid schizophrenia[1] is when you get home, the itch between your shoulder blades goes away and you can laugh it off. Schizophrenia takes that normal mental quirk and blows it completely out of proportion.

Take this with a grain of salt, but as I said it is the best explanation I’ve ever come across.

Mental illness is what happens when a normal mental process metastisizes.  Tweet this!

How Common is Mental Illness

Exact numbers of people with mental illness are nearly impossible to nail down, in part because so many people with mental illness are not receiving the care or support they need, either due to lack of resources or stigma against mental health care. And of course in part because (see above) how mental illness is defined varies so widely, and what constitutes a mental illness (as opposed to a developmental disorder, a mental disorder, a personality disorder…) varies just as much.

The US National Mental Health Institute estimates that 18.6% of US adults suffer from some form of mental illness. The UK Mental Health Foundation estimates  1 in 4 people, or 25%, will experience some kind of mental health problem over the course of a year. Canada’s Mental Health Institute puts their estimate at 20% of Canadians experiencing mental illness during their lifetime. The World Health Organization doesn’t have easily accessible statistics on mental illness in adults, but says 20% of children and adolescents have “mental disorders or problems.

In Anglo countries so far we’re hitting right around 1 in 5 people experience mental health problems at some point in their lives, and WHOs numbers seem to back that up. It is important to note that each of these studies used different criteria for determining what would be included, with the WHO study covering “mental disorders or problems” while the US or Canadian studies use “mental illness” (and how they define “mental illness” is unclear). The UK study’s description includes the very vague “mental health problems.” Never mind the difference between “this year” and “in their lifetime.”  It would take a professional statistician to evaluate these studies and see how they actually line up, but for our purposes 1 in 5 isn’t a bad approximation.

However, these numbers have to be considered low. A significant proportion of mental illness is either undiagnosed or untreated. A combination of stigma against mental illness and lack of available resources have left many people around the world struggling to deal with mental illness alone, often not knowing what they are struggling against. Some estimates put the lifetime prevalence of mental illness (percent of people who will experience mental illness during their lifetime) as high as 85%. My own experience definitely runs towards the high end of the estimates. It is rare for me to get to know a person well enough for them to open up about their mental health and not learn about one or more mental illnesses they have experienced throughout their lifetimes.

How is Mental Illness Treated?

Treatment for mental illness varies widely depending on where in the world you are, the disorder in question, and how severe the illness is.

Common treatments in Western medicine include:

  • Medication
  • “Talk therapy”
    • psychoanalysis
    • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
    • the nicely vague “counseling”
    • and others
  • Hospitalization

Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM) (and other Asian medical models) use:

  • Acupuncture
  • Massage
  • Herbs
  • Other traditional treatments

I have heard of (unverified) treatments in some parts of Africa where the entire family is always treated together, “prescriptions” for time spent out of doors, dancing and singing, herbs, and other approaches. (Source: an old psych teacher who spent time with international treatment teams)

I am sure that other cultures have developed their own approach to treatment of mental illness, and I invite others to share their experiences in the comments.

The important (and scary) thing to realize is that treating mental illness is a numbers game. Western treatments have around a 50% success rate. Studies I have seen on TCM have similar numbers. Imagine going to a doctor and getting an antibiotic, “We think this will work, but we don’t really know. We just have to try it and see. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. Sooner or later we’ll get it right.”

I think the most common response in the US and Europe would be “WTF? I didn’t volunteer to take part in a medical experiment, I want treatment!”

But this is what people with mental illness deal with every time they see a doctor. Stabbing in the dark, trying different treatments and hoping that this time, this one will actually work.

Mental Illness Is Out of Our Control

This is the most important this for poly partners to understand: we cannot just “get over” mental illness.

There is no magic wand, not positive thinking, no “Secret” to dealing with mental illness. In some cases, mental illness can be healed or cured, with a lot of time and/or a lot of work. In other cases, it can only be managed. And no matter what the case, someone with mental illness no more “decides” to get better or “push themselves through” than a diabetic can decide to not have diabetes.

Out of Control Doesn’t Mean Hopeless

The fact that we cannot control our mental illness does not mean that we cannot learn to manage it. Like a Type I diabetic taking insulin shots, we can do many things, some that are part of “accepted” treatments and some just the tricks and tips we have learned ourselves and pass on to each other. Finding the right system to manage mental illness takes time, patience, and a strong support system. It isn’t as easy as finding the right insulin dose (which ain’t all that easy either!), but it is completely and totally possible. So hang in there, there is a light at the end of the tunnel (and it ain’t a train).

There is a Huge (Invisible) Community

Finding a depression support group is a royal bitch in a lot of places, finding people to talk with about depression is dead easy. Just open up about having depression, and sooner than you would believe possible, you’ll hear from someone “Yeah, I have depression too,” or “My sister had that,” “My husband is on (name your med of choice).”

We swap coping tips over the lunch table, share experiences on the back porch, and even support each other at the Chamber of Commerce, “I’ve been there too. It sucks. You can get through it.”

Having mental illness is like entering into this secret club. You think you are completely alone until you start talking about it, and then you learn that everyone around you is a member too, you just had to learn the secret handshake.

If you are learning to cope with mental illness, your own or a loved one’s, you can benefit a lot by tapping into this community.

Standard disclaimer

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

Did you find this blog post helpful? Visit the Polyamory on Purpose Patreon and learn how you can help bring more blog posts like this to the poly community.

 

The DSM-5 has eliminated subtypes of schizophrenia. Someone who was previously diagnosed as “paranoid schizophrenic” would now be diagnosed as “schizophrenic” with delusional paranoia as one of the symptoms.

Polyamory and Mental Illness

Hey folks. This week we’re starting a new posting series about the intersection of mental illness and polyamory. We’ll be covering everything from facts about mental illness, to disclosing mental illness, to the impact of mental illness on jealousy, and a great deal more.

I asked Clementine Morrigan, who inspired this series, to kick us off. Here they are:

polyamory and mental illnessI am in a serious, long term relationship with a person who was my best friend even before we started dating. This person is my anchor partner.

We decided from the beginning of our romantic relationship that we wanted to be poly. I had some experience with it in the past, being solo poly and in one case seriously dating two people at the same time. In my current relationship, I was surprised by the intensity and unmanageability of my jealousy. I read book after book, article after article. I had long talks with my anchor partner about our feelings and our boundaries. I started dating someone else and talked with her about our feelings and boundaries. My jealousy with regards to my anchor partner being with other people continued to be unmanageable. It inspired terror, hyper-vigilance, depression, nightmares, deep feelings of unworthiness and constant anxiety. I didn’t know what to do. All the reading I was doing was telling me to sit with my feelings, own them, observe them. But my feelings were completely out of control.

I have complex PTSD. I am a survivor of child abuse, sexual violence and intimate partner violence. I have done lots of therapy but my C-PTSD is ongoing. I realized that my reaction regarding my anchor partner being with others was not simply jealousy. What I was experiencing was the heightened symptoms of C-PTSD triggered by an experience that brought up trauma stuff for me. My trauma is all about being hurt and betrayed by the people I love. My trauma is all about not being good enough or worthy of love. My trauma is about sexual, physical, emotional and psychological violence that I have experienced in my intimate relationships. It is not easy to simply observe it and let it go.

What I realized is that all of the resources I had been reading on polyamory assumed as a starting point that no one involved had mental health issues. Therefore, the suggestions and advice that they shared were not helpful to me as someone with C-PTSD. I was blaming myself for not being able to simply observe and let go of my emotions. I was feeling like a failure at poly because my jealousy was so unmanageable. When I realized that the way I was feeling was due to my C-PTSD it took some of the pressure off. It gave me a way to understand and talk about what I was experiencing.

In reality, lots of people who practice poly have mental health issues. Since mental health issues are all different, the way that they impact our experience of poly will be different. What we have in common is that our relationship to emotions is probably different from people who don’t have mental health issues. Poly requires that we face our emotions so we cannot afford to pretend that mental health issues don’t matter.

I believe that poly has the potential to provide a wonderfully supportive environment for people with mental health issues. Ideally, it would be an expanded support network, more people to turn to and encouragement to sort through feelings and communicate needs. In order for poly to be beneficial to people with mental health issues, we need to be brought into the conversation. We need more than a one-size-fits-all response to jealousy. We need to not shame people for our differing experiences of emotions. We need to start talking about how our mental health experiences impact our experience of poly.

These conversations are just beginning. Poly relationships and community can only be enriched by them.

 

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

 

Clementine MorriganClementine Morrigan is a multidisciplinary writer and artist. Their work spans genres and mediums, including essays, poetry, creative non-fiction, zines, illustration, short film, self-portraiture and sculpture. Their first book, Rupture, was published in 2012. They produced a short film entitled Resurrection in 2013. They write a zine called seawitch and work on other zine projects. A second book of poetry is currently in the works. More of their work can be found at clementinemorrigan.com