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
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.
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.
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.