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:
- Prepare yourself for the coming (or current) phase so you aren’t blind-sided later by big problems appearing “out of nowhere”
- 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.
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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