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.



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.

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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 focus on mood disorders which includes 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)

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.

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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


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