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Being a supporter: What it’s like to live with someone who has a mental illness

02 August 2019

It is odd to begin with an apology, but I’m sorry, this article is anonymous. There shouldn’t be stigma discussing mental illness, but as a supporter only half of this story is mine to tell. I understand why my husband is reluctant to be named. He doesn’t want his mental illness to define him, or end up in a list of search results on Google. If you do figure out who I am from this text, that’s fine and you should feel free to talk to me about it.

In this article, I’ve shared our story and some things that help me. If any of them help even one of you, then it’s been a success.

Our story

We’re just like many other busy families, we both juggle full-time work and have three busy school-aged kids. My husband has manic depression – and this creates challenges from time to time.

At the start of our relationship he was open about his mental illness. We talked about his previous ups and downs, his medication and the impact his illness had on his last significant relationship. We spoke about this in much the same way we shared other things about ourselves, eg, the sports we had played at school. His disorder was well managed, we fell in love and I didn’t give it much thought. Looking back, this surprises me given the impact it has had on my life.

A couple watching a sunset

In the early years, his mental health was well managed. He took his medicine and we got on with living. When he was depressed, he’d opt out of things. When he was manic, he’d speak super quickly and wake me up in the middle of the night to tell me about his latest great idea (which usually sounded brilliant to him and completely loopy to me). At the time, I worked at a large national law firm in a “work hard/play hard” commercial team and in many ways my work cycles (where I’d pull some crazy hours on a transaction and then crash afterwards) were more difficult to live with than his mental health cycles.

It wasn’t until we had our first child that I realised I had signed up to be a supporter and the supporting role can be hard. Our son had really bad reflux and sleep became a precious commodity. I wanted help from my husband but he was the one who needed help. Thinking rationally, I could understand he was also sleep deprived and that was a trigger for his mental illness, but thinking emotionally I felt let down and alone – and feeling alone in company is worse than actually being alone. After about six months of sleep deprivation, my husband went through the first serious manic and depressed cycle of our relationship. I thought I was prepared – I mean I knew the name of his mental illness and had lived with a mild version of it for years – but I really wasn’t.

People think of mania as being high and depression as being sad, but the brain chemistry imbalances of manic depression can be quite complicated. When he’s depressed, it’s like he only has access to his brain on a slow dial-up connection, and when he is manic he’s accessing it on an ultra-fast fibre connection.

His happiness state is quite separate from his mental state. For example, he could be very happy with everything in his life (family, work, etc) but unable to function, or he could be quite miserable but very manic (this phase is particularly dangerous). In a very depressed state, it would be an achievement for him to get out of bed and shower and he’s been like this, in a semi-sloth-like state, for up to five days at a stretch before. This may not sound like long, but it feels like a very long time if you’re the one left keeping things together, apologising on his behalf, picking up his commitments, balancing family and work and everything else, and not knowing when he will return to normal.

Some things that help me

Here are some things I’ve discovered that help me.

1. I’m not the cause

In the early days, I used to take responsibility for his mental state. I’d partly blame myself if he was trending up or down, eg, I’d second-guess what I had done and said. Now I’m confident that I am not the cause.

2. Don’t try to fix it – it’s enough to just be there

I have a problem-solving personality. With physical diseases, it’s often easier to have a treatment plan and see visible progress. Early on, I tried to create a plan for his mental health. It didn’t help him and just felt like pressure. It’s enough to just be there.

3. It’s okay to put my oxygen mask on first

It’s okay to look after myself. Living with or supporting someone with mental illness is a long journey. I don’t feel guilty doing things that are important to me and looking after my own wellbeing. I’m allowed to be happy and allowed to have a full life – he’d want that for me whether he’s manic, depressed or ‘normal’.

4. Plan a safety net

I’m a lot more organised as a result of living with someone with a mental illness. In the back of my mind I’ll always have a Plan B that can be kicked into action if Plan A doesn’t work out because of his health. Working in environments that are flexible have been key to our ability to keep juggling everything.

5. It’s okay to tell him he’s being unreasonable, provided I do it with compassion

Just because he’s got a mental illness, it doesn’t mean he can behave badly or that it would be right to shelter him from everything else that’s going on. Even when he is in a bad state, it’s important that I communicate the important things. If he’s having a bad day, my threshold for what I choose to comment on is higher and I think a lot more about the tone I use. Sometimes I’ll have my own problems and health issues, and he wants to be informed of those even if he’s unwell.

6. Enjoy the good days and have confidence that the bad days won’t last

There’s no regularity to his cycles. Sometimes we go months, other times they come quickly. As someone who likes certainty, this is hard for me. I used to fall into a trap of worrying on the good days about whether it was about to go to custard again. I’ve learnt to live in the moment more, enjoy the good when it’s good.

7. Everyone is going through something

It took me a while to openly discuss his illness, but when I did I found talking with people easier than I expected. I was surprised at how many people are working through some sort of mental illness or supporting someone. Most Kiwis are awesome, caring, empathetic people.

8. Supporting someone has made me better

I understand why I chose law as a profession and not nursing. But while learning how to support someone through mental illness has been tough, it has also been very valuable. I’m much better at communicating with stressed, irrational people. I’m much better at managing through uncertainty. I’m much better at focusing on the things I can control, and not letting things I can’t control weigh on me. I’m a much more genuine person. Helping him has taught me and our children a lot about compassion, empathy, resilience, wellbeing and flexibility. I appreciate his strengths even more, given what he overcomes.

Overall, I am a better lawyer, better manager and an all round better person as a result of my husband’s mental illness. If he could be “cured” that would be amazing, but it’s okay that it isn’t expected to ever happen. He’s pretty awesome and life is wonderful just as it is.

— Anon


Sarah Taylor is the co-ordinator of this series, a senior lawyer, and the Director of Client Solutions at LOD NZ, a law firm focused on the success and wellbeing of lawyers.

If you’d like to contribute to this series, please contact Sarah: sarah@lexvoco.com

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Last updated on the 2nd August 2019