Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Relationships: My Bottom Line

Today I am going through the final run-throughs of a talk I will be giving tomorrow (Sept 8) to the International Bipolar Foundation, here in San Diego. The talk is on relationships. I’ve experienced the challenges of living with others from both sides of the equation, which means I will be frequently contradicting myself. That’s the way it is, in a complex universe with no easy answers ...

As Someone Living with Bipolar

I want to be able to laugh - laugh real loud - without my partner thinking I'm flipping into mania. I want to be able to get upset without my partner thinking I'm out of control. I want to be miserable without my partner giving me "the look." I want to express my visionary ideas without my partner thinking I'm grandiose. I want to make off-beat observations and dream without my partner playing her "practical" trump card. I want to bubble with enthusiasm without that "here he goes again" expression from my partner.


I don't want to be told to snap out of it, take a chill pill, stop acting like a baby, be patronized, talked down to, and otherwise made to feel that I'm the weird and irresponsible one in this relationship.
I want my partner to say, "I understand," when I go to pieces for seemingly no reason. I want her to say, "I hear you," when I'm upset and distressed. I want her to laugh with me, cry with me. I want her to hear her say, "It's okay. I know where you're coming from. I would feel the same way in your situation."

In addition:
I want her to give me a swift kick in the pants when I need it. But I want her support and not her disapproval and judgment.
I need to feel safe. Emotionally safe. Otherwise, I'm the one walking on eggshells. Otherwise, I'm the one living in a constant state of stress.
That's a tall order for any would-be partner of mine.

Now, Speaking As a Loved One

Let’s own up to the hard cold truth: To live with a person with a mental illness is to live in an abusive relationship. Until we - patients - acknowledge this unpleasant fact of life, we will never make peace with ourselves and our loved ones. We will always be stuck in our recovery, perpetual victims, always finding fault in the people who love us, always blaming our outrageous behavior - illness-related or not - on our illness.

Here’s what I advised one person who complained her husband didn’t understand:

"When YOU act up or act out," I advised, "HE is the one who suffers." Even the most compassionate person in the world can only put up with this for so long.

They need to be hearing that we - the ones living with mental illness - are taking responsibility, even if we are having difficulty managing.

Something along the lines of: "I really appreciate this makes life hard on you. It's not easy for me to control my behavior at times, but I'm working on it, and I could really use your help on this."

Now, I said, instead of an adversary, you may have an ally. You've owned up to the problem. You've accepted responsibility. You've acknowledged your loved one's feelings. You've given him a reason to hope.

Believe me, this is music to a loved one's ears.

But talking a good game is not enough. If your loved one strongly hints at something, then you need to be acting on it. If this means putting the top back on the toothpaste, then put the top on the toothpaste.

Naturally none of this is easy when you are the one who is ill, but the stakes are enormous. Your loved one is the best thing going for you. Don’t turn him or her into a stranger.

As I concluded: "Your old approach hasn't worked. Time to try something new."

Okay, Here’s My Bottom Line

Safety, emotional safety. No matter which way we slice and dice it, no matter which side of the equation we’re on, it all comes down to emotional safety.

If I’m severely depressed, last thing I want to hear is someone telling me to look on the bright side of life, especially if you’re too damn stupid to take the trouble to see my reality. And if I feel like hopping on a plane right now to tell Obama off, last thing I want to hear is that we don’t have enough frequent flyer miles.

Looking at life as a loved one: Don’t put me in the situation where every time we go out I feel I have to dismantle a ticking bomb. And if I’ve reached the point where I’m telling you to snap out of it, it means I’m at the end of my tether. You are making my life miserable. I can’t take it any more. You need to be showing me that you’re willing to work with me. No stupid bipolar excuses. Don’t take my good will for granted. I don’t have an unlimited supply.

In either situation - living with it or living with someone living with it - you need to make me feel emotionally safe:

“I see your point.” “Good idea.” “I’m listening.”

And finally, the three magic words: “I know how you feel.”


All of you are invited to my talk. For further details, click the link below:

International Bipolar Foundation
Lecture: Relationships and Coping with the Day-to-Day Stuff

Thursday, Sept 8
5:30-6:00- SOCIAL
6:45-7:00- Q & A
Sanford Children's Research Center, Building 12
10905 Road to Cure, San Diego 92121
(Off of Torrrey Pines Road, La Jolla)


Al said...

I think you bring up a lot of good points, especially the one about emotional safety. But I disagree strongly that all relationships with mentally ill people are abusive.

Relationship abuse, whether physical or emotional, is about control and power. The abusive person cannot see their partner as a separate, autonomous person with their own needs. They use emotional and verbal abuse to wear down their partner's self-esteem and self-efficacy, and use physical abuse to intimidate and terrorize their partner.

I'm not saying that abusers can't also be mentally ill; however, not all mentally ill people want to control their partners.

A relationship with a mentally ill person is difficult at times, but it is not inherently abusive. I do not abuse my partner. I do not try to control where he goes, who he spends time with, or how he spends his money. I do not use emotional blackmail or physical threats to get my way.

Being with me can be very difficult. I can't always shoulder my share of our household's financial burden. Sometimes I'm too vulnerable to have difficult conversations. But that does not make me "abusive".

John McManamy said...

Hey, Al. I see your point. Let me clarify: People with mental illness may not be abusers in the traditional sense of the word, but we do put those who are close to us through hell. This is often unintentional, but the effect on our loved ones can be pretty much the same.

Basically, a loved one should not have to distinguish behavior that is the result of a bipolar episode or one that is caused by someone with an extremely abusive personality.

It's not just the attacks - it's all the various things that wear down the loved one, from coaxing his/her partner out of bed to organizing a zillion and one things to coping with the unexpected.

I don't claim to have any easy answers. All I'm saying - having lived on both sides of the relationship equation - is that we all need to try to understand the people who love us better. And that when we can demonstrate that we are trying to understand, it makes life a whole lot easier for everyone concerned.

But look - you are the one in a relationship and I am not, so I can certainly benefit from your insights. So please keep posting. I'm still have a lot to learn. And I sincerely mean that.