It’s one thing to be diagnosed with mental illness and deal with it internally. The frustration, the unknown, the fright – all of that adds to the stress and fragile nature of already delicate minds.
It is quite another to live beside mental illness, to live with someone with a diagnosed mental disorder. When the person refuses to acknowledge the illness, or follow medical / psychological advice to manage it, the sickness becomes just too much.
My son, and his biological father, both have bipolar disorder. When we were married, I would leave work, pick up the kids, and drive home where my then-husband would be – only to sit in the driveway for a good 15 minutes and wonder which personality was in the house. Mental illness was the mastodon in the room – the great elephant-like beast that took up every inch of our lives.
When he took his meds, he was tolerable. When he was off his meds, it was hell. He was convinced (when he was on his meds) that he was cured, so he’d stop them. This became a cycle that was more cruel than vicious.
A hundred or so years ago, treatments for the mentally ill were horrific at best and torture at its worst. Now, medications, counseling and therapies exist that help people who have mental illness live full and productive lives – if they actually cooperate and follow doctors orders.
For family members of those who have mental illness, it’s not as clear-cut. As someone who has been in this place, here are four strategies for living with someone who has mental illness.
In full disclosure, I have to say this: alcoholism and domestic violence joined the mental illness mastodon in the house. Abuse in every way possible was the norm, every day, for years. Finally, after he threw me to the kitchen floor so hard it herniated my back effectively breaking it, and then gave me a choice: “Choose now, Jesus or me,” I chose Jesus, and he left the next day. It’s hard to imagine that was 11 years ago. I have been out of that relationship longer than I was in it.
Regardless, during the time I was with him, I had some strategies that helped me maintain my sanity during that time.
Keep an eye on the medication. Count them, if necessary. Watch the person take it. Yes, this sounds like you’re trying to supervise a toddler, but lies are abundant when people say they’ve taken their meds when they haven’t.
Go to the doctor appointments with the person. Share your concerns with the doctor, and even ask for the doctor’s email address. Document every appointment and obtain medical records.
Locate a support group, counseling, or other therapy for family of the patient. Even if the patient is not interested in going to counseling or therapy, go yourself – and take the children.
In full disclosure again, I have to say this: I believe marriage was created by God, between one woman and one man. Although I divorced, it was not because I wanted it; it was because vows to protect, trust, and love were broken. Cheating was involved. Black eyes occurred and my back was broken. It was ultimately a union between a believer of God and a non-believer who, we found out later after the charming part wore off, was an abusing alcoholic with bipolar disorder.
With this in mind, be aware that if your spouse or significant other (boyfriend/girlfriend) ever hits you, a child or a pet, it will not get any better. It will only get worse. If you are ever abused verbally, emotionally, psychologically, or sexually, it will not get any better. Abuse is still abuse even if there are no physical bruises.
Listen: my back, after three surgeries, has finally healed. But I am, to this day, terrified of my ex-husband. If I have to be at one of our sons’ birthday or graduation parties, I maintain my distance. I am never in the kitchen or living room alone with him. The physical bruises have long since disappeared, but there is no trust there. Trust ended on Christmas Eve when he told me, in addition to beating me, that he had been cheating on me too.
For those who have boyfriends or girlfriends who exhibit signs of mental illness, think long and hard before continuing the relationship. If that person is ever verbally cruel to or about a disabled person – walk away. If that person ever strikes an animal – walk away. If that person is ever mean-spirited to a child, run away. If they say one thing like “I believe in saving the planet,” then intentionally leaves a plastic soda bottle on the ground for “the grounds crew to pick up as it’s their job” – break it off. They are not who they say they are.
If your boyfriend or girlfriend talks badly about their opposite-sex parent (boys about their mothers, etc), they will not treat you with respect. If they disparage your own parents or the way in which you were brought up, or your belief system – run away. Fast. If they enjoy embarrassing you in front of their friends… you get the idea. Run.
These are all clues and signs I experienced while dating my ex-husband. What I didn’t know, (for he could be charming and say the right things at the right times), that underneath the surface was undiagnosed bipolar disorder along with Asperger’s syndrome. It would be years before it would be diagnosed – and by then it was too late.
You are precious in God’s sight. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. God did not make you so you can be a punching bag. And, possibly the most important thing of all – it is important, so you can move on, to forgive the person. But forgiveness does not mean you are a welcome mat, to welcome abuse back into your life.
If you are trying to escape a mentally-ill and abusive relationship, get out and stay out of it. Go to the police station and ask about a domestic abuse shelter. Ask for help. Don’t be a victim.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I learned the hard way, and now have four bolts and two titanium plates in my lower back to prove it. If you are the one with mental illness – get help. Obey the doctors’ orders. Seek counseling. Do that for the people you say you love.
(c) 2016 Terrie McKee
Terrie Bentley McKee has been writing for over 30 years. She's written two books (look on the home page for more info!), and is passionate about discipling others in the Christian faith. Available to speak at churches, faith organizations, Christian camps and missions, she has an incredible testimony of surviving domestic violence, special needs children, having a spouse who's paraplegic, and through all this, witnessing to Christ's Power, Presence and Peace. For more info, email her using the Contact page.
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