I’ve been with my husband, who has a chronic, serious mental illness, for the past ten years, and in that time I’ve learned to deal with his illness while still maintaining my own health.
Learning how to deal has not always been easy. In 2009, only a year after we married, I filed for divorce. At that time, I didn’t have the knowledge or the skills necessary to navigate what has been and, in all likelihood, will continue to be a rather rocky terrain.
My husband’s illness is characterized by severe mood fluctuations, which primarily default to anger; paranoia; grandiosity; and cognitive impairment. On any given day, he may wake up feeling okay–happy even–and want to have coffee.
So we start the day like other married couples: Drinking coffee, talking, filling one another in on what’s going on. We may talk about the animals (we have a slew of them) or the people who work here or the weather or any myriad of things. And for a while–maybe 15 minutes or so–we are okay. Everything’s kosher. And then J will close down; his face will become guarded. I know something’s going on; I just don’t know what.
And about then he’ll put his coffee down, and say, “I don’t want to talk about business. All we do is talk about business.”
And I don’t know how to respond to that because I don’t know how discussing the ducks or the horses or picking out new flooring can be construed as business. So I’m become tentative, “Okay,” I may say. “What do you want to talk about?”
“Never mind, just go back, leave me alone,” he will sometimes tell me.
Now, what I used to do–and I can guarantee this doesn’t work–is ask ‘what’s wrong?’ Because asking ‘what’s wrong’ implies there is something wrong with J himself, at his core. To him, I’m not asking what’s wrong at this present moment, I’m asking what’s eternally wrong with his very essence. And then he responds, “Why does there always have to be something wrong? Why is it always me? Why isn’t it ever you that’s wrong?”
As there’s no way to answer that, I don’t. Instead, I get up, put his coffee cup in the sink, and go back to doing my own things: writing, cleaning, feeding the animals. In short, I disengage.
Disengaging, especially when I’m feeling unfairly attacked, is really hard. However, it’s getting easier, because over the years, I’ve acquired skills that help me deal with the vagaries of mental illness, and now, with the hope that what I’ve learned can help others in similar situations, I share the top five strategies that have helped keep me balanced:
- Develop your sense of humor.
- Do not personalize anything your partner, spouse, child, or parent does.
- Develop a good support system.
- Develop and nurture self care.
- Use your sense of humor.
Tomorrow (or later in the week), I will touch on each of these points: how they’ve helped and how they can be learned.