Struggling with mental illness can often be a silent and isolating affair. Then there are those trying to support their loved ones who are struggling with it.
When I set out to write a piece on living with and loving someone who struggles with their mental health, it was something I wanted to do well. I sat down and read and gathered information for two or three weeks, trying to pull everything together, trying to support my feelings with research, to convince you, the reader, that this is a pervasive and devastating issue.
I planned to remind you of the devastating impact mental illness has on our community. I was going to share some stats, like how one in four Australians suffer from a mental illness. Then I was going to share some tips on how to live with and support someone struggling with these issues.
That was the plan. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Instead, I was dropping my wife off at the train station one day and we had a fight. I was left feeling hurt, frustrated, angry, helpless. It seemed to me that it was an irrational fight. I had been trying to share my perspective on something and it escalated into all-out war.
Much of what follows was written in the 20 minutes after I arrived in the office that morning. I threw out the article I had previously written and penned this:
This story is my heart’s cry.
My wife suffered severe ongoing abuse as a child. It left her with scars—scars that are not always visible to the curious eye but to one who know her, they are there—under the surface, marking her soul, blistering her skin, bleeding internally. As one who loves her, who is “one” with her, her scars become my scars. They are left to me to heal, to bind up: to comfort her and hold her as she cries, to bear the brunt of her anger when the pain gets too much for her to contain or suppress.
I am not complaining. She has endured and experienced far more pain than I ever will. And so I endure. For her, for myself, for our marriage, a rock battered by the storms of life, strong in the tempests of travail.
I realise how hard it can be to support someone with a mental illness, whatever the cause. I’ve felt the loneliness, the shared despair, the irrational fights and the internal conflict to hold onto control, to carry the burden of someone who is struggling to carry themselves. It is an isolating existence. I feel a duty not to damage or dishearten my wife any further. I feel guilty when my words and actions, in a moment of weakness, seem to exacerbate the problem.
For my wife, it comes in seasons. It seems like all the bad times are in the past and life is good and going smoothly. Then, all of a sudden, everything falls down. It seems to happen about once a year. Often I don’t even realise she is in another season of difficulty—how long she has been struggling or how tough it has been—until she cracks.
As her husband, I respect her wishes so I don’t share her affliction with anyone. I try to carry it myself—until it becomes too heavy to bear.
Sometimes, the one you love will push you away. They will isolate themselves and take everything upon themselves. Often the one you love—be they a spouse, a parent, a child—will withdraw and want to detach themselves from their community—church, school, work, friends. Yet this is a time when those places are most important. It feels to them like nobody cares or even wants to know. But we have to be people who do care and do want to know—people and communities who walk beside them, sometimes not saying anything at all, but just being present.
If you find yourself on a journey like this, with a loved one living with mental illness, make sure you look after yourself so you can continue to help them.
The problem sits in the back of my mind. It makes me less productive. Some days I sit at work, still upset, still processing what is happening to the woman I love. The pressure builds. You feel like you’re walking on eggshells. You feel that if you put a foot wrong, if you react in the wrong way, or say or do the wrong thing, it will be your fault that they suffer, your fault that their carefully constructed peace crumbles. Maybe you even feel like it’s your fault they are suffering because you haven’t been able to help or heal them.
It’s not your fault. But you can’t carry the burden alone. Talk to a close friend or family member, a pastor or counsellor, and make sure you have the support you need. Don’t blame yourself. Stick by them.
My wife approached her employer at a time when she was . . . ready to break down.
I love my wife deeply and I pray for God to help me to love her more, to help my love heal the love that has been marred, corrupted by her experiences. But it is a long process. Medication or counselling will not work overnight and sometimes will only work for a season. You have to be prepared to be there for the long haul. They may push you away and pick irrational fights. You may not understand their reactions to seemingly normal situations. That’s OK.
“Keep praying and never lose heart.” I put this quote in because it’s my wife’s favourite. I think she finds encouragement in it but it’s also a reminder to me that I need to stick by her. As a Christian, I believe God wants and is willing to bring hope and healing to my wife and to you and your loved ones (sometimes in unexpected ways), to fight the powers of darkness that threaten to overwhelm. After all, Jesus came to heal the broken-hearted and set the captives free. As I pray for my wife it is really for me, to turn my focus and attention to her, to remind myself of what she is going through and to give up trying to control the situation myself, but to have faith and trust that things will improve.
Of course, when someone is living with a mental illness they need a good management plan from their doctor that may include counselling, medication, lifestyle changes and understanding their triggers. What they need from you, however, is for you to be there: to hold them and to love them; to support and encourage them, hopefully to strengthen them to seek the help they need; and to walk with them on their journey.
So much of this problem remains hidden. Even with emphasis days and initiatives involving sports stars and think tanks and national organisations, most of the people who live with mental illness do so out of the spotlight and behind the scenes. If you break your arm, people line up to sign your cast. But if your heart or your mind suffer breakage, even when you’re open about it, there are few people there to help you pick up the pieces. And those who care for loved ones who suffer are also often doing so alone and quietly.
My wife approached her employer at a time when she was feeling overwhelmed by stress and ready to break down. She was ready to quit. They could not have been more understanding and accommodating. They told her it was fine if she needed time off for medical appointments and that she was a valued member of the team and they didn’t want to lose her. They would check in to make sure that she was OK. I am so thankful for their response.
I love my wife. I don’t regret our journey. She has made me a more compassionate and patient person. I know the journey is not finished and that mental health management is part of the rest of our lives. However, I hope and pray that awareness continues to increase and that our workplaces, schools, clubs and churches make a concerted effort to understand and support those who struggle with these issues.
And if, like me, you love someone who has a mental illness, I want to encourage you. You are not alone. Make sure you look after yourself and seek help and support when you need it, so that you can better serve your loved one. As my wife says, “Keep praying and never lose heart."
A psychologist shares her tips on what to do if you think your spouse is suffering from a mental health issue.