Wednesday 25 September 2019

Three Things I Wish People Knew about Loving Someone with Mental Illness

Your journey as friends reminds us that mental illness doesn’t change what friendship is all about: being there for those we love.
— Bridget Woodhead

Official statistics vary but received wisdom is that one in four adults lives with a mental health condition. Within my social circle the ratio is much higher.

Of the ten people I love and care about most, eight live with a diagnosed mental health condition or have experienced mental health difficulties in recent years. Among my closest friends it’s five out of five, including my best friend Fran.

Here are three things I wish people knew about loving someone who lives with mental illness.

It’s Different for Everyone

My loved ones live with a variety of mental health conditions and symptoms including anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), depression, visual and auditory hallucinations, suicidal thinking, and self-harm. Some live with more than one of these. Several also have physical health conditions to deal with, including chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME), type 1 diabetes, fibromyalgia, hearing loss, visual impairment, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

With such a range of conditions and symptoms things are clearly going to be different for each person affected. What may be less obvious is that a diagnosis (for example bipolar disorder or anxiety) can affect people very differently. It might even affect someone differently at different times.

What this means in practice is that no matter how “aware” you are, no matter what your own lived experience is or how many books and blogs you’ve read (even ours!), no matter how much you care and want to help, if you want to know how things are for your loved one you’re going to have to ask. When you do, respect their right to disclose no more than they want to or feel safe doing. My friends have opened my eyes to things of which I have no direct experience, including bipolar anger, red flags, and living with anxiety.

The important thing is not to make assumptions about what you’re friend or loved one is going through, or what their illness might mean for you both. What matters is the relationship you share, and that is both precious and unique.

Illness Is Not All There Is

If all this seems a bit overwhelming I can offer some reassurance. Each of my friends and loved ones are affected by their diagnoses and symptoms — how could they not be? — but they are not defined by them. This is the central tenet of my friendship with Fran and just about everything we do.

By reading our book you have become part of our personal journey, but as we said at the beginning this is not really about us at all. It is not about bipolar disorder, or even illness. It is about learning to accept one another for who we are. It is about embracing the journey we take together as friends, one step at a time. Be who you are. Do what you can. Embrace the journey.

The same is true of your friend or loved one, so don’t lose sight of the person you know and care about. Your relationship deserves to be as rich and varied and caring and tempestuous, and bring as many moments of joy and tears, learning and challenge and mutual reward as any other. One friend expressed this important message perfectly. Speaking of me and Fran she said, “Your journey as friends reminds us that mental illness doesn’t change what friendship is all about: being there for those we love.”

It Will Change You

I think some people imagine loving someone with a mental illness means being on call 24/7, helping them through crisis after crisis, and having to put your life on hold at a moment’s notice. I’m there for my friends but where there is a caregiver aspect, as there is with me and Fran, it is in the context of a broader relationship founded on mutuality and caring, not worry or a sense of sacrifice. As Fran said to me once, “I need a Marty. Not a martyr.”

Knowing you’ve made a difference in someone’s life is the best feeling in the world, as I discussed recently with fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson:

It’s not an ego thing (well, not in an unhealthy way) to feel good when you can help someone. I know you know that, Aimee. Your blog posts and your book and social media work help many people. Maybe we could do a joint post, how our work is helpful to others — and ourselves in the process. It’s ok to feel good about that without it being big-headed or feeling we know everything (as if!)

The “and ourselves” bit is important. Engaging openly and honestly with people changes opinions, attitudes, and lives — including your own. As I have written elsewhere, I am a better person for knowing Fran. One of my newest friends expressed it perfectly the other day:

Obviously most people have close friends but I think being close friends with someone who has these inner battles is more intense and in some ways stronger as a friendship because you both put effort in in ways you wouldn’t need to otherwise. I’m not saying other friendships aren’t strong but I think the good times with the friends we have are probably accelerated because of the extra challenges.

Talking of a family member, another friend put it this way:

I have learned so much from him and his illness that he doesn’t even know. Opened my eyes to a whole new world I’ve not known much about, even in my own family. I’ve grown so much in my understanding of mental illness. I love him unconditionally and will always be here for him. I don’t see him as his illness but as a man who is constantly battling a sickness that keeps trying to take over who he really is. He’s the strongest person I know.

I’m going to close with a statement by Angela Theresa from her article Six Things Your Borderline Friend Wants You to Know:

To anyone who is a friend to someone with borderline personality disorder, thank you for being there.


Do you love someone with mental illness? Do you live with illness yourself? What would you like your loved ones and the world to know?


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