I want to talk openly about the realities of living with and trying to support someone who is mentally ill, and what I’ve learned about mental health and stigma over the years. The stigma of mental illness isn’t just connected with those who are ill, but also to those of us on this journey with them. I live with a partner who has depression and bipolar disorder. This means he is often unhappy, critical and negative. To be honest, living with him is far from easy and harmonious.
It’s a roller coaster, that frankly I’d quite like to get off sometimes; but instead, my children and I fasten our seatbelts and remain seated. We’ve done this for many years now, and by no means is our life always awful and miserable, but it’s certainly not the life that I envisioned when I met my husband the best part of twenty years ago (before he was ill). We’re just not the family that I thought we would be, and that’s because my husband’s illness does define our family dynamic and influence how we function and the life that we live. This is not to blame him, it’s not to make him feel worse or guilty and I know he has no control over this; it is simply our reality and that of many, many other families.
Knowing the enemy
The first thing I had to learn, it took me far too long to learn this and I am yet to fully master this one, is that the “enemy” (for want of a better word) is the illness, not my husband. When he is ill, he is precisely that, ill and not rude, obnoxious, nasty, stupid, deliberately hurting those around him, stubborn, nor any of the numerous unpleasant things I feel like calling him when I’m wanting to get off the roller coaster.
It also took me many years of going to social events either on my own, or just me and the children, before I realized that it really isn’t my place to make excuses for his absence. It’s exhausting trying to think of something else to say and trying to remember what I’d used last time, and it’s ineffective, if you’re constantly arriving at things on your own, people are bound to talk, and talk often leads to guesses at what could be really going on and the last thing I need is to be the subject of “gossip”, however well-meaning, amongst my social network.
Getting it out in the open
I’m not saying that I shout about my husband’s condition from the rooftops, or that it’s the first thing I tell new people I meet, but it's no longer something I actively hide, and through this I can assure you I have well and truly found out who my real friends are, who’s going to be there for us and support us. Letting these wonderful people, closest to myself and my children, know that my husband is ill not only slapped the issue squarely on the table, but has allowed us to ask for the support that we need.
I’ve also had to learn that my husband’s illness is not something that I can personally “fix”. I quite simply can’t “love” this particular problem away, this can be really hard as there are times when I simply long for the person he was before, the person I now accept I may never get back.
Being honest with my sons is the best way to support them
Perhaps the biggest learning curve was that I cannot protect my children from this, I can only guide them through it. My children are now 11 and 7, but certainly for most of my youngest son’s life this has been an issue. They are bright, intuitive and articulate young men of whom I couldn’t be prouder. Their Dad's illness affects them and it would be naive and potentially harmful of me not to recognize that. So my boys and I talk, and talk and talk, about their Dad’s health, they both have age appropriate information, my youngest calls his Dad's health “grumpy poorly again”, whilst my eldest is more familiar with the medical terminology of “depression” and “bipolar”. They don’t like it, why would they? But they know it’s ok to say when they’re worried or scared for their Dad, they know they don’t ever have to make excuses for him, or me, and that they never have to lie about it or hide it.
We don’t have a bad life, we’re not the only people who go through this, we have fun, we laugh, we joke, we’re often a happy and content family, we just also have our challenges and step by step, one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, we’re getting there.