True Love and Mental Illness
(Photo of Jeff and Katie Norris)
All year I have been reflecting on the relationship I have with my husband. Today we have been married for 16 years and together for 21 years. We have been together for over half of our lives. We are high school sweethearts and at 16 years old, neither one of us knew who we were going to be.
As long as we have been together, we have always known I had some form of mental illness, and my diagnoses have changed numerous times in 21 years. Our relationship has usually revolved around my illness and until this year I do not think I realized that one thing that has kept me from full recovery is that I am afraid if I get better, Jeff and I will no longer be together.
When you define a relationship by a certain thing, the loss of that thing is scary. Who will we be without it? What does it mean if I get better and all of our dynamics change? You would assume that it would change for the better, but really we chose each other because our hearts and brains resonated with each other. That means that the mental illness is part of what feels “right” in our relationship, no matter how often it feels wrong. How mental illness effects a relationship is not only about the person with mental illness, it is about the reasons why you both do what you do in the relationship. Parts of my mental illness could be better based on my husbands interactions with me, and vice versa.
I always thought that if the only reason our marriage would fail is because I have mental illness, then if I tried hard enough, I could always control things and we would be together forever. But, as I have gotten better and realized that not only do we have issues in our relationship because of me, but because of my husband too, I was scared because that meant I had less control. What if part of me getting better is to tell him some of the things that he does that hurt me and we can’t just blame my hurt on mental illness? Will he leave because everything is no longer my fault?
In the past I always talked about my husband doing all this work to stay with his mentally ill wife. The truth is we both do a ton of work. We both try as hard as we can and we both totally mess up. We both ask for the professional help we need, when we finally recognize we need it. It is not easy and every day we learn more and more about how to communicate without pushing each other’s buttons. And by buttons I do not mean just things that annoy each other, I mean the triggers that we push on that touch the other persons greatest soul-crushing fears. It is a lot of work. At times, both of us want to just say; “I’m done.”
The thing is, I would never want to go through all of this work with anyone else. For all the times I am scared in our marriage, there is still no one I trust more to be vulnerable in this life with. There is no one else I would trust who will not only commit to working on my stuff, but to working on his own stuff as well.
True love in the midst of mental illness is hard because it is so easy to pathologize one person and focus on the illness all the time. In reality, true love in the midst of mental illness is not much different than true love in a “normal” relationship- both people have traits that make them amazing and issues that make them act poorly. What matters is that both people are committed to working on their issues, realizing that each of you will seriously mess up, a lot.
Here are two resources for you:
A book that has been a great help to me this year and helped me understand that we each act the way we do because of neural networks created when we were young, is “Not the Price of Admission.” If you read it with an open mind and see how both people in the couple have these neural networks, it can make your relationship much better.