How Not to Live With a Mentally Ill Person

Or how to quickly and efficiently trigger raging episodes followed by deep and dangerous depression.

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We do the best we can. Sometimes our best demands a superhuman effort to be nice for weeks, months or years. Our efforts to stay well and in the background could be because a partner or family member needs extra support and loving care which we earnestly want to give. Or we could be exerting great effort out of a desperate wish not to let our mental illness drag down our family or household. We’re taking our meds as ordered, doing our best to take care of ourselves, and trying to avoid causing problems for those we love.

Some days it takes all our strength just to get out of bed. Then even more strength is required not to rage over real or perceived slights. We do the best we can. But some days our partners, children, or both seem determined to set us off.

It feels unfair. Then it’s all our fault there’s dysfunction, stress and tension in the house. People who are free of chronic, and often worsening diagnoses of mental illnesses — like bipolar 1 or 2, debilitating major depressive disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder or PTSD — have no idea how much effort it takes to remain steadily upbeat and put on a happy face for the benefit of others no matter what happens.

So sometimes they trigger us. There are so many ways. Being made fun of works on most of us and is vicious enough to put even a healthy person in distress. We never learn to tolerate being mocked, even gently, when we’re trying so damn hard just to be seen and accepted as normal. Sometimes we manage to laugh along with the joke even if it’s at our expense. It’s hard to be merry when one is not taken seriously or subjected to monumental disrespect.

Failing to notice that in conversation a pattern has somehow developed to scoff at us or contradict everything we say is something healthy people do. They don’t know or don’t perceive how difficult this is for a mentally ill person who already feels marginalized. It happens a lot in families. For some reason it seems easy for the family to fall into a pattern of naysaying or ignoring what we say. Maybe it’s a defense developed in unhealthier times when loved ones needed to ignore our outbursts. It’s too easy for us to say the wrong thing. We get mixed up, our perceptions are off, and if we’re older our memory isn’t always accurate.

We simply do not see or experience life the same as a healthy people do. We have no protection from the stings and barbs healthy people can ignore. If you aim a hateful or insulting remark at us, it cuts all the way to the bone. We are not able to see life or certain life events the same as mentally healthier people do. If we did, we wouldn’t need multiple medicines and therapy to be able to walk upright and be mostly functional.

Believe it or not, sometimes we can be both sincere and correct in what we say. It’s too easy to become a habit among those loved ones closest us to automatically contradict, disbelieve, and disregard what we say.

Sometimes that happens with children, partners, etc., because they have been forced by our illness not to put much weight in what we say. That was their necessary defense if we were so sick we had once raged regularly, had no boundaries or filters and said awful, hateful things to people we love.

People who have lived with us many years know the difference between when we’re medically complying with treatment and comparatively heathy from when we’re off the rails.

Why do relatives and friends, either subconsciously or quite consciously push our buttons and pull our trigger? Is it that important to get us to act out so one can feel ok about their own mental health compared to our “craziness”? Because anyone who has lived long-term with someone with bipolar 1 or 2, or someone with critical and disabling depression knows how easy it is to pull the right triggers and push buttons to get us to display our illness in its flaming, full color inglorious ugliness. Once that happens we then experience the pain and shame of realizing we’ve reacted insanely or in a disastrously inappropriate manner.

It is then that healthy people can tell each other or themselves, “See, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about because she’s crazy as a loon.” Too many times that scenario happens to us in a long life with mental illness and we become hypersensitive to it.

Our past, when we’ve had episodes of acute illness, is used against us whenever a healthy partner or other close person desperately needs to be right or have the upper hand. People feel free to discount our convictions or even our opinions. It doesn’t matter if we have expertise in the matter being discussed or whether it is our career field. It doesn’t matter if we are right as rain. It just does not matter. Because we are mentally ill and therefore can’t possibly be right and can be corrected, laughed at, ignored or insulted.

You think and maybe say we’re disagreeing with you because we’re mentally ill. And then the frustration we feel at being discounted because we have mental illness will indeed often cause us to become angry. No matter how healthy and compliant one has been or for how long, the people closest to us know how to get us to blow up. Then we sit in agony and regret for losing our temper and often we fall helplessly into another deep depression that can last days, weeks, or even months.

A incident of rage is almost always followed by a fall into a deep, dark, paralyzing hole. We’ve seen once again that we are “other” than a healthy, self-controlled, and “normal” person. We are, once again inappropriate. We behaved inappropriately for the situation and circumstances. We believe we are inappropriate. We are insane, our sickness tells us. We’ve ruined everything once again. Like we feel we always do. Like you tell us we do. We’ve done what our doctors cautioned us about. We have, if only for a moment, raged out of control, or expressed anger inappropriate for the situation. We yelled. We cursed, Maybe we tore up something or threw a glass.

So our partner, parent, adult child, etc., is blameless. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’ve been triggered. We just blame ourselves. Thus the depression closes in on us.

We may find ourselves headed to the hospital because a supposedly loving person pushed our buttons to demonstrate, to themselves and maybe others, whether they know it or not, that we’re mentally ill and just plain wrong— and they are not.

Since bipolar people in treatment have periods of wellness, often long periods, punctuated only rarely, if ever, with disproportionate anger, why are we judged by our sickness instead of being credited for our wellness? Often the only thing people know about us is our capacity for dysfunction. Meanwhile long periods of wellness when we are able to work, function, and sometimes even excel, are overlooked.

We should be validated for the gigantic effort it takes to get well and stay well for months or even years.

Instead we are labeled for even brief or rare instances of getting mad enough to storm off, cuss, yell, and be furious.

We, even as we become elderly, are judged based on our most serious bout of illness, while our extended periods of health are ignored. We can be branded as crazy, maybe even dangerous, even though we’ve lived with our disease for 50 years and never hurt anyone. Our only victims are usually a favorite drinking glass, thrown against something that will make a satisfying crash, a piece of furniture, which may get kicked or tipped over, or the cluttered tops of our desks, which may get wiped clean.

But we are often still considered dangerous to ourselves and others. Why is that? Other, supposedly healthy people, lose their tempers, too, and have a temper fit of epic proportions. When that happens they say “just got mad and lost my temper.” If someone with a known, diagnosed mental illness loses control of their temper or even their patience, it’s “raging” and a symptom of serious mental illness for which we are forever judged and labeled.

We would just like the world to know that we have mental illness, not stupidity. We can be right sometimes. It’s not always sanity on another’s part if they attribute everything we say to our illness. It’s sometimes stupidity and always unjust.

Would it really hurt people who live with mentally ill people to use a bit of sensitivity as to how they react to us?

If people tell themselves what we say doesn’t matter because we’re mentally ill, they are insensitive to us and maybe in a habit of discrediting us because we disagree.

Would it be ok, and not “crazy” of us to expect them — our partners, family and friends — to refrain from pushing our buttons and pulling our triggers to try to show we’re insane? That is some truly crazy way of validating one’s health and proving our illness? Mentally healthy, intelligent, and well-adjusted people can still be dead wrong. Conversely, people with mental illness can be absolutely correct — right on the money.

Life would be so much better for us if healthy partners, parents, adult children, and friends would accept that and not automatically ignore or disqualify what we say because we have a mental illness.

Being sick should not predispose healthy people to presume we are wrong and being healthy does mean they are always right.

Nothing makes it ok for others to automatically discount our decisions and opinions. Mentally ill people know it’s hard to live with a sick person. Believe us, it’s hard to be one, too.

Former print journalist, former mayor, retired law enforcement officer. Writing about politics and government along with random personal essays.

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