If there is a topic that comes up repeatedly in my support groups, it’s the role of relationships on the recovery journey. Some members have supportive relationships; some are co-dependent; others are downright toxic, including accusations of being “demon-possessed.”

It’s one that is incredibly sensitive, and when we get to the week where we discuss “Safe and Healthy Relationships” in my weekly Living Grace group, it inevitably gets interesting.

As I discuss in  “Practical Tips to Support Someone You Love with Mental Illness,” loving someone with mental illness is work. “Fine,” you might say, “but all relationships are work.” And indeed they are. However, mood distortions and other symptoms associated with mental illnesses increase the workload on the support network around us. Our illnesses often contribute to issues around trust, intimacy, problem resolution, and how we communicate.

Each of these issues makes the relationship more work overall — and not just for us, but those on the other side of the relationship as well.

For example, when I’m hypomanic, one of my symptoms is that I go on spending sprees. While I’ve learned to recognize it and manage it to a degree, that doesn’t mean that I can control the impulse altogether. When your family lives on a single income (as mine does), this symptom has the potential to be devastating.

My last hypomanic episode was in September 2017. I am now the owner of 100 gel pens, a 48-set of Prismacolor pencils (go ahead, ask me the last time I colored anything), cheap Bluetooth headphones that don’t work well, and I bought a fair amount of high-end yarn (serious knitter over here, with a more-than-adequate existing stash). In each case, I was able to justify the purchase. I bought the gel pens to help me make my new bullet journal (also purchased in September) more enticing to use; I was going to start coloring every day in my coloring Bible, the headphones would make it easier to write at Starbucks (while drinking a $5 latte), and the yarn skeins would add the perfect touch to the projects I had in progress.

My husband simply watched the packages arrive from Amazon and shook his head.

There were other purchases I nearly made and didn’t, and each of the items I bought were lower-ticket items. The damage was not as extensive as previous episodes were.

I am lucky: My now-husband and I were together for four years before we married, so these impulses are not a new phenomenon to him. However, the first time we shared a roof, and he saw in full Technicolor-reality the expense of these impulses, we had to have (multiple) serious conversations. I wasn’t diagnosed yet, so we didn’t know that I was fighting an uphill battle. It looked like I was just irresponsible.

When we decided to become a one-income family, (I still was not yet diagnosed), this was an issue we had to address. How could we ensure that I would stay within my side of the budget?

Despite our game plan, I still had issues. The first time I had to tell my husband just how much I was over, he left the house and went for a long drive to calm down. When we finally connected again, it was not a pretty conversation. He had to work a lot of overtime to course correct, and I switched to a pure-cash system.

Even now, I know he worries. Since my diagnosis and resultant improvement, we’ve been able to loosen up some of the details around my spending. Even so, I saw that look again in his eyes in September, wondering just how bad the situation was and if he needed to intervene again.

It doesn’t matter how strong and healthy our relationship is or how much better I’m doing: my illness still interferes.

We are lucky. I’m diagnosed, I’m on a good medication, and I’ve had the opportunity to attend a lot of classes and learn new skills for interacting with others.

Doing so has given me the ability to rely less on my husband for my self-esteem and validation. I now can look at a situation and have compassion on myself, or acknowledge that I did the best anyone could do in the situation.

Other times, I have to admit that I did not use my skills.

 

Like anyone going through a mental illness cycle or walking the road back to mental health, learning good relationship skills is critical to our long-term success. Ensuring that we are in healthy and reciprocal relationships gives us a sense of belonging, significance, and safety.

Learning these skills is not always easy. Those of us coming from a mental illness background often have (typically undiagnosed) parents who are also ill. We likely had poor skills modeled for us and learned behaviors and coping mechanisms that allowed us to survive in the best way we knew how.

Coping skills are not life skills, however, and that means we often need to re-learn how to interact with others. It can be scary, difficult, and often frustrating as we learn how to establish and maintain boundaries and learn how to ask for the things we need inside a relationship.

It’s hard on our relationships, too. Not only are we learning new ways of interacting, but also those around us have to learn new ways of responding to us. If you have a friend who constantly digs at you, it can be confusing if you start responding through silence instead of lashing out. It’s a delicate dance for everyone involved.

Over time, however, as we take our baby steps and start using our skills more consistently, our network starts to adapt. Many, those who truly love us, become less likely to cross boundaries or kinder in their words. They stop walking on eggshells when they need to share bad news.

Not all do, however, and that is not always about us and our condition. If we have an undiagnosed parent, their coping skills often lead to negative relationship skills as well. It’s the same with friends who are undiagnosed or living with addiction or the aftereffects of trauma. When those around us are untreated, it makes it significantly more difficult for us to move forward with our treatment in a healthy manner.

All of which means that, at some point in our treatment journey, we have to stop and examine our relationships. Which are healthy? Which are unhealthy? Which have a chance of healing? Which will simply never get better, unless the other person goes through a radical transformation?

As we address these questions, we have to remember to take our side of the relationship into consideration. In most cases, our behavior has caused, enabled, or influenced the responses we receive from others. Often, there is no “fixing” the relationship, but we can mend it.

Going through this process and addressing these questions with your therapist can help you make good, informed decisions and develop a plan for how you want to move forward. With some, you may want to have a “clearing the air” conversation; with others, continuing on your current path will be enough. Sadly, some may need to be ended.

As we make decisions about our relationships and how we want to engage in them in the future, we come to embrace true, healthy relationships. We get to experience true intimacy and support, and to experience these on deeper and more profound levels than we were capable of in the depths of our illness.

While these changes are not easy to make, they are deeply rewarding. Stick with it, take it one day at a time, and you will reach the other side.

How are your relationships changing as a result of your diagnosis?

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