Can a Marriage with Mental Illness Survive a Symptom Cop Spouse?

April 7, 2011

A few weeks ago, the Weightless blog published an interview with Susan Schulherr, author of EATING DISORDERS FOR DUMMIES, in which she explains the distinction between a symptom cop—someone who tries to control your symptoms—and a truly supportive friend or family member. The interview, of course, focuses on eating disorders, but it got me thinking about how to best offer support to a spouse with any type mental illness.

Being in recovery for an eating disorder myself, and being married to a man with bipolar disorder, I have experience with this issue from both sides of the fence. Interestingly, when I was in the thick of my illness—bingeing and purging multiple times a day—I didn’t think I’d recover unless I was being monitored/controlled by a symptom cop.

I daydreamed about getting locked up on eating disorder ward, joining the army, even going to jail—all because I imagined that in those places, finally, with someone else dictating what and when and how much I ate, I would lose weight and be okay.

At one point, I tried to enlist my mother as a symptom cop. I told her that having sweet foods in the house was bad for me. She understood, and stopped buying them. Of course, that pissed me off, and in the end, it only served to reinforce my sneaky behavior around food.

In my experience, relying on someone else to fix you never works.

When it’s your spouse who suffers from a mental illness, however, it’s hard to remember this fact.

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Surviving Trauma in Your Marriage

December 6, 2010

Seeing your spouse suffer is a terrible thing. You want to make things better. You want to take away the hurt.

So much of the time, though, you can’t. Or at least not fast enough, and not to the degree you’d like.

A recent post on Marriage Gems references the book HEALING TOGETHER: A COUPLE’S GUIDE TO COPING WITH TRAUMA AND POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS. Marriage Gems quotes the authors of the book as saying, “Trauma puts up a wall that for a time locks a couple out of their familiar world and leaves them frozen in the traumatic event. Suddenly there is no past, and the future feels impossible.”

God, can I relate.

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What Not to Do When Someone You Love Is Psychotic

November 29, 2010

There have been a couple of disturbing news reports lately about terrible crimes committed by people in psychotic states, including the actor Michael Brea’s savage murder of his mother and a Seattle killing that took place in front of school children.

Although it’s been proven that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it, these reports underscore the fact that untreated psychosis can lead to tragedy.

It’s imperative, then, that you do everything you can to get your loved one the help he or she needs.

When John became psychotic due to a manic episode that escalated into psychosis, I learned a few hard lessons about what not to do when you’re trying to help a loved one beat this frightening illness.

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Top Three Reasons You Should Be Involved in Your Spouse’s Psychiatric Care

October 26, 2010

I never accompany my husband to dentist appointments or routine physicals, but I go to every appointment he has with his psychiatrist.

This wasn’t always the case. When he first came out of the hospital after his initial breakdown, he asked me not to come into the psychiatrist’s office with him. My presence would make him nervous, he said. It would make it difficult for him to be open and honest with the doctor about what was going on.

With some misgivings, I agreed to let him field the appointment by himself. The doctors from the hospital had been terrible about communicating with me, but I assumed that his private psychiatrist would have a better bedside manner toward me, John’s wife.

I was wrong. Although I asked to visit with Dr. Black for a few minutes after John had seen her, she told us that she didn’t have time. When I called her in between John’s appointments to let her know that his psychotic symptoms were resurfacing, she never called me back. She also had the nerve, when I finally did speak with her during my husband’s next appointment, to tell John (and me) that I was part of the problem, and that he needed to set boundaries around his interactions with me.

Her refusal to give my opinion any weight led to misdiagnosis of John’s illness (she thought he had anxiety and depression, when in reality he was suffering from a manic episode with psychotic features), and a second stint in the hospital for him.

Although HIPAA privacy laws can sometimes make it difficult to get involved in a loved one’s psychiatric care, there are three reasons I believe you should always fight to be an active member of your spouse’s mental healthcare team.

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Staying Calm During a Psychiatric Crisis

October 3, 2010

People often reflect each others’ moods, which is why it’s important to stay calm during a loved one’s psychiatric crisis.

My husband’s psychiatric crisis happened in two parts. There was the initial breakdown and one-week hospitalization, after which he came home for about two weeks. During those two weeks, he started seeing a psychiatrist who—for whatever reason—didn’t believe he’d been psychotic. She told him that he was on the wrong medications, and that she was going to take him off Risperdal and put him onto an antidepressant called Pristiq. A couple of days into this transition, his psychosis took root again.

But the doctor didn’t believe me when I told her what was going on. As John got more and more manic and psychotic, I got more and more panicked. He was calling his co-workers and frightening them with talk of his delusions. I was terrified that he was going to get himself fired, that he was going to ruin his life.

Desperate, I convinced him to call the psychiatrist. At first, she told him that he should go back on the meds the hospital had prescribed, but when he expressed some reservations with this course of action, she told him that she “wasn’t that concerned” about his behavior and explained that he had the right to continue with the Pristiq.

I was horrified, and I let John know it.

Which was a mistake. A big, big mistake.

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