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.
It’s natural, I think, when you’re a witness to something as out of control as a spouse’s psychotic episode (or suicidal depression, extreme mania, severe bulimia, or whatnot) to want to impose some measure of normalcy. Taking charge of your partner’s recovery may feel like the only thing you can do to get your lives back on track.
When my husband became psychotic, I wanted to fix him. I could see where his thinking was strange, and I wanted to straighten it out. When I tried to explain to him that he was delusional, it only increased his anxiety and made him more eager to explain why his delusions were, in fact, real.
Fortunately, he went to the hospital and was put on antipsychotics. When he came home, though, I wanted to keep him on his medications, keep him going to therapy, and make sure he knew that he wasn’t misunderstood; he was ill.
For a time, I handed him his pills and watched him swallow them. One day, shortly after he was released from the hospital, he said he wanted to drive himself to his therapy appointment. I agreed, and then secretly followed him in our other car to make sure he had actually gone.
When he returned to work two months after his hospitalizations, I fantasized about how great it would be if his company could just set up a little work area for me, where I could read and write and be on hand in case John needed me. (I didn’t act on this fantasy, though, thank God!) His first day back, I insisted on driving him and picking him up, in case he was too tired to do it himself.
Until very recently, I pestered him at least once a week about keeping up with his mood chart.
I knew I was being controlling, I knew I was being a nag, but I needed to believe that I had some power over his bipolar disorder. I needed to believe that, as long as I was on top of things, our lives wouldn’t once again spin so suddenly, shockingly out of control.
Problem is, when you try to exert control over your husband’s illness, you wrest it away from him.
For a marriage to thrive, you need to be equals. You can’t treat your spouse like a child, even if the consequences of him (or her) not taking those meds, not going to those appointments, or overdoing it at work could be dire.
I’m not talking about times of crisis here. Obviously, someone who’s psychotic or suicidal isn’t going to be able to make rational decisions about his or her care and recovery. But once the crisis has passed, you need to trust your spouse to manage his own recovery. Doing anything else breeds only co-dependency and resentment.
Let your spouse tell you what he needs from you regarding his recovery from mental illness. For me and John, one of the most supportive, helpful things I did in the wake of his hospitalizations was to just treat him like I always had, do the things we always did, and not focus too much on the illness.
Being a symptom cop sends the message that your partner is defined by his illness, and that he’s powerless to recover without your help. Being his wife, however, says that he’s much more than the sum of his symptoms, and that you’re in this together; you’ll figure it out.
I’m grateful that John doesn’t take it upon himself to make sure I’m attending my Twelve Step meetings and calling my sponsor. He knows that those tasks are my responsibility and he has confidence in my ability to take care of myself.
Today, John takes his medications. He also sees a psychiatrist and a therapist. But he doesn’t fill out his mood chart anymore, and I’m okay with that. If he doesn’t think it’s necessary to his recovery, I trust his judgment.
And I have to say, I’m much happier being his wife than being his mommy, or a symptom cop.