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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Why I Need a Higher Purpose than Pleasure

February 21, 2011

I’m not an ascetic. I enjoy an expensive steak, a sparkly piece of jewelry, and an intimate moment with my husband as much as the next gal.

I do, however, abstain from a number of foods that many people find pleasurable. Chocolate, for instance. Spaghetti. A nice bottle of wine.

A lot of people in my life don’t get it. “Everything in moderation,” they say, shaking their heads, incredulous that I haven’t allowed myself the “pleasure” of eating these foods in more than 11 years.

They don’t understand that, for me, although the actual act of tasting the food might give me pleasure, it’s the same kind of pleasure a heroin addict feels as she pushes a needle into her vein.

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Suffering’s Role in Creativity

January 17, 2011

I’ve always fancied myself to be a creative person. A reader from a young age, I wrote my first “novel” in the fifth grade. I won prizes for my short stories in high school. I went to graduate school for creative writing, and I write for a living today.

For a long time, though, writing was something I had to do—as Maya Angelou once said, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.”—but it wasn’t necessarily something I enjoyed.

You see, I bought into the myth of the suffering artist. I thought great art could only come from a place of pain. I identified heavily with Hemingway when he said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

I conveniently forgot that Hemingway killed himself, which is the most destructive act anyone can ever achieve.

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The “Glamour” of Mental Illness

December 29, 2010

New research conducted by mentaline.com reveals that approximately 11% of teenagers think mental illness is “fashionable.” Three percent of them have even faked having a mental illness, believing that this would make them “unique,” more like celebrity sufferers, or “just cool.”

Of those teens who’ve faked illness, the most popular choices are:

  • Eating disorders – 22%
  • Self-harming – 17%
  • Addiction – 13%
  • Depression – 12%
  • Bipolar Disorder– 9%

As someone who’s suffered from both an eating disorder and depression, whose husband has bipolar disorder, and whose sister has overcome self-harming, I’m fascinated by this data. In a way, I can even relate to these kids.

But the funny thing about mental illness is that, while it may look cool or glamorous from the outside, when you’re trapped inside it, it’s the least glamorous thing you could ever imagine.

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Authenticity vs. Anonymity

December 13, 2010

When I was a teenager, all I wanted to do was blend in with the crowd. I never raised my hand in class, I never raised my voice.

When I went away to college, I’d wander off the small, safe campus of my liberal arts college and walk aimlessly around the mall to avoid seeing people I knew.

I sat in dark movie theaters by myself for hours at a time bingeing, because eating while watching other people’s lives unfold onscreen was safe. It required nothing from me.

Bingeing in anonymity meant I didn’t have to know who I was, and I didn’t have to explain myself to anyone.

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Why Community Can Be More Healing Than Therapy

December 2, 2010

I love therapy. Truly, I do.

My husband and I have been seeing a therapist since he came out of the hospital two years ago. She’s great, and going to see her has improved our communication by leaps and bounds.

John also sees a therapist on an individual basis, and honestly, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with him coming home from the hospital if he hadn’t been willing to go. Seeing his therapist has helped John come to terms with his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and it’s given him the tools he needs to cope with it.

That said, though, I haven’t always derived great benefits from therapy, and there have been times when having the support of a community of my peers has been way more transformative than participating in therapy ever could be.

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Stupid Things People Say about Mental Illness

November 21, 2010

My father has never been big on expressing emotion, particularly uncomfortable emotion. He’s also the kind of guy who, when playing cards, “knows what’s in everybody’s hand.”

His reaction to the news of my bulimia, then, was really no surprise.

I’d lost a lot of weight by crash dieting the summer before my senior year of high school, and when I went back to school and found that I could no longer stick to my starvation schedule, I tried to keep the weight from piling back on by being a lot less careful about when and where I threw up. My mother figured out what I was doing and told me she was taking me to a doctor. Later that day, while exercising in the home gym in our basement, my father made the only acknowledgment he ever made about my eating disorder when he said, “You’ve got to learn some balance.”

Umm, really, Dad? You think?

Today, with 11 years of Twelve Step recovery under my belt, I know that he was trying to be helpful. At the time, though, it was demoralizing, to say the least. I knew I needed more balance. Intellectually, I knew exactly what I needed to do to maintain a healthy weight. But that didn’t mean I could do it.

The way I thought and acted and felt around food was different from my father. We could order the exact same meal at a restaurant and he’d push his plate away before he was done saying, “I’m stuffed like a dirty pig.” I, meanwhile, would stare at him uncomprehendingly. How could he be 6’ tall and stuffed when I could eat three more plates? I had no mechanism that signaled fullness. I ate like I was bottomless pit.

His assumption, though, that I was just like him and could learn to “push myself away from the table” if I just tried harder, is where a lot of the stigma that’s associated with all types of mental illness comes from. It’s a failure of the imagination, really. An inability to imagine that someone else’s brain patterns could really be all that different from your own.

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