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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Happy News (about the Baby) that Made Me Sad (about Bipolar)

February 2, 2011

I started thinking about babies when John and I moved to the West Coast three and a half years ago. John wasn’t quite on the same page; he wanted some time to establish himself at his new company. He wanted some time to settle into our new life.

About two and a half years ago, we had a bit of a scare that left me thinking—briefly—that I might be pregnant. When I learned that I wasn’t, I was disappointed. I said as much to John, but once again, he wanted to wait. He wanted to make sure his company was stable and his future there secure.

To be honest, his reluctance to start a family pissed me off. It made me feel as though what I wanted was less important than what he wanted for his career.

So I got passive-aggressive.

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Jared Lee Loughner’s Parents: Why Didn’t They Know?

January 13, 2011

In the wake of last weekend’s tragic shooting in Arizona, many people are speculating that the gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, is mentally ill—most likely schizophrenic—based on reports of his antisocial and paranoid behavior.

Many people are also asking why his parents didn’t intervene and get him help for his mental problems, as evidenced by this comment from a recent MSNBC article titled “Ariz. Suspect’s Parents: ‘We Don’t Know Why This Happened’”:

The parents had to have known they had a disturbed man living with them, and it was their responsibility to get him to a doctor who would put him on medicine or hospitalize him. Even if he failed to voluntarily commit himself for treatment, he could have been involuntarily treated. The reports of his behaviors in school and by classmates, “friends” and observers are concrete and undeniable as to the severity of his mental problems! And it’s clear these problems had been going on for some time. The parents were apparently the only ones who failed to see them—it’s called denial. They should feel awful and very, very guilty for responding so irresponsibly to their son’s illness and indications he was a danger to others.

I really don’t know much about the Loughners’ situation, and given that John was never violent, I can’t imagine what they’re feeling right now, but here’s what I can tell you: When John became psychotic, I was the last to know.

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Hospital Care for Physical vs. Mental Illness

December 19, 2010

In late 2008/early 2009, my husband spent a total of 16 days in a mental hospital due to a psychotic break. I recently came home after spending nearly five days in the hospital due to an emergency appendectomy during pregnancy. I feel compelled to share a few keys differences between our experiences.

  1. During my hospitalization, John was allowed to stay with me 24/7. The regular hospital makes it easy for family members to provide comfort and support to sick loved ones. Not only was John permitted to hang out with me all day, but my room even had a pull-out chair that transformed into a cot so that he could sleep over at night.When John was in the mental hospital, visiting hours were very restricted. I could only see him for 90 minutes a day, usually between 7:00 and 8:30 pm, or 1:00 to 2:30 pm on the weekends. I wasn’t allowed to join him in his room or even walk onto the ward’s floor. Instead, I was confined to the visiting room.

    Although the limited access was almost certainly a safety precaution, that knowledge was cold comfort on the day John left the visiting room weeping and I couldn’t follow him to reassure him that everything would be okay. When someone is as confused and disoriented as John was when he first entered the hospital, having a loving spouse present would go a long way toward keeping him/her calm.

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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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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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