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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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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Love, Mental Illness, and Vulnerability

November 8, 2010

As a teenager, I told myself that I didn’t want marriage, I didn’t want kids, I didn’t want a family. In reality, I was afraid I’d never get them, so I tried to deny the desire, cut it off at the root before it blossomed into something I couldn’t control.

Fat, bulimic, and depressed, I didn’t think I was attractive enough to find a man. I didn’t think I was good enough to have a family. If people really knew me, I reasoned, they wouldn’t like me. Why should they? I sure as hell didn’t.

When I met John, I’d been in recovery for four years. I’d stopped doing things that made me hate myself, and I’d gone back and cleared up the wreckage from my past. I knew that I deserved good things, and I wasn’t afraid to admit I wanted them.

It sounds cheesy, but I was ready to fall in love.

When John and I married three years later, I spent the day in a blaze of happiness. I felt blessed, and I prayed only that, whether John and I experienced times of joy or heartache, our love and commitment to each other would remain strong and be used as a foundation to help others.

I never imagined that bipolar disorder would be God’s answer to my prayer.

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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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