From Both Sides of the Couch

A therapist reflects on her time with patients, and her time as a patient.

Relationships: Mental Illness Multiplies the Challenges

Difficulties we have exacerbate the normal demands of a relationship

Relationships are difficult for anyone. They demand trust, compromise, honesty, risk and vulnerability — all traits that test each of us whether we have been diagnosed with a mental illness or not.

For those of us who are challenged by the trials of mental illness, relationships are even more complicated. We have issues that we bring to the table with us — from our childhood or other periods in our lives — that create hurdles to settling down into healthy relationships.

I am not one to talk. I am woefully inexperienced in this area, having been raised by an emotionally abusive and demanding alcoholic father. He, and to a lesser extent, my mother ruined me, practically destroying any chance I had for a successful relationship with a man, that offered emotional and physical intimacy.

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A father is supposed to be the first role model for his daughter, preparing her for future relationships. The odds were stacked against my ability to ever develop a healthy sexual identity. The great plan called for me to desire my father and feel jealousy for my mother. Instead I feared my father, and shielded myself by drawing closer to my mother.

Only now at the late age of 51, with the help of my psychiatrist Dr. Adena* I am exploring my sexual identity, my fantasies and desires. I am dating, and I am terrified.

I meet patients at all steps along the way. Some have never had or have had a minimal number of relationships; some are married or have partners, and are having conflict, perhaps due to having been raised with inadequate role models. Some are divorced. Most of these patients are unsatisfied with the outcome of their relationships or lack of them, not understanding that they may be recreating the patterns they knew as children because that was the only role model that was available to them.

I point this out to them, their eyes widen at this realization, and they see that they are not to blame for the situation in which they have found themselves.

“It’s not too late to change,” I encourage them. We begin to identify and explore alternate avenues and options so that they may choose different ways to think about their place in the world — in relation to other people — and to interact with them.

I am moving forward and I am helping and watching my patients move forward. We are experiencing this exciting new aspect of life together (though they are not aware of it), and I find myself in a unique position. Experiencing vulnerability and risk and perhaps hurt.

But that’s part of being human, I tell them — and myself.

* Names have been changed.

Gerri Luce is a licensed clinical social worker who publishes under a pseudonym.

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