Partnering in Mental Health

Loving someone with mental illness

Is Shame of Your Partner's Illness Hiding Your Needs?

Stigma about mental illness shouldn't prevent you from getting support, too.

Despite growing media attention, and valiant efforts by national organizations and celebrities to de-stigmatize mental illness, there is still a tremendous amount of shame that can come with having a partner or loved one who has a psychiatric diagnosis. In my practice, I have found that the loved ones of the patient or client are left behind - while time, money, and resources are given to help the affected person recover, the loved ones often do not get the support they need.

Husbands, wives, partners, and other family members and friends are touched by the illness, too, yet there is usually not parallel support offered to these people. Many feel that all the time and money needs to go to their ill loved one. Many just don't realize that there are places to go and people to turn to for support. And many are simply ashamed, hoping this will all go away quietly, and with minimal impact on all involved.

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The truth is, your needs are just as important. You probably feel frustrated. You probably feel defeated. You likely are nursing some psychic wounds, perhaps caused by the behavior of your partner, perhaps left over from past family experiences that seem to be playing out in your current relationship.

You don't have to have a diagnosable mental illness yourself to be worthy of getting help and support. You do have to realize that you are vulnerable, and be willing to share that part of yourself with others who understand and can offer assistance.

Brené Brown, Ph.D, LCSW, is a shame and vulnerability researcher whose latest book, Daring Greatly, explores the idea of what it means to be vulnerable, and how shame plays into our resistance to opening ourselves up to being vulnerable.

When we hear words like "vulnerability" and "shame," our first reaction is usually to recoil: "Who, me? Vulnerable? I am NOT ashamed of anything - here, let me show you how well I am handling everything in my life!" We back away from tough subjects. We tell ourselves that we are fine, we can handle the pain (if we can even admit that we are in pain), and muddle through, often using maladaptive behaviors to cope. Some people shut down completely. Others decide the relationship with their ill loved one is over, and walk away, leaving shattered pieces of themselves and their relationship strewn around.

Underneath it all, shame can quietly fester: shame about the state of our relationship with our ill loved one, shame about our own behavior, shame that we are not "good enough" to fix our loved one or didn't "do enough" to prevent the illness in the first place, and on and on.

In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown says, "Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement."

Engagement in the recovery process from a mental illness - whether it is your partner's or your own - takes courage. There is no magic pill to swallow, no book you can read, or class you can take that will instantly erase the illness and all the fingerprints that illness has left on your life, your loved one's life, and the relationship between you. Engagement takes time, courage, education, patience, and love.

When we are drowning in shame, engagement is impossible.

It is likely that you are doing the best you can, and that you come by your shame honestly.

You also need to do better, for the sake of your own spirit, as well as the relationship with your ill loved one.

Take one step today to start releasing the shame, and opening yourself to vulnerability, where healing and recovery will happen. Call a therapist, find a support group, or engage in something that got lost in the whirlwind of your loved one's illness.

Your spirit will thank you for it.

 

Kate Thieda works as a therapist in private practice in Durham, North Carolina.

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