Love and Mental Illness

Love is complicated enough without adding mental illness into the mix.

But for many of us, the experience of human love includes being in relationship with someone who happens to have mental illness.

Deeply loving a family member, friend or lover who has an organic brain disease is a grand adventure with incredible, breathtaking vistas and devastating, soul wrenching valleys.

Or as a dear friend said, “It’s a ride on a roller-coaster where you feel at times as if you are not in control of how fast it goes or when or if it will ever stop.”

Then suddenly the roller-coaster does stop and after your heart stops racing and you get a drink of water and pee, only then do you begin to feel somewhat normal again. Until the next roller-coaster ride.

The pause between suicide attempts. The inhale after a psychotic episode and the exhale after a hospitalization. The anxious waiting for the unknown next thing: disaster or delight?

I’ve lived this tension since I can remember given that my dad and oldest brother lived with bipolar disorder. I write about our family’s struggle with mental illness in my new book Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family, and Church.

I studied addictions as a graduate student of social work and I discovered startling similarities in the behaviors of a person with the disease of alcoholism and a person with the brain disease of bipolar. Similar to the behaviors of an alcoholic, my father’s moods shifted unpredictably, and he couldn’t fulfill his commitments to his family because other things became more important than his kids. For him it was not alcohol, but a political organization that consumed his life.

The real tragedy is not that my father had mental illness, but that he remained in denial of his mental illness and refused treatment.

While in grad school I attended a support group sponsored by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). It was for family members whose loved one had mental illness. After I shared a brief version of my story, I got immediate affirmation that my choice to distance myself from my father was the smart thing to do because it protected me from getting hurt.

I felt both relieved and unsettled by this feedback from the well meaning strangers. There was hard won wisdom in the group, for sure. Yet it felt awful to be estranged from my father and it hurt. Keeping my distance from him did not keep the pain away.

Our family was deeply broken by mental illness. This kind of love is so hard. Sometimes I feel like a failure as my father’s daughter. I don’t even know if what we had could even be called love because so much love was lost in the fear, isolation, and sense of betrayal.

Now as I look back I can see that the love we shared was in the struggle to love at all. In the desire to be known and to know the other, love was there, in the long silences and in the distances and spaces between us.

Sometimes to love is to be apart until it is safe to return.

And that is okay. It’s not pretty or easy or blissful. It’s an imperfect love left out in the rain too long. It’s a little rusted-out, but it’s still love.

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