Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author and do not represent an objective view of mental illness.
A writer who was once in a married relationship with a person suffering from bipolar disorder busts some myths about mental illness. She also writes about the burden of being a caregiver and on loving and leaving someone with a mental illness.
I am a woman in my thirties who was married to a man diagnosed with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder for five years.
We loved each other and were mostly good to each other. However, his illness ultimately took a toll on our relationship.
There were times he made completely unrealistic plans, and blew up money on them. There were times when he couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, and could not sleep for nights at a stretch. Medication helped, but only to an extent.
During the course of those five years, there were many times I wanted to walk out, but stayed. After all, a ‘good’ woman doesn’t just leave the man she loves; she suffers with him and tries to help him, even to her own detriment.
However, there came a time when staying meant putting my own mental health at peril. I was on the verge of a collapse due to nervous and emotional exhaustion. I was also the only one with a stable job which demanded a lot of me.
I had to choose between him and me, and I chose myself. If I had chosen him, there would have been no ‘me’. Leaving was an act of preservation.
Even though his parents understood, many people in his extended family thought I was ‘selfish’. They said that I left him in a lurch. That I was even the cause of his depression. My own sanity was of no consequence, since women are supposed to be more resilient emotionally.
I often wondered if they would have said the same things had it been the other way around – if I was the one suffering, and if my husband had decided to end the marriage. I am sure that they would have, at best, sympathised with him for having gone through the ordeal, and at worst, blamed me for hiding my issues and ruining his life.
The recent developments in the Sushant Singh case have opened up a Pandora’s box of memories and emotions for me. The complete insensitivity with which the deceased actor and his partner have been treated in the media and by the consumers of that media has pushed the discourse around mental health back by a few decades.
I have been in that position, and have experienced the conflict, the trauma and the rewards of being a caregiver, and here are some myths I would like to bust.
- People with bipolar disorder don’t ‘look’ depressed, or manic. They have phases of depression and mania, and those phases are different for different people, whether in terms of intensity, duration or frequency. You can’t meet someone and tell whether they are ‘bipolar’ or ‘depressed’ or any of those things. Your opinion is not a diagnosis.
- Mental illness can set in at any age. Just because someone wasn’t depressed five years ago, does not mean they won’t be depressed now. There is nothing like a ‘depressed guy’, girl, or person, just like there isn’t a ‘cancer person’ or a ‘stroke person’.
- People with mental illnesses can be the most intelligent, most successful people you have met. Mental illness does not always hamper functioning and intelligence. Remember Robin Williams?
- Psychoactive substances can impact people with mental illnesses differently. In fact, there are studies that show how medical marijuana has proven to help alleviate some symptoms of mental illnesses. This subject needs more research, and blanket judgement doesn’t help. It is also entirely possible that drugs can mess with a person’s mind and exacerbate existing illnesses, but it is highly unlikely that drug use can create mental illness out of the blue. In fact, the opposite is true.
People with mental illnesses often self-medicate using substances like alcohol and marijuana. It is the illness that makes them dependent on substances, not the other way round.
Also, if someone is dependent on a substance, they will fight, beg, steal… go to any lengths to procure the substance. Family, friends, or partners cannot stop them until they themselves want to. They can only be helped when they are ready to be helped.
- Most people have zero knowledge of the relationship between substances and mental health, and if people around a mentally ill person are consuming substances, or even co-using them, it is because they are most likely unaware of its impact, and not because they don’t ‘love’ the person, or are trying to secretly kill them. As a murder strategy, it would be highly ineffective and unreliable.
- High-stress events or emotional trauma of any kind can trigger mental illnesses. My ex-husband’s first bipolar mania was triggered by his first breakup. But he came from an educated and progressive family that didn’t blame the girl for his mental state. Some relationships are more high stress than others and being in them can be an emotional roller coaster. That can exacerbate the illness, but to blame that on the partner is stupid, selfish, and irresponsible.
- It is not easy to be in a relationship with someone who suffers from mental health issues. Is it worth it? It can be, depending on the relationship as a whole. Caregivers’ trauma is real. Close family and partners of people suffering from mental illnesses often end up needing therapy themselves. If they decide to leave or decide that they cannot deal with it, they have every right to. They are not being mean, or selfish. No one needs to take care of another at the cost of their own health. The only thing one should do is ensure that the person is in care of a family member, a friend or a therapist.
- Denial of mental illness is rampant. Most families will never accept that there is a problem. Even if they do, most will never share it with outsiders. The stigma is real. This secrecy and denial can actually make the person feel worse, like something is deeply wrong with them, so much so that it has to be hidden. Most families don’t even want the person to take medication, because that means having to admit that there is an issue in the first place.
- It is the individual who decides whom they want to tell and whom they don’t. A qualified psychiatrist advised my husband that if his family was not supportive of him taking medication, then he need not tell them, as long as one person who lived with him knew. As two grown-ups in a mutually consensual relationship, it is not my job to tell his family what he doesn’t want to tell them himself, except in circumstances where their intervention is needed. All families are different, and the right thing to do is different in different circumstances.
- The diagnosis, acceptance and treatment of such conditions is arduous territory, given the level of awareness and discourse around mental health in our society. It is not anyone’s fault if they are unaware or misinformed. We need to treat not just the patient, but also their families, friends and partners with compassion. There is nothing worse than having someone you loved take their life. Except being blamed for it.
My story has a happy ending. I and my ex-husband have rediscovered our friendship now. I am able to be there for him when he really needs me now without giving an arm and a leg. He tells me he did contemplate suicide once, after our marriage had ended.
“What kept you on this side of life?,” I asked him.
“You,” he answered. “If I had taken my life, you would have been destroyed by the guilt. I would have taken two lives, not one.”
In the case of Sushant Singh, one life has already been taken. Before society bays for the blood of another, I request them to step back, switch off their TVs, pay loving attention to their own minds, and to the minds of the people they love, and let justice take its course.
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