Last week Erinire sent this discussion prompt:
I wonder how other readers’ spouses / significant others deal with their illnesses. Even the most high-functioning among us can use home as a place to fall apart, but how does the healthy one deal with the sick? And then, in the dealing, how do the ill handle being handled?
I’ve sat and thought on these questions for a while now. This is something my partner and I have needed to discuss and work on, as I think many relationships including an MI partner do. To me, there are two important insights in the way the questions are phrased: The first is how the “high-functioning” function inside the home, away from the expectations of functioning out in the world. The second is that we are indeed sometimes “handled,” though more often than not, I would hope, that handling comes out of love and care. Because of these two points, I would expect that responses to this topic could include those of us who do not live with spouses, but who reside with and within our support systems. I would also expect that the first question might be more productively answered with the help of our partners and/or supporters. As such, I would like to thank Erinire for providing me a way into a very useful conversation with my husband.
Here I go: For me in my relationship, this is a question about communication and perception. My home is the one place where I am myself, or the closest to it I can allow myself to be, and it is where I can sometimes let anxiety run my life whether immobilized on the couch or working manically. Either way, I work so hard at DOING in order to maintain whatever my “high-functioning” self is that I often don’t do a lot of what it takes to maintain a household. I asked my husband* how he deals with me: “I try not to escalate the situation. I try not to feed into your anxiety or anger.” (Yup, I can get nasty-angry.) He also said that my illness is “something you go through that affects me AND something we go through together. It’s a little bit of both, but I think more and more we are trying to go through it together.” So that’s it on the communication side. He handles me by trying to work with me, by trying to recognize my symptoms and operating in a way that keeps me level.
Then there’s the perception part of this question: Often, I hate this. I know he’s trying to help; I know he’s trying to understand. But neither seems to stop me from feeling coddled, condescended to, undermined, infantilized, or worse. And if I’m not immediately angered, I’m often immediately overcome with guilt and sadness. If I have it in me to recognize that he is trying to help, trying to love me, I feel terrible for what I perceive as making him walk on eggshells. I feel guilty knowing that he doesn’t deserve what I put him through. (This may sometimes comically spiral when I then get angry at him for making me feel that way.)
He tries to assuage my guilt, which I appreciate. (And we’re back to the communication side of things.) The truth is that he knew me ten years ago, in the thick of the crazy, and he continually tells me that (a) he knew what he was getting into by marrying me and (b) that he’s proud of what I’ve been able to do for myself and in my life since then. He doesn’t love me despite the crazy, and he doesn’t love me because of the crazy.
At the end of the day, he and I both know he won’t understand what I feel like. We also know that I won’t understand what he feels like. It’s an ongoing process, but for us the best thing we can do as a partner for the other is to admit that we just can’t understand. In everything else, we have a sort of “Us, together, against the world” mentality about partnership. We try to remember that.
*For the record, I offered my husband the opportunity to assign his own pseudonym. Sadly, while he made up several, his 12-year-old humor meant I had to veto each of them.
As I am apt to do, a note on the image accompanying this post: It’s a still image, cropped by me, from Mark Pellington’s 1999 video for Nine Inch Nails’ We’re in this Together. The video is an homage to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and the thematic connection I’m drawing there may be rather tenuous. Still, the song’s chorus features four lines once quoted on my wedding invitations: “You and me / If the world should break in two / Until the very end of me / Until the very end of you.” The song that follows (after which the album is named) contains the repeated line “I won’t let you fall apart.”