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Living with A Loved One's Mental Illness

by Stephania Munson-Bishop

There are those among us who seem to be natural-born caretakers. Often it's due to the way we grew up in our nuclear families -- Mom was ill for years or Dad was an alcoholic, and the list goes on. Doesn't it seem that, as adults, caretakers would run toward Normalcy? Unfortunately, it doesn't usually play out that way. For caretakers, what they knew as children was the norm.

In fact, we may pair up with someone who needs to be taken care of, so we can continue devoting the better part of our energies to a partner's problems. The years go by, with crisis after crisis, until the caretaker feels drained, frightened, and filled with despair. The caretaker may no longer feel healthy. He/she wonders if loving the ill partner even figures into the equation any longer. Meanwhile, the partner may turn on the caring spouse, seeming resentful and filled with hate and even rage toward the very person who has tried to make life bearable.

But The Illness itself is another entity in the house, a strange, alien presence that exacts its toll. The ill partner may refuse to attend Alcoholics Anonymous groups, relapse, and start drinking more than ever. The depressed or bipolar partner stops taking medications and cancels appointments with the therapist. When the spouse had hoped fervently that they were finally on the road to a healthy relationship, the bottom falls out. Friends and family may have turned away, weary of the ill partner's abuse, insults, or weird behaviors, and the couple becomes isolated.

The healthy spouse dreams of cutting bait/jumping ship, but is filled with guilt and shame for "not being able to make it work." Worse, the spouse feels overwhelmed, and in psychic pain. What's the answer -- leave the relationship, or dig in for the long haul, no matter what? Again, this is one of those entirely personal decisions.

But who takes care of the caretaker?

If you find yourself in the caretaker role for a person with a mental illness whose condition seems to be steadily deteriorating and you're at a loss about what to do next, it's likely that at some point you will need counseling for yourself. At very least, it may help you to understand what lies ahead, and to sort through your own options.


Stephania publishes a monthly ezine, "Tidbits from the Pantry," to over 10,000 subscribers. Visit her web site at

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