How to Handle Life (And Your Own Mental Health) When Your Partner is in a Psych Ward
(trigger warning for discussions of suicide, hospitalisation)
In March of this year, at about eleven in the evening, I sat down on the edge of my bed. My partner, of six years, who I had met in the smoking area one Halloween when he was dressed as the wrong Doctor from Doctor Who and I just had to pass comment on it, had just voluntarily left our shared home to go to hospital for a psychiatric evaluation after a suicide attempt. From there, he would be committed to a mental ward, where he would stay for the next month (note: would it be funnier if I had titled this article “in the month of madness”?).
As he’s written about himself recently, my partner has some long-term mental health problems that I’ve been aware of since before we even officially started dating. He’d been in a mental ward before, and in some abstract way, I had accepted the fact that there was a good chance he would end up in one again at some point. But the actual reality of it happening? It was nothing like what I had expected. And I couldn’t find many people who had written about their experiences as a partner during a mental health crisis so, as I always do, I’ve decided to write about it. I would like to add here that I have my partner’s permission to write this article, and that he is aware of and approves of the content that follows.
Firstly, and most foremostly, I was relieved when he was admitted to the ward. Which sounds like a horrible thing to say, doesn’t it? I know that the very first time that thought crossed my mind, I was appalled by it. How could I be glad to be so far from the person I loved most in the world, at such a vulnerable and difficult time in his life? Truth was, though, that the support he needed went far beyond the bounds of what I as a partner could provide – and I was greatly relieved to know both that he would be getting the help he required, and that it wouldn’t be on me to help provide it any longer. Guilt soon followed; why couldn’t I take care of him? Why wasn’t I enough? In what fundamental way had a failed as a partner to make this his only choice? If love conquered all, why was he in hospital?
After that initial rush of guilt and shock, I swear that I didn’t have a single emotion for the next two weeks straight. It was the strangest thing, and something that I can’t say I’ve ever felt before: life became inordinately busy as I kept up with work, our movie blog, the maintenance of our home, and travelling four hours most days of the week so I could see him during visitors hours, and somewhere amongst all that, I just stopped feelings things almost completely. It wasn’t a depressive numbness – it was more like my brain had hit the upper limit of what it could handle and was now quietly flicking back to factory settings.
My friends (who were all immensely supportive of both me and my partner during this time, shout out to you all and especially the cute pictures of your cats and baby bumps you sent my way during this time) would ask me how I was and I would reply “fine!” and mean it, even though my partner was in hospital after a suicide attempt and by all functional definitions of the word, “fine” was not a descriptor for that state of being. Occasionally, something that would have been utterly innocuous at any other time would send me into a full-blown sobbing meltdown; you ever tried to write BDSM erotica while crying because of a kind message from someone you went to high school with? Y’all ever need tips, I’ve got you covered.
Once I started to have actual feelings again, they were intense. I have OCD, and I know an intense rush of emotion better than I would like to, but these were beyond even that. I was still guilty, and on top of that, I was frightened about the future, worried about the present, angry about the past, exhausted about the all of it, so many, many things that I had no idea how to work through without losing my mind.
When somebody has a health crisis of any kind, I think it’s natural for everything to centre on them for a while. Everyone wants to support them in their recovery, and everyone who loves them wants to be there for them, and I can say without reservation it was a truly beautiful and touching thing to see the way people in his life flocked to my partner to show their support while he was in hospital; to know that he had so much love in his life, the love that he deserved. It was easier for me, too, to focus all my attention on him, to download Star Wars trailers to my phone so I could smuggle them into him to watch through a shared pair of headphones, to just be glad that he was still here despite everything. It felt selfish, in fact, to do much else.
But what I wished I had figured out sooner – and what I want to tell you, if you’re someone reading this because you’re the partner or loved one to somebody dealing with a mental health crisis point – is that the best thing I could do for myself was focus on myself. In light of everything that was happening, it was so easy to dismiss that as selfishness. But as time went on, I realized that it wasn’t optional. If I was going to create a solid base for my partner to come back to, I couldn’t allow myself to get utterly drained by everything that was happening. No matter how much energy I poured into him – and I think this is true for most anyone dealing with mental health problems, including myself – his recovery had to be on his terms, at his pace, and on his time. The most supportive thing I could do was tend to myself so I had the energy, emotional and physical, to support him the ways he needed, instead of draining myself to uselessness over a task that only he could do.
And that’s where I’ve been since then. My partner is back in our shared home, with our shared cat, writing for our shared blog again. I am enormously proud of him – both for being able to ask for help when the time called for it, and for his continued hard work on handling his mental illness since then. And I have committed myself to getting treatment of my own. Not because I am traumatized by what happened, or because I am still angry or guilty or anything to any extreme degree; but because I now understand that I need to take care of myself first. Call it selfishness if you want, but selfishness is what kept me on an even keel at a time when it felt like huge parts of my life were in major flux, so far out of my control it scared me.
If you’re dealing with something similar, please let this be the takeaway from this article: no matter what is happening with the person you love, no matter how much you might feel like the other half of you is missing and it’s your job to stitch it back on, this is the time to take care of yourself as much as, if not more so, than anyone else. You don’t need it, but in case you feel like you do: you’ve got my permission.