During the first few years of my husband’s journey navigating mental illness, people often told me that I needed to take care of my own health. When they offered this advice, I thought, “Sure, eventually. But we need to devote all our energy to getting him through this, and then we can focus on my health again.”
Four years later, my husband finally stabilized to the point where he no longer required hospitalizations. The constant worry about his health, however, had taken its toll on me. I felt constantly on edge; every symptom my husband displayed sent me into an anxiety spiral. Amid the stress of helping my husband recover, I forgot an important lesson: You need to help yourself before you can help others.
To anyone who may be caring for a spouse or loved one and grappling with guilt when taking time for yourself, please remember that you are worthy of time and care — and the better you care for yourself, the better you can care for your loved one.
After reflecting on my journey as the spouse of (and caregiver for) someone living with mental illness, I have identified four practices that improve my health and my relationship with my husband.
Embrace a Routine That Works for You
When your spouse is ill, caregiving and balancing life’s challenges tend to throw off your typical routine, which I have found is key to maintaining your own health while caregiving.
Articles promoting self-care measures are constantly preaching the benefits of getting a massage or taking a bubble bath. The reality of the situation, however, is that one massage or one bubble bath is not going to fix a life that’s off-kilter. Rather, you need to develop daily habits that sustain you.
I have found that exercising helps me feel more energetic and balanced. I follow this with a daily devotional of studying religious texts, praying and sometimes meditating. Taking time for these activities each day reduces my stress and helps me more effectively tackle everything on my to do list. I also take daily walks in the afternoons and make sure I’ve taken time in the week to talk with a family member or a close friend.
This routine is what fulfills, relaxes and encourages me &mdashes; and I stick to it, even when my husband is unwell. I encourage you to cultivate the daily habits that sustain you, and to maintain these practices even during stressful times.
Find Your Circle
Another critical step in maintaining your own well-being is forming a trusted circle of people who can help you care for your spouse. This group should be informed of your spouse’s health condition and willing to step in when you need support. All the caregiving should not and cannot fall to you. Sharing the load prevents you from burnout and strengthens your relationship with your spouse as well.
Finding and developing this inner circle can be challenging. It requires an honest conversation with the people in your life; let them know what’s going on and what you might need. For me, this circle includes family, a few close friends and religious leaders. When my husband and I are struggling, I can reach out to them for help without having to explain the situation.
Recently, when my husband was struggling, I had to take on more household responsibilities on top of taking care of him and balancing a difficult work schedule. On top of it, my family coming to town, which added extra work to my plate. So I asked my mom to spend a few hours helping me once she arrived. She was happy to help, and I felt some of my burden was lifted.
Relying on your trusted circle means asking for help when you need it. This can make you feel vulnerable, but often you’ll find that there are people willing to help, they just don’t know how. Being clear about your situation helps them help you. It’s also important to remember that the loved ones worthy of your confidence will be understanding when it comes to your spouse’s mental health condition.
When your spouse is struggling, and you’re shouldering much of the caregiving responsibilities, you’re going to need to talk about your experiences. Bottling fears, thoughts and even resentments can make these feelings even more powerful and hurtful.
One option is to share with a trusted family member or friend. If you don’t want to betray your spouse’s trust by talking in depth about their health and struggles, you can talk about how the situation is affecting you. Your feelings are valid and worthy of attention.
However, perhaps the best source for guidance and support is the right therapist. I say the “right therapist” because some are going to be a better fit for you than others. You may want to gather recommendations and meet with several practitioners to see what relationship fits best. Personally, I found that when I sought treatment for my anxiety through therapy and medication, my capacity to support my husband was greatly enhanced. I had the same life struggles as before, but I felt better able to handle them.
I’ve also found support groups to be extremely helpful. Being able to talk with others in a similar situation and share wisdom from your mental health journey is so important. I attended a NAMI Family-to-Family class and then a NAMI support group for spouses and partners, both of which I would highly recommend. As I heard other people talk about their situations, I felt that I wasn’t alone in my struggle. Being able to offer friendship and advice to others in similar circumstances also brought meaning to my challenges.
Look for the Good
My final recommendation is to look for the good in your life. If your spouse is struggling with an illness, it can feel like your life turned out much differently than you imagined — and this can be a painful realization. But there are always going to be small victories and unexpected joys. Keeping a gratitude journal and looking for the small blessings will sustain you. This also provides a unique opportunity to notice your spouse’s strengths and what you love about them.
Even in my husband’s lowest times, his love for me has never wavered. Once while he was in the hospital, he made me a beautiful origami flower. I put the flower in a vase and will keep it for the rest of my life as a reminder that, while our lives may have turned out differently than we planned, our love for each other is always there.
I hope that you, too, have your own “origami flower” to hold onto during the darker times as you hope for a better tomorrow.
Erin P. is a writer and English teacher living in Virginia with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys swimming, biking, Zumba, reading and serving the youth at her church. She is a proud mental health advocate and recently launched a website for spouses of people with mental illness.