Logic would suggest that given Mr. Juniper is my husband, Daddy to Juniper Junior and the one who Juniper Puss does his best to kick out of our bed, that we have relationship. Time for Mental Illness and Relationships 101: when one partner has a mental illness and the other partner is a carer, the partnership is going to be faced with another stress. That is, another stress amongst all the other ordinary partnership stress fun-times.
Mr. Juniper and I have been together for a few years and the general consensus is that we’d like to be together for a few more. But good intentions are by no means enough and like every other couple out there, we have to work at our relationship. Mr. Juniper’s mental illness can make this incredibly hard because his mind isn’t always going to be in a place where he can cope with what needs to be spoken about or done. And we are both guilty of letting things wait until there’s a “˜better’ moment.
What we’ve learnt is that unless we are deep into crisis territory, if something needs to be spoken about, it is going to get spoken about. What I have to be incredibly conscious of is to what degree we talk about something and how it’s spoken about. It’s not hard for Mr. Juniper to interpret something differently to how it was intended, and so I’m careful to take things gently. It gives me time to consider what I’m saying and that can be very helpful when We Need To Talk. In these instances, I also try to talk in definite terms, rather than stray into grey areas. Using definite terms helps avoid confusion for Mr. Juniper and is especially important for us when Mr. Juniper is perhaps more emotionally vulnerable than he might be at other times.
When so much else can seem bigger and more important, we do try and remind ourselves that we have a relationship, that it isn’t always pills and psychiatrists. But it’s hard. It’s tiring. And it makes us even more aware that neglecting our relationship shouldn’t be an option. As time has passed, we’ve learnt how important the little things are. It might be an email at the end of the day which says, “Sorry I’m a grouch, love you” but it’s the reminder that there is an “us.” Where there’s time for a little more though, we might hijack each other’s computer and leave a browser open at a favourite music video.
For us, we try to avoid stress where we can and it’s where Mr. Juniper’s therapy has been a great help. One of their concepts is to “let it go.” This applies to a lot in life, but in our relationship, it’s been very useful. Being stressed is one thing, being stressed with each other is magnificently unhelpful. Of course there are occasions where the reason for being stressed can’t be brushed aside, but there are a lot of occasions where it is better to let it go. Mr. Juniper’s anxiety drops, my stress abates and standing in the kitchen ten minutes later, we’re able to say to each other, “Friends again?” If we let our focus fall on the small things, we would miss the big things and That Would Not Be Good.
There are times where big things have caused problems in our relationship. So far, we’ve survived them. But there comes a point, when there are issues at stake like Mr. Juniper’s stability and ability to cope, that we have to acknowledge outside help is needed. Does that mean couples therapy? No. Does it mean a call to his mental health team? Yes. However, that does not mean in any way, shape or form that Mr. Juniper is to blame for an issue. What it does mean is that in order for us to work through an issue, Mr. Juniper needs more support. This is where being a carer for a partner gets hard: there comes a point where you have to step back. At least, I’ve had to. That doesn’t mean stopping everything I’m doing, but acknowledging when there’s an issue between us, I’m not going to be able to give him all the support he needs.
When we get back “us” after those especially hard times, it can be a little strange. In part because we have to reaffirm what “us” means. We have to remind ourselves that we’re both in this marriage thing together, mental illness or not. It’s also a period of time where Mr. Juniper is going to be that little more vulnerable and simply having to give him the time to get back to where ordinary is for him.
Even during the more difficult times, we still love and respect each other, and it saddens me to see people confuse caregiving with sacrificing those fundamental principles of a relationship. At the end of the day, when Juniper Puss is trying to push Mr. Juniper out of bed, we are a couple like any other. It’s just that there are things we have to consider, which others wouldn’t ordinarily have to, when our relationship has the ups and downs that all relationships have to contend with.