James Woodruff on masculinity and depression, and how you can deal with it within your relationship.
It’s estimated that 1 in 5 adults are suffering from some form of mental illness. At least 16 million have reported suffering a mental breakdown in the past 12 months. Mental illness, as an umbrella term, is plaguing many adults who are able to hold steady jobs, pursue higher education, raise children, and of course be in relationships.
Even though culture has become more accepting regarding treatment for mental illnesses, it’s still not “safe” to openly talk about. Sharing that you take medication or that some days, you just don’t have the energy to get out of bed isn’t exactly conversations to have while you’re getting to know someone. However, these are intricacies that a part of you. For men, not being in control of our emotions is deemed as weak. Part of masculinity is defined by characteristics such as stoicism and tenacity. Life not going the way you planned is supposed to roll off a man’s shoulders.
When you have a mental illness, it’s deeper than a bad mood or a bad day. Oftentimes, it’s difficult for a significant other to understand that it’s a ‘me versus me’ battle. If you’re going to love a man with mental illness, there are several truths you need to understand to help him through it.
He doesn’t want you to fix him.
It’s innately a woman’s nature to nurture and to want to help the man in her life be better. When you have a cold or a sprained ankle from being a weekend warrior, the solution is easy. It’s universal. Mental illness doesn’t work that way. A woman needs to realize that knowing that illness exists doesn’t mean that fixing is needed or even wanted.
Happiness isn’t a choice that everyone can make.
Being depressed, suffering from panic attacks, or hearing voices aren’t fleeting occurrences that spontaneously happen. One of the most popular mantras that’s spread across the internet is you have to choose to be happy in order to make it so. For men suffering from mental illness, happiness is like the carrot on the end of a 10 foot pole. We see it. We stretch ourselves trying to reach it. Yet it seems so distant. That’s not to say that you can’t be happy with a mental health diagnosis. But maintaining that – even choosing it – isn’t achieved like the same way it is for everyone else. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I’m not fine and I don’t know why”.
You’re not required to deal with the resulting abuse.
There’s no guideline for mental illness. Every person, regardless of gender and age, will have different signs and effects. Some men shrink into a shell of themselves. Some turn to behavior that encourages detachment from painful reality. Still others turn abusive. Make no mistake about it; mental illness isn’t an excuse to be emotionally or verbally abusive in a relationship. Some women believe they can love a man enough that the abuse will stop. Or they think that their love is different. Don’t hurt yourself thinking you can help put broken pieces in their rightful places.
Your words can make all of the difference.
Because men are expected to hold up this impossible facade that nothing bothers them, it’s easy for a significant other to say things like “just get over it”, “it’s not that big of a deal”, etc. If you’ve ever said those phrases to someone who’s exhibited prolonged struggling, please stop! Trying to pacify a man’s uncontrollable emotions is not only dangerous but it makes him feel that much more alienated. It’s taking away his opportunity to know that his illness isn’t superficial. As a significant other, you have to use language that’s comforting yet not enabling. It’s a tough line to straddle. And it may take time for you to find out what a man responds to and what reels him back in.
What’s positive in the mental health conversation is that more men are talking about it fearlessly. PTSD, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder aren’t taboo the way they used to be. In the past few years, men who are perceived to have it all have taken their lives over suffering with mental illnesses; the most recent being the beloved Robin Williams. Should mental illness become an active silent partner in your relationship then you have to see it as an experience to be tackled by both of you with honesty and compassion.
You don’t cure mental illness. You just learn how to not let it control who you are.
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