‘My partner is acting like my carer ever since I told him about my psychotic episode’
Trish Murphy responds to a question from an Irish Times reader whose partner’s hyperviligilance following a disclosure of psychosis is causing them stress.
This appeared in the Health and Living Supplement of the Irish Times on 04/12/18.
Q I am a 31-year-old female; I have a really good job and more or less a fantastic life. I met my partner threeyears ago and we got engaged six months ago. We plan to get married early in spring.
My life has not always been so wonderful. W hen I was 23, I had a very brief but very traumatic psychotic episode. I spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital during which time I felt low, heard voices and had some very unusual thoughts.
Before this happened I had just finished my college exams and was going through a relationship break-up from my childhood sweetheart. My psychologist and psychiatrist attributed my brief illness to stress.
However, I do have a strong family history of mental illness, so have always been conscious that I may be vulnerable to such experiences. Since I was discharged I have attended regular appointments with a psychiatrist, completed a programme of CBT and developed a WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan).
I have never let this one incident define me and in fact I didn’t tell my partner that I had been hospitalised until just after we got engaged and started to talk about having children. I realised I should have told him earlier and I don’t think I was ashamed, I just never really felt it was that significant.
He did know that I had some mental health difficulties in the past, just not the extent of the issues. He was completely supportive, and that is actually the issue. He has now started to treat me like someone who is sick; he checks that I have taken my medication every day. He is terrified that I get stressed and he has stopped telling me about difficulties that he is having at his work. He has even started to take over all of the wedding planning in case it “over- stimulates me”.
His hypervigilance is causing me more stress. I am still the same person I was when he met me. I am aware that I am more likely than most to experience psychosis again, but I need him as my lover, my friend and my supporter – but certainly not my carer.
A You are right that you need a lover and a friend and not a carer but your partner needs to learn more about your capacity to manage your own condition and not live in fear of you relapsing.
He feels very protective of you and this may have been his way of expressing his love but now this has taken on a claustrophobic aspect on your life. He is probably doing his best to care for you but he does not realise that this type of care is denying you your own self-agency and self-management. No doubt you have tried to explain this in as caring fashion as you can but it seems he has been unable to hear of your frustration and if the situation continues the relationship will be put under unnecessary strain.
You have not only accepted your psychotic episode but you have taken full responsibility for your wellbeing – this is the main factor in anyone’s recovery. This is also what you want in terms of good parenting: self-awareness and an ability to address whatever issues arise. Your future husband could relax in the knowledge that he will have a partner who will be able to take care of herself when the need arises.
However, the fact that it took you so long to reveal your past may now be having an effect. Your partner may believe that you will hide things from him and so he is becoming over-vigilant. He may also lack knowledge of psychosis and what it means and so good communication is what is needed.
It might be good to put time aside for you both to address this fully: you could both write down all the fears you have and then take each one seriously and delve into them until there is full understanding. You do not have to fix or answer each fear but rather organise to come back again to the conversation with reflections or further questions. Try to be as explicit about the fears as you can, ie your fear that he may stifle you to the point of infantilising you or his fear that if you have children, you will not be able to cope.
It may be that your partner will need the inclusion of professional advice so that he can allay his fears. Is it possible to contact your previous psychiatrist or psychologist and ask to meet with them with your partner? This would not only offer an objective opinion but would demonstrate the commitment both of you have to your future relationship.
This is the first big bump on the journey of your relationship and the measure of the robustness of what you have will be demonstrated in your willingness to engage fully in what is happening and in your willingness to withstand the difficulties.