Advice for Dealing with New Inlaw That Has Diagnosed Mental Illness

Updated on March 20, 2010
X.C. asks from Natick, MA
12 answers

So one of my close relatives is about to marry someone with mental illness. I have asked a few times what in particular is wrong and I dont get the full story. So far I have heard severe depression with past hospitalization, OCD, suicidal thoughts, PMDD and just yesterday heard that in high school there was cutting (dont know if there is cutting now or just back then). I've never interacted with someone like this before and so far our family seems to be getting it all wrong. The person keeps having break downs and cries or flips out and lashes out at us. Even when we say just the simplist thing. I need some advice - any advice - your experiences, books to read, websites to visit, anything. Trying to get the person in our family not to marry this person is not an option. So I need to know how to best deal with the person so that 1. I minimize how much I upset them and 2. I minimize how much they upset me. Please, please, please - I need advice.
Thank you so much

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So What Happened?

Thank you so much everyone. I've read the answers a few times now and there is so much good info. Its all really helped and I appreciate everyone writing. The issues I listed above were told to me by the person who has them. My sibling is the one marrying this person and so far has been super quiet on this whole subject. I've convinced both of them that the rest of the family needs to know and they promise to talk to us about it soon. Its just hard to find a time to do that as my spouse and I both work full time and have two little little kids and no time to do anything let alone sit and have a serious talk. But we'll find the time somehow. I want this to work. :) Anyway, thanks so much. You all are the best.

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answers from Chicago on

See if National Alliance on Mental Illness has a local group. NAMI runs support groups, led by family members of mentally ill individuals. Their website also has information that you might find helpful.

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answers from Boston on

First, I would recommend taking a NAMI course (National Alliance for Mental Health or something close to that) called Family-to-Family. It is a great course that covers many different mental illnesses. It is taught by family members of those with mental illness. It is informative and gives people a framework for understanding mental illness. It also connects you with people who have real-life experiences and provides a sounding board for the future, if you need it.

Second, remember that this person is a real person with feelings just like any of a whole bundle more. Depending on the symptoms and treatment (counseling and/or meds) this person is experiencing (or not), this person can be a productive member of your family and society.

I have a sister who has dealt with severe depression for decades, attempted suicide in college (one big time and many smaller times), and yet is now a productive member of society. She's now 55 and has been a doctor (radiologist) for years. Sometimes she even ends up being the sanest one of us all, being more honest with her feelings than others. It's a funny trick in life sometimes to have a rocky past. Sometimes it teaches things no book can cover. In a twisted sort of way, it can be a gift of sorts if you can only see it that way. It's not an easy gift but it can be seen this way if you allow it to.

I'll admit it was a challenge to grow up with my sister. I was just 13 or so when she attempted suicide and it was pure hell when she came home to live with us for a while. She hated the world and anything that crossed her path. We were all the cause of her problems, of course, and we could do no right. If there are children involved, I would recommend support and clear boundaries so they don't get hurt (I'm thinking emotionally hurt here).

But time passed. Since then, another sister and I have learned that we also suffer from depression, sometimes severe. (We've just got some lucky genetics working here! : ) But it's nothing to be afraid of. The worst thing to do is to tip-toe on eggshells around someone with mental illness. It gives them too much power--power they or may not want to have.

I don't mean to say you should ignore the person's feelings or actions. But I mean it is important that you understand your own limits. Know what you will accept and not accept with behavior. But also understand that you will need to have an extra dose of understanding when dealing with this person, most likely. And you will all be learning together what works and doesn't work. It's called trial and error...or life.

Mental illness can be challenging. It can affect family dynamics. But it can also be a window into the worlds of so many people. Once you learn more about mental illness, you will realize that we are all on a continuum of mental health--some healthier than others.

I have to admit I find myself wondering how you know all this about this person. Is it heresay or do you know it directly from conversations with this person or your relative? It may be disconcerting to have so much curiosity and fear surrounding this person's mental state before he or she has even fully become a member of the family.

Education on your part will help immensely. And relaxing will help as well. Let information flow naturally. And get to know the person beyond the illness. Most mentally ill people are much more than their illnesses. Sure, the illness complicates things sometimes, but find out what this person is interested in, what he or she enjoys, what makes them tick. People are so much more than their labels if others can just get past those labels.

I wish I could remember some of the book titles recommended at the NAMI Family-to-Family course. One was My Sister's Keeper (not the one by Jodi Picoult but another one), My Mother's Keeper, and there are so many others. But for now, I would highly recommend taking the Family-to-Family course.

I have several family members who have taken this course. It is a time commitment but well worth it. If there is not a class near where you live, I would recommend seeing if there is one in a nearby town. That's how much I recommend it!

This class helped me understand my sisters and I much better. But it also helped me understand my niece who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, which is one of the hardest illnesses to treat. We are not related bloodwise, but she has been part of our family since she was two. The hard part is to know she finished an architecture degree at U of Michigan. Then just before she started grad school, something snapped. She's now 30 and bumps along in life. It's sad to see a person with so much promise get cut down in the middle of her 20s, but it helps to keep perspective on the full range of mental illness.

Best of luck. And remember to try to see the person beyond the illness. If there is a person with diabetes or a heart condition, do you see that person's illness first or do you see the person first? If you see the person first, then try to do the same with someone who battles mental illness. It will go a long way toward opening your hearts to each other.



answers from New York on

I am finding it hard to respond to your questions without more knowledge of the persons illness. What is your relation to the relative? Cousin, sibling??? I would start by having a private conversation with your relative. Tell him/her that you feel uncomfortable with the fact that their finance' is so easily upset and you want to know what you can do to make things easier. This will go a long way with your relative.

My mother in law suffers with a severe mental illness. When my husband and I first started dating 10 years ago, she just seemed a bit odd and slightly more emotional than the average person but very functional and pretty easy to get along with. When our daughter was born 4 1/2 years ago she was under the impression that she would watch her part of the time while I went back to work. That was not the case. She didn't have the strength or endurance to care for a six month old not to mention her two pack a day smoking habit. When she was told she wouldn't be watching her she became very upset and took a lot of her anger out on my husband. That was the beginning of a very sad decline in her mental health. It's almost as if she doesn't feel anymore purpose and there is no point to her life anymore. She was a passenger in a really bad car accident three years ago. The pain medication given to her really mess with her prescription medication and many of her original symptoms have returned (depression, OCD, hallucinations). It is VERY hard to relate to her. Her life revolves around herself. If she is lonely she will call and either cry about how she never sees anyone or yell and say we are keeping the kids from her. She is extremely draining and her poor health has taken a major emotional toll on my father in law, husband and brother in law. Not to mention the rest of the family who deals with the overflow of her emotions.

I guess my long winded point is this, every mental illness is different and affects each person differently. If you are really interested in making this relationship work then you need to talk to your relative to get a better understanding. Maybe if you show genuine compassion, understanding and interest and not concern and judgement then the person in question will confide in you. Mental illness is hard. It's exhausting and time consuming and it takes a lot of patience. If this relative means enough to you then find a way to understand it. If not then the best thing for you and to couple you are talking about is to keep your distance.

Contact me privately if you want to talk more. Good luck.


answers from Norfolk on

This is a tough one. Try to develop a tougher skin and realize the blow ups are just the illness talking. Depending on what the illness is, you may never know what will set them off. It can change with no warning. Try to be supportive of the relative who's marrying into this. They will need a shoulder to cry on from time to time, but this is what they are choosing to do.



answers from Savannah on

First I'm glad you are not trying to prevent the marriage. I was going to say there's no way you'd be able to convince that relative to ditch the future spouse.

Next, unfortunately there's not a whole lot you can do. Is this person on medication or seeing a therapist? I ask because obviously they are unable to "control" their behavior. Have you tried talking to the relative? Asked them how to avoid upsetting this person and in turn gettingupset yourself? Does this person lash out at your relative all the time too?

Anyhow, the reason I say there isn't a whole lot you can do is that all people (even undiagnosed with no mental illness) are completely unpredictable. You could get some books maybe to read up on their condition...but there's not going to be a guide about subjects you can talk to this person about in there.

I wish you luck.



answers from Boston on

Mental Illness is suck a difficult and delicate issue to deal with and I give you tons of credit for wanting to talk about it. My number one question is do you have children and if so, are they exposed to this person? If you do have children then the only thing you have to do is make their safety and well being your number one priority. If not, I would encourage you to try to stay open minded to the fact that this is an illness and your family member who is marrying them will need support. You can't change them or even help them but you can support them. Wishing you well.


answers from Hartford on

My brother has severe OCD and my sister also suffers from an amorphous mental illness. She has had numerous labels because she is smart and knows how to lie to a therapist. My best memories have all been with her because when she is doing well, she is the most fun person in the world. Then there are the paranoid days. It is so hard not to take it personally, but you really just need to keep saying it's not the person, but the illness. I would look for guidance from your relative that is marrying this person. Ask them what are the positive attributes they see and how do they handle situations with this person when they are seemingly so upset. It is all going to seem foreign and weird at first, but you will start to understand the boundaries/rules of their world with time. Over time, the interactions will get easier. The only other advice I can give is to see a professional therapist, possibly as a family, to get an additional understanding for how this person operates and how to deal with them. Good luck and stay open minded.



answers from Houston on

This is a tough one. I suffer from major depression, anxiety and PTSD. Sometimes it doesn't take anything really to set me off. However, I have never gone crazy like that in front of my in-laws. Only in the comfort of my own home. Don't take everything personal--at least that is what my husband does. Sometimes I start crying for no reason and do get upset over the small stuff. My husband knows this, accepts it and we move on right afterwards. I'm assuming this person is getting help from a doctor? I think it is awesome that you are trying to understand.

How did you find out that the person suffers from so much? I think in general we don't tend to tell others about our problems. I would also consider if this person is just giving reasons for her to draw attention to herself. Everyone acts differently but some people get so use to the attention they get that it becomes the attention grabber for them. Either way it goes it sounds like if she is on medication---it's not the right one/combo. Is there anyone that could maybe talk to her fiance about it and him not get offended?



answers from Boston on

This is a tough one, are any of these true diagnoses or just rumors? I think you need to know exactly what the issue is before you can learn how to deal with it. Or if they don't want to give you details, then maybe you should just talk to your relative and ask him(?) how you should handle her(?), he would know her best if he's marrying her. Ask if there's anything in particular that sets her off, any topics that you should avoid, etc. Just let him know that you want to be as welcoming as possible, but you realize she has outbursts sometimes that upset everyone and you don't know how to deal with that. Does your relative talk to her after these outbursts? Maybe he could explain what upset her?

It is very disrupting to your family dynamic to have someone that is constantly melting down at every word, is anyone else in the family close to this person? I think you should try to make an effort to get to know her better, maybe try to include her in certain events and outings. Your instinct may be to avoid this person in order to avoid conflict, but this will just make her an outsider to the family. It will probably be a long hard road, but if the effort is made then maybe someday everyone will feel more comfortable, and she'll stop flipping out so much. The stress of joining a new family can be hard on anyone, nevermind someone who is already unstable.



answers from Indianapolis on

I give you a lot of credit for wanting to better understand the situation.

Because mental illness can take on so many different forms, I'd say the most important thing is to really find out exactly what the issues are - or the primary issue.

If you have a close relationship with this relative, I'd go to them, have a heartfelt conversation that you're trying to understand as much as you can so you can know how to best interact with them as a new member of the family. Are there triggers that set-off particular emotions? Are there side effects to meds you need to be aware of? Are there meds this person is taking?

I think if you approach it in the sense of wanting to know so you can better accept this person into the family (and to help the rest of the family accept them) that it would yield more information.

Until you know if it's an underlying anxiety disorder, bipolar, schizophrenia, etc, I don't know if you'll be able to accomplish your goals of keeping as much peace as possible. My mother is a hoarder, and she is very combative whenever people even remotely suggest cleaning her house and getting rid of things - until she wants to be treated for it (underlying anxiety), she'll let the family fall apart (and she doesn't seem to care).



answers from New London on

My advice is that you get in touch with a local NAMI chapter. They can answer questions, they have handouts and classes that will help you deal with the situation. Good luck!
C in CT


answers from Boston on

You have received some really good advice here. I have a cousin with severe OCD and some attendant personality disorders. All I can say is that your #2 above - how much they upset you - is the only thing you can really control. If this person lashes out, it's really not about you. It's probably not something you said or did - it's much more the situation or the fact that a stray thought crossed this person's mind and triggered a reaction. Even if the person says you did something, it could just as easily be that a cloud passed over the sun or the doorbell rang. The PMDD would be cyclical but there's no way of knowing where in the cycle she is. Hopefully there is some medical/psychiatric care involved, but this is a complex issue and the use of medications is very hit or miss. The meds themselves can cause some reactions too. With my cousin, I just ignore the outbursts or the endless rounds of handwashing in the bathroom - other family members just know to use a different bathroom when Cousin ties up the powder room. Just try to be relaxed (yeah, I know...) and not so tensed up waiting for the next blow up. Find out from your relative if smaller gatherings are easier, if there are holiday or other settings that are more comfortable than others, and also watch this relative's actions/words when there is a blow up. Your being calm is the best thing, and the rest of it may be totally beyond your control.

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