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To love someone, in the real and unconditional sense, is something often confused with the idea of staying by someone's side and accepting all their behaviors, especially those behaviors that directly impact you as a person. To love someone who is mentally ill requires a different set of standards. You need to work to establish mutual respect, something a mentally ill person is often incapable of understanding and accepting.

A mentally ill person will also often have trouble understanding the need for personal boundaries and personal space, especially with someone they are in a relationship with. Based on my personal experience, I recommend making it possible to take long breaks from physical interaction. For someone with mental illness, the knowledge that you can leave at will but will always come back can be a powerful thing.

I've lived with and been in intimate relationships with two mentally ill women. The first was never really diagnosed, but she was suffering from the impact of a very powerful case of post-traumatic stress disorder. It was the result of a childhood where she was physically and sexually abused by her father, who ended up killing three of her siblings as a result of his abuse. She had an intense attachment disorder that caused her to treat casual relationships and friendships as being much more intimate, lasting and intense than they really were. She tended to imagine things happening to her that really weren't, imagining I was being abusive towards her at times, something that balanced out with her belief that we were destined to be together and had a "perfect relationship" that would never end.

Debra could not understand my need for personal space and boundaries. She tried to involve herself in every aspect of my life, treating my attempts to spend time alone as me having something to hide, usually an imagined affair. At times she would launch into a night of attacks against my person, trying to rip me apart using words she felt would wound me deeply, storming off in her car afterwards vowing never to return. In the morning I would wake up to a breakfast of bacon and eggs and Debra with a pleasant smile saying, "Did you sleep well, my love?"

Based on experience, both first hand and witnessed, it is impossible to have a relationship with a mentally ill person. A relationship requires some degree of stability and in most cases, with a mentally ill person, stability is impossible to achieve. To love them and care about them is one thing, and I work with the mentally ill because I love and care about them, but to love them in the way usually outlined by a romantic/physical/sexual relationship is not possible for any enduring length of time. You love the person, yes, but what your needs drive you towards is the hope that they will find the right path to treat, maintain and possibly cure their mental illness. This is a pipe dream. It is a self-defeating path. Once you are in this intimate relationship with a mentally ill person you become an enabler. It is unavoidable, no matter what lengths you go to try to convince yourself it isn't.

It is simple, really. Even in the case of a mentally ill person who knows they need treatment and ongoing therapy, being in an intimate relationship with someone gives them the sense that they can function normally. We consider being in this type of relationship to be the strongest sense of normality in our lives. Getting and keeping a job doesn't compare. Owning a home or paying the rent on time doesn't compare. Having another person love and accept you to the point where they are investing themselves wholeheartedly in a relationship with you is much, much stronger. And if this person has a job, a place to live and a car to get around in... suddenly it doesn't feel as if their mental illness means that much any longer.

Debra threw herself into intimate relationships and attached herself to men as if she was using a staple gun to do so. I wasn't the only one, and she is still doing it today. She did this because it allowed her to avoid the fact that she needed very serious treatment and therapy. She had incredibly unstable mood swings, imagined and believed in things that weren't really happening and for which there was no evidence whatsoever, and would stab herself with a knife to get attention when she felt people were ignoring her. Being in a relationship with a man allowed her to convince herself that she did not need help, that she was fully functional and normal.

To the extreme, The Former Muse, followed a very similar path, although she was always convinced every friendship and relationship she was involved in would fail. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but over the last few months I knew her, the psychiatrist who met her when she was spending a few weeks in a psych hospital wanted to take her off her meds because he was convinced she was either borderline personality disorder or something quite different. The something quite different involved her absorbing the symptoms, habits, actions and diagnoses of the people she had worked with in her career in the field of psychology and adopting them as her own. It wasn't that she was faking her illnesses, but that she was genuinely absorbing them, as you could not fake her actions or her way of life. However, most of her symptoms and activities began only after she encountered them in others. She had always been deeply troubled in a way she could not define, and in essence she sought to define it by using tested models. Those that fit, such as bipolar disorder and cutting, she adopted. She only adopted suicidal behavior after I came to live with her. It wasn't part of her repertoire prior to my coming to live with her.

And the truth was, as it was with Debra, that it was not possible to love her and be with her in an intimate relationship. She sought to destroy the relationship and then praise it. She sought every means at her disposal to drive me away and then every means at her disposal to convince me to stay. I could either stay as an enabler or abandon her and validate her belief that all people would leave her, which was why I put her in the position of having to leave me.

You can love someone who is mentally ill. I maintain strong friendships with individuals who are mentally ill and I love them. I work with people who are mentally ill and emotionally unbalanced and I love them. You just cannot love them in the way that involves a lasting, intimate relationship because once they become convinced you are there to stay and you love them as they are, they will, in essence, stop trying to heal themselves because they have become validated by your love. The love cannot be unconditional. There must be a condition. They must continue to do everything they can to get "better" and to work hard to become the person they are. You must remind them constantly that you love them, not their mental illness and that you accept it only as a handicap to be overcome.

When things were good between us, The Former Muse would stop taking her meds. When things were bad between us she would start taking them again. When things were good between us, Debra would imagine things that weren't happening to sabotage our relationship and then attack me. When things were bad between us, she would work overtime to convince me she could function like a normal person and would go out of her way to make me happy.

You can't love a mentally ill person unconditionally. There must be a condition and the condition is the mental illness.