The Courage to Love When Addiction or Mental Illness Is Involved

“I love him. I really do. I try to show him in every way possible. But it goes unnoticed or rejected … I’m weary of the drinking, I’m beaten up by the unpredictability of his bipolar spectrum swings, and he thinks it’s all me. I’m afraid the courage to love is running out. Can you help me? PLEASE!”

My client looked totally deflated and defeated as these words came out of her mouth.

With great empathy, I assured her I could help her. But that may or may not mean his drinking or denial of his bipolar spectrum disorder would change. Hard words to hear!

“But if I can keep loving him, will it make a difference?” she pleaded.

“I believe the courage to love always makes a difference!” I replied confidently.

Because I do believe the courage to love makes a difference. It’s why I’m sharing about it with you! 

And clearly, the courage to love is resonating with many of you who are reaching out. 

Love is truly the only thing that can turn the impossible towards another direction. And love is the only thing that after we know we’ve freely given it, that we know we’ve given it our all.

Because I had so many inquiries about the courage to love when addiction or mental illness is involved, I wanted to share these things to help your courageous love shine through.  

“Have you ever seen the courage to love an addict, or a bipolar person be effective? And do you know how hard it is?” my client clearly wanted hope to be infused.

I understood.

“Yes, I’ve seen it effective many times, and I do know how hard it is! You see, I’ve been in an ‘in-service training’ since birth with both.”

“Although my dad was not your ‘typical alcoholic’ and did not have the ‘typical manic depressive bipolar spectrum disorder’ … he was both. Little did I know all of that as a little girl … but I learned to tiptoe through landmines, walk on eggshells, predict his moods, and navigate his unpredictability.”

She listened attentively as I continued.

“Of course, not because I had any thoughts of becoming a therapist at the time, but because it was necessary for my mental and emotional survival, and sometimes physical when his rage erupted in beatings.”

“Did it make a difference?” she begged.

“Well, I believe in some ways it did. Eventually, he laid the drinking down, and got meds (for another condition that just so happens to also treat bipolar spectrum disorders). And before he drifted into Alzheimer’s, he and I had many healing moments.”

“Can you please tell me what you did! I don’t want to give up on my husband, but I feel myself fading away! I’m scared. I’m lonely. And he seems oblivious to anything about me!” she said as tears streamed. 

I knew more than I wish I did about those hot tears I saw pouring from her eyes. 

I was determined to impart to her the courage to love. Not only the courage to love him, but to love herself again.

It’s in moments like these that we think the loneliness will grow deeper and longer if we embrace this kind of courage, but this is when ‘paradox’ is in our favor.

You see, it’s hard to love ourselves when we see the one who is supposed to love us the most … demoting us to a back burner at best. 

“When we love an addict, we often don’t pay much attention to ourselves. Our own needs, desires, yearnings, and yes, our self-respect, generally wind up on the back burner.” Candace Plattor

Finding healthy ways to get our needs for love met is crucial in having the ability to love someone who struggles with addiction or mental illness.

“We vow to love our spouse in sickness and in health. But we never really know what’s coming down the pike. Today 40 to 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Studies show that marriages in which one spouse has bipolar disorder are twice as likely to unravel.” Dr. Jerry Kennard

I believe that one of the reasons this double unraveling rate for most mental health disorders is because we are not helping those who love them learn to love courageously. (And no one is telling us how important taking care of ourselves is!)

Our love for them can make a huge difference. But our love for ourselves is critically important too.

Here are 3 ways to love courageously when there is addiction and/or mental illness involved.

1. Remember that addiction and mental illness is not WHO they are … it is WHAT they struggle with.

(From my AA friend … “After you quit drinking is when (if you work the steps) the selfishness starts peeling off in layers. At some point after staying sober and working the steps, the lights come on. And you realize drinking was never and not the issue; it’s your complete inability understand how to give and receive intimacy. Love!)

“I know it’s not WHO he is, but what he struggles with! But it controls our marriage, our daily life, our finances (or lack thereof), our ability to even be halfway ‘normal’ … whatever that is!” my client rightfully moaned. “So how do I keep it separated?”

Certainly, separating WHO someone you love is from their addiction or mental illness is easier said than done. Particularly when their choices and behaviors wreak havoc on your relationship.

I explained, “One of the most efficient ways to do this is to keep a gratitude journal. Write as many things as possible daily for which you’re grateful … directly related to them. Then when you’re having a hard time separating WHO they are from WHAT they struggle with … reviewing the gratitude journal will help you both see and remember who they are.”

She waited as I continued.

“Use the courage to love to share that gratitude! This is important to him too! It assists in his ability to remember who he truly is.”

I am a big believer that if we can lovingly hold a mirror that reflects WHO they truly are, they will want more of that part of themselves to shine through. However, although denial is not a river in Egypt, it is often a raging river running through their minds.

Denial is a defense mechanism where someone refuses to recognize or acknowledge objective facts or experiences, that are typically evident to everyone except themselves.

It’s an unconscious process that they use to protect themselves from discomfort about who they are, and who they wish everyone to see them to be.

You really have to dig deep for your courage to love when everyone but the emperor knows they’re naked! And on full display.

Hopefully, at some point, they will pull their head out of the sand and get the help and/or medication they need.

Where do you find courage to love in moments like those? By remembering it’s not WHO they are … it’s WHAT they are struggling with.

I am convinced after 25+ very successful years in private practice that 99.9% of people with addictions, and people struggling with mental illness (whether on the bipolar spectrum, depressed, anxious, ADHD, etc) have unresolved trauma. 

Things that occurred to them early in life (and sometimes not so early) … that had an impact on them, mis-wired their brains, branded beliefs on their hard drive and heart drive indelibly … and left them “looking for what’s missing …” most of their lives.

They don’t know what they’re missing because they don’t what’s missing and/or … why it’s missing.

When you can remember that, and even think of them in their moment of trauma (if you know any of their unfortunate experiences), it will give you a heart of compassion, overflowing with the courage to love.

Seeing their struggle rooted in trauma keeps us clear that it is WHAT they struggle with … and indeed NOT who they are!

2. Share truth with TREKy talk. 

“I never know when to say something and when I had better keep my mouth shut! I just want him to have a happy life and be who I truly believe he is beneath all this crap!” my client proclaimed and continued.

“So how do I know when it’s okay?”

I understood her dilemma. It is hard to know at times.

I don’t think it’s so much WHEN … as it is HOW …

I shared with her: “You must share anything you have to share regarding addiction and mental illness with 2 things in mind:

  • One we already covered. Be clear that it is not WHO they are, but WHAT they struggle with.
  • Secondly, only speak when you can do so with TREKy talk.”

What is TREKy talk? Sharing the:

Truth with


Empathy, and


She nodded and I could see her pondering.

“I will add this … when he is intoxicated, or when he is in a bipolar episode … those are NOT the ideal times to share,” I commented.

She looked like I had nailed her, so I continued.

“That’s the time to journal. Keep two journals. One for what occurs when he is intoxicated or in a bipolar episode. Pour out your heart and feelings. Keep it private. Most importantly, do NOT revisit it unless you need information to share with TREKy talk at another time.”

“Then, of course, keep your gratitude journal and review it often!”

“So … how often can I share my concerns?” she inquired.

I chuckled as I said … “Any time you know it’s not WHO he is. Any time you can use TREKy talk. Any time he is not intoxicated. And any time he is not in a bipolar episode. And I hope to God that leaves you some moments when you can share!”

She laughed, “Maybe 3 minutes on a good day! … Really, it’s not that bad, but it sure feels like it!”

“When you communicate your concerns with a heart of empathy and love, he will likely be more likely to listen to them,” I assured her.

Then I said, “Remember to speak about his behaviors and your feelings. Not his intentions. Not your judgements.”

“A healthy guideline is: 

  • ‘When you _____(fill in the blank with behaviors) _______,’
  • ‘I feel _____(fill in the blank with feelings, not thoughts) _______.’
  • Then follow it with a request … Would you be willing to _________ (fill in the blank with a positive, specific request)’.”

“I know I don’t share my concerns right. And I will get better. I will work at it. But why does it always end up being pointed back at me?” my client asked.

“Remember this … they point it back at you because it is overwhelming for them to have to look at themselves,” I responded.

“But unless there is abuse … if you can remain calm, mature, and compassionate … the conversation is much less likely to digress,” I assured her.

With great resolve, she said, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to do it right. I will hope and pray it will have an impact.”

“I’m so glad to hear this,” I said with a smile. We never know when his ‘moment’ will come. But we can hope and pray that he has his Denzel moment:

‘I made a commitment to completely cut out drinking and anything that might hamper me from getting my mind and body together. And the floodgates of goodness have opened upon me.’ –Denzel Washington

I am convinced that having a strong belief that the ‘moment’ can occur fuels our courage to love!”

3. Set limits and boundaries that are bathed in love.

(From my AA friend… “Most alcoholics, if not all of them, are ego maniacs with inferiority complexes given to self-absorbed anger with pity parties to match.”)

“Every time I attempt to set up limits and boundaries, he views them as pins at the end of the bowling lane and dedicates his entire life to making a strike with his ball of addiction and bipolar episodes!” she moaned.

I nodded with great understanding. “But they still need to be set. And you must be prepared to withstand the balls he throws with a vengeance, hoping for a ‘STRIKE’!”

Set the limits.

Set the boundaries.

Set the consequences. 

Be firm, be loving, be consistent.

“Each time you crater to his ball headed down the alley toward your limits and boundaries, be prepared. Be emotionally strong, but also be kind and respectful!” I encouraged her.

“What boundaries should I set?” she asked.

“Whatever you need for your well-being. Here are some examples of the types of boundaries to consider around addiction:

  • No drugs or alcohol in our home or around me
  • If you get arrested, I won’t bail you out and I won’t pay for a lawyer 
  • Ridiculing me and insulting me is completely unacceptable
  • I will not provide you with any more financial assistance
  • Anything else that will hold him accountable and be supportive to your well-being”

You also must be sure your boundaries are not punitive. (Example: If you drink, I will not have sex with you for a week.)

Yes, it’s hard to set boundaries. But that’s a huge part of the courage to love. 

“It seems like everything is all always about him,” she said carefully.

“In many ways, you are right. At the heart of addiction is selfishness. The Big Book of Alcoholic’s Anonymous has much to say about selfishness:

‘Selfishness – self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows, and they retaliate..

So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us!’

It is why you must set limits and boundaries … and take care of yourself.”

I continued: “It takes courageous love to be devoted to their well-being. Otherwise, it might kill them as the Big Book says.”

“Okay, I can do that … I’m just so lonely!” she said painfully.

“I know. It can be very lonely!” I validated.

I shared with her what one of the doctors at Sunshine Behavioral Health says:

“You may hear other terms used when people speak about self-centeredness such as self-serving, self-absorption, egocentric and selfish. Essentially, all refer to a pervasive focus upon self and one’s own needs, wishes and desires. This intense self-focus leaves the rest of us without much consideration except regarding how we can meet the needs, wishes and desires of the self-centered person. This is the foundation upon which a loved one’s feeling of being used and abused is built. In the self-centeredness of addiction, there is no mutual support as you would find in a healthy relationship.”

“I know that’s hard to hear … and even harder to live with. But courageous love can turn it around!”

“IF … you don’t let it pull you under!”

“I believe your courageous love will keep you afloat!” I validated.


The courage to love when there is addiction and mental illness involved can be difficult, taxing, and even overwhelming.

You may be thinking, “Then why would you encourage us to have courageous love in this situation?”

Great question!

#1 – Because I believe God will help us in the journey.

#2 – Because I believe the person you love is worth it!

Here are some of the things that those who love their addicted partners have said that keep me inspired:

  • “In the stillness of my longing, I find my strength – it’s the memory of your sober smile that keeps me fighting for us.” 
  •  “I refuse to label you; addicted is never a character trait, it’s just a step in the journey to rediscover yourself.”
  • “Recovery isn’t just your battle; it’s our war, fought on the battleground of my heart and etched with scars of our struggles.”
  • “My love for you is the compass guiding me through this wilderness of addiction, searching for the person I know you can be.”
  • “Addiction doesn’t define you; it’s just a part of the complex story of our love, and I’m still penning a tale of redemption and unity.”

Whether or not your courageous love brings your partner to sobriety, or to getting profession help, and/or to getting on medication … You will have gifted them with the greatest thing you could have done for them. You will have loved them courageously!