When Illness Takes Over: How to be a Sentry


SentryWhen illness takes over a relationship, it takes hard work to eradicate the intruder and eternal vigilance to keep it away. Relapse can be expected. When we are talking about addiction, it takes an average of seven real attempts before recovery feels solid and, even then, you won’t know if he’s going to need eight. Mental illness also tends to be episodic, and each new episode is worse than the last. People who have succumbed once to the allure of violence, sexual recklessness, self harm, suicide attempts, or self pity are more likely to do it again. Moreover, illness will often go into hiding when it feels threatened, so that what appears to be recovery is really a more pernicious hidden phase of the same madness that troubled you before.

You and your partner are going to want to beef up your security, stake out a perimeter, and set up a few trip wires to activate an alarm if the illness comes close again. Addiction, mental illness, violence, sexual recklessness, self harm, suicide, and the hopeless behavior that accompanies physical illness have such onerous consequences that you’re going to want a warning, so that you can take steps to prevent a reoccurrence. You and your partner are going to need a sentry. And guess what? As the partner not directly affected by the illness, the sentry will probably be you.

Here are your instructions:

Accept your assignment

You might be wondering, why do I have to be the sentry, watching out for her illness? Can’t she look out for it, herself? Ideally, yes, she should be looking out for her own illness. She should understand what triggers her and what loads the gun. She should have a plan to prevent relapse. But the fact of the matter is that she is more vulnerable to it than you are. When the illness tricks, it tricks her first. This particular illness was custom-made just for her, to sneak up in her blind spots. It fits her like a glove. It wasn’t custom made for you, so you can see through the deceptions more easily.

Paid professionals can help, they have the knowledge, they have the objectivity, but they don’t have the access you have. They don’t see your loved one on the weekends and at night when illness often strikes. They also, unlike you, have little to lose.

Can you resign from the security detail? Sure you can, but here’s the thing. The only way to do that is to end the relationship as you know it. We’re talking about divorce. You’ve probably already thought of that. Maybe you’re still thinking, unable to decide. Well, put this on your scale of pros and cons. If you stay, you are going to have to be a sentry, if only to guard your own interests. Are you ready?

Stay awake

Don’t give everyone the impression you are watching out for the illness and then fall asleep on the job. That’s worst than leaving the security detail, altogether. Don’t watch your alcoholic husband like a hawk in the first month of recovery and then forget about it later on. Don’t keep it up just until you get busy. This has got to be a priority. It’s tempting to believe that the hardest part of recovery is the beginning, but that’s often not the case. Many people in early recovery ride on a pink cloud and don’t run into problems until later on. The first anniversary of recovery, for one, is often a critical time. Don’t assume that the illness is only likely to return when things are hard. Sometimes good fortune can trigger it, too. The one thing that you can be certain of is that it will intrude when you are not looking, when you let down your guard and stop watching the door.

Patrol the perimeter

A good sentry doesn’t keep looking in the same place. You should understand how the illness arrived in the past, that’s the main thing to look out for. It is likely to come that way again. If, for instance, your wife gets depressed at Christmas time, then make preparations for Christmas time. Don’t let it catch you off guard. But understand, it can come other ways, as well. Factors present at Christmas that might result in depression any time there is busyness, family contact, alcohol use, overeating, darkness, or an imperative to be merry.

Don’t be deceived

Illness arrives in disguise. No one starts off drinking three six packs a day just to feel normal. No, they start off with a glass of wine at dinner, a beer during the game, or doing a shot with a friend. These things are all good things, there is nothing wrong with any of them in themselves. They are only evil because of where they lead. A good sentry sees through the disguises. Know the masks that your loved one’s illness wears. Talk about their masks with him in advance. Listen to what he knows about it.

My next post, When Illness Takes Cover, will have more about the cloaks illness puts on. Study it well.


A good sentry has got to be a little bit jumpy. You’ve got to be vigilant, but keep your finger off the trigger or you’ll shoot a friendly. When you see something that looks like the illness, seek confirmation before conclusion. If your husband keeps driving by that place where he used to score drugs, you should be seeing red flags. This may very well be the way the illness creeps up innocently. Your husband may be getting a contact high from just driving by, but that’ll lead to a real high. He might have already resumed using drugs, but hasn’t admitted it to you yet. You have reasons to be concerned, but don’t go in with guns blazing, accusing him of using drugs. No, get confirmation before you shoot.

One way of doing this is to ask him what it felt like for him to drive by his own drug house. Engage in conversation, not an accusation. If he is using, then he may well give you additional reasons to be concerned. If so, then put the reasons up for confirmation, also.

In the case of chemical use, you and your partner may very well find it helpful to use a home drug or alcohol testing kit to confirm your suspicions. It can provide an objective measure, so that you don’t have to rely on he said or she said. For this, or other kinds of illnesses, you may want to get a second opinion from a professional; sort of like calling in another sentry and asking what she sees. At any rate, ask questions first, and shoot later.

Don’t shine your flashlight in your partner’s eyes

In the past, you may have felt like you were a doormat for the illness to wipe its feet on. Now, you are no longer a doormat, you’re a flashlight. Use yourself as a flashlight to illuminate things, not to shine in your partner’s eyes. In other words, now that you have more awareness and a vital job, use this awareness and your role for the greater good, not to punish your partner or hit him over the head with his transgressions. Now that you are no longer a doormat, don’t start wiping your feet on your partner; it was not him who did all this, it was the illness; and now, by gratuitously punishing your partner, you are behaving no better.

Keep yourself safe

Don’t be so busy being a sentry, watching out for your partner’s illness that you get overcome by your own.

What’s that you say? You don’t have an illness? Everyone has an illness. You may not know what it is yet because it has not grown strong enough to overcome your defenses, but we all get to the point, when under sufficient stress, that the defenses break down. That’s when you discover your own tailor-made demons.

Maybe you know what your illness is. Either it took you over as much as your partner’s illness took over him, or you’ve seen small glimmers of it. If that’s the case, you know what to look out for. Don’t watch for it yourself. Let your partner be your sentry, just as you are his. Watch each others’ backs. He can see it more clearly than you can for the same reasons you are well suited to be his sentry. The only thing is, you have to tell him what to look for.

If you’ve been dealing with your partner’s illness for a long time, you probably worked very hard to keep yourself strong. Someone in the house had to function. The laundry, the cooking, the kids, the relatives, the shopping, and going to work don’t get done by themselves. You haven’t had the luxury of indulging in, or even paying attention to, your feelings. That doesn’t mean you don’t have them. You, too, are at risk. You may not be accustomed to relying on your partner for anything; she just hasn’t been reliable. That’s going to have to change. This is how you learn to trust her again.

There are many cases in which your particular illness makes it difficult for you to be an effective sentry. If you are excitable, paranoid, or pathologically suspicious, for example. Chicken Little and the Boy who Cried Wolf were ineffective sentries; there were just too many false alarms. Then there’s the cases in which his illness creeps up under cover of yours. You know you’re paranoid, so you don’t say anything; your partner, in his illness, accuses you of being paranoid and dismisses your report. It can get really confusing and difficult to know what to think. All the more reason to get independent confirmation. All the more reason to reconsider the terms of your relationship.

Raise the alarm

If you have been doing your duty as a sentry and patrolling the perimeter, there will come a time when you detect the presence of the illness. Then, after you get confirmation, you’re going to have to raise the alarm. You may not want to do it, no one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but this is what you’re there for. If the illness has given the two of you a lot of trouble in the past, you might not want to believe it’s back. If the illness has already taken over your partner, you might get an argument.

When you raise the alarm, follow the regulations on constructive conflict:

· Pick the right time and place

· Start with the easy stuff

· Stay relevant

· Learn something

· Acknowledge feelings

· Call the four fouls of an unfair fight: defamation, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt

· Don’t be evil

· Repair injuries

· Detect dreams

· Compromise

· Commemorate what you have accomplished

Go back and re-read my series on constructive conflict (you can click here) if you don’t remember how to follow the regulations.

Remember, relapse is the rule, not the exception. It happens. You don’t want to make it happen, it’ll happen on its own; but, when it does happen, you’ll want to learn something new from the experience, something that you can use against the illness if you take your post as sentry again.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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