Dating Don’ts: On Loving Someone With Mental Illness
For the majority of my last relationship, my partner was in the throes of a slowly unwinding nervous breakdown. He moved to New York at the same time I did, and lived for a brief period in a state of almost too much togetherness, bound because we loved each other, but also because we didn’t know what else to do. There is a strange thing that happens when you first move to a new city. Stripped free of your usual comforts, you cling readily and fiercely to whatever is available. For us, it was one another, and that felt fine to me, but less so to him. With the stress of living in a new city and delving into a new relationship, his anxiety and depression blossomed beyond the average quarter-life crisis into something much more serious.
He did a good job of hiding it from me, or maybe I just wasn’t perceptive enough to realize what was actually happening. Slowly, his moods began to deepen in color and duration. Even though we didn’t live together, he spent a lot of time at my house, sitting in my room when I was at work, or taking short, quick walks down the street. There were lots of nights I’d end up holding him as he sobbed, upset for reasons that he would try to articulate, but I would never fully understand. We broke up numerous times, but it never lasted more than a week or so. I later understood that he kept coming back to me because he was scared of what he would to do himself if he was alone.
I realized just how serious his condition was when I found myself in a cab on the way to the psychiatric ward, where he was waiting to check himself in after a day of suicidal thoughts. I sat with him until they admitted him, and then waited for a couple of hours until I was allowed to see him again. Leaving him in that room, when visiting hours were over, was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.
After a night in the psych ward and a diagnosis of GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), OCD, and clinical depression, they let him out of the hospital, and entered him into an outpatient program that consisted of daily, intensive therapy. During this period, he was alternately short-tempered and sluggish, depending on the cocktail of drugs he was taking. Our relationship wheezed along, but I could see there was an end in sight when I went with him to a therapy session and he winced when his counselor referred to me his “girlfriend.” Our end was much less spectacular than our beginning. He moved back to the city he came from, and I stayed here.
To date someone who is suffering from mental illness, who falls into moods at the drop of a hat, is stressful and can be hurtful, but it’s a learning experience. You will learn how deep your reservoirs of empathy and care are. You will learn how strong your boundaries are. You will learn just how much you can take and you will learn that it’s okay to stick by your person, but it’s also okay to want to get out.
Learn about the mental illness. Go to therapy sessions, be an open and available ear for conversations. Make sure that you are being as kind and as caring and as understanding as you can be. The thing with mental illness is that it’s hard to explain to someone on the outside, someone who doesn’t know what it’s like. You can ask for an explanation or an answer all you want, but you probably won’t get it very readily, nor will it be something that makes sense to you.
It is important to remind yourself that it is not your fault, and that ultimately, it’s not about you. Try hard to parse out what you know in your heart to be true from what you think is the illness talking. It’s hard to weather these kinds of storms, but it’s doable. Keep lines of communication open and honest. Be strong for yourself, and also for them, but don’t be afraid to know when it’s time to take yourself out of the equation. It’s easy to fall into the mindset of wanting to save or fix the person you love, but it’s important to recognize when you simply can’t. Care for yourself and care for the other person. That’s all you can do.
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