We’re easy to love on our good days, and almost impossible to love on our bad days; but that doesn’t make us unloveable.
Perhaps it’s because I work in a team of creative types, but work is one of the few places I feel really okay with admitting my mental health struggles; even as a people manager.
My team know I’ve taken days off to seek mental health care in hospital, and I, in turn, have tried wherever possible to be flexible when a writer emails in at the last minute and tells me she’s having a really tough time with her depression or anxiety, and so won’t be able to hand any of her work in. It’s not easy making those allowances and sacrifices; but it’s brought me closer to my team, and as a result they work incredibly hard and are always willing to go the extra mile.
Even our features meetings regularly evolve into therapy sessions; someone inevitably pitches a story on a mental illness experience, and before long everyone is chiming in with their own stories of heartache, suffering and triumph. It’s an oddly uplifting experience, working among a team of talented, ambitious, successful women who readily admit they have days when they can’t get out of bed, stop crying, or that they rely on medication to get through.
I guess that’s the thing about mental illness.
It can be so incredibly isolating due to its stigma, that the simple act of having someone relate to, acknowledge, or validate your experience can bring an immeasurable amount of relief, and fuel motivation to keep going when there seems little reason to.
But on the flip side, for someone who’s never dealt with mental illness personally, being in a relationship – be it a friendship, working, or romantic relationship – with someone suffering from mental health issues, can also be an incredibly challenging, isolating experience that can leave you wondering, ‘Are all relationships really this hard?”
The truth is, while everyone fights, inevitably goes through periods of wanting to withdraw from their relationships, or flies off the handle out of anger every so often; relationships generally shouldn’t feel emotionally taxing and tumultuous on a constant basis. In fact, most experts agree when every day starts feeling like a challenge, it’s generally a red flag indicating you’re in a toxic relationship.
But when you throw a mental health disorder into the mix, things get a bit more blurry.
What about being in a relationship with someone who suffers from anxiety and is genuinely taking steps to manage it? Or when both you and your partner suffer from a mental illness?
“People with mental illnesses are not suddenly different people because they are sick. When they’re struggling they aren’t monsters, when they get better they are not new people,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reminds family members of loved ones dealing with mental health struggles on their site.
“Mental illnesses are illnesses, and sometimes they can change someone’s circumstances…they can even change their personalities for a time, change their interests, their spirit. But they are the same person you have always loved.”
And that’s the clincher. Unlike an abusive relationship, a relationship with a person struggling with a mental illness can be greatly rewarding and mutually loving; provided the sufferer is willing to take accountability for their illness and make definite steps toward managing it.
However, I don’t want to sugarcoat this. As someone who suffers from a mental health disorder myself, I can readily admit I’m incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to love at times.
Just five months into our relationship, my boyfriend walked in on me self-harming for the first time. Another two months later, he was visiting me in a psychiatric ward. Not exactly how I’m sure he’d pictured spending our ‘honeymoon’ period.
And yet, he stayed by my side. Even when I pushed him so far away I thought for sure it would be the last time I saw him; he made an effort to learn about my illness, attend therapy sessions with me when I asked him to, and to hold me tightly when I was in the grips of my disorder.
If you love someone with a mental illness, you needn’t think of it as any different to loving someone with a physical disability.
There will be times you’ll have to make allowances and sacrifices; perhaps even times when you secretly resent them for putting you through hell, and ask yourself why you’re there.
And there will be many more times you’ll laugh with them, share deep conversations, and forge a bond not quite like any you’ve had before.
Perhaps one of the greatest difficulties and paradoxical perks of having a mental illness is that sufferers tend to feel things more deeply. We might cry, panic or fly into a rage in a situation that would be shrugged off by anyone else. But it also means that when we love, we love you with our whole heart and soul, and give everything we have to give to the people who support and stand by us through our darkest times. The times when we’re far less easy to love.
Loving someone with a mental illness means accepting their condition as part of the package, but never identifying them by it – my disorder doesn’t define me, it just creates additional challenges for me from time to time. But with support, I’m buoyed on to keep forging ahead, aiming to do better every day.
It means understanding the person you love can’t control their illness any more than you could control a physical injury or illness from flaring up and causing sudden, unexpected pain.
Please try to never make them feel like it’s their fault, like it’s a choice, to be this way, even though the chaos in their mind may cause them to unexpectedly turn against you at times. I’ve often said to loved ones that while I’ve learned to accept my own mental illness, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Perhaps most poignantly, loving someone with a mental illness means growing as a person.
They’ll push you beyond your limits at times, provoke you to unmask your deepest vulnerabilities, and foster within you an incredible empathy you never thought you had, when they call on you to be their rock when their world feels as though it’s spinning off its axis.
And when it really comes down to it, loving someone with a mental illness is just that; love.
Images via pinterest.com and favim.com.
Comment: Are you in a relationship with someone with a mental illness? What has it taught you about yourself?