I am not always a great person to be with. I’m often irritable. I cry for hours and can’t explain why. I’m needy, then distant, then needy again. I sleep a lot and skip the fun stuff to take care of my brain. And even if you love me really hard and do everything right, I still might be miserable. Which must be frustrating. I self-harm. I attempt suicide, I take overdoses. I drink when I shouldn’t.
People who love people with mental health issues are not heroes. They are not deserving of trophies just for acknowledging that mental illness does not define a person. People with mental health issues are not burdens who should be grateful to be with whoever they can get.
People who love people with mental health issues are not heroes, but they do deserve a moment of serious appreciation Because loving someone with a mental illness can be tough.
Love is about understanding, so it’s tough when it involves mental illness – which defies understanding, logic, or reason. Love is about compromise, so it’s tricky when mental illness is stubborn, when it takes the person you love and won’t let go no matter what you do. Love is being there even when the person you love lashes out, or can’t talk because they’re crying too hard, or can’t tell you what’s wrong.
People in relationships with people with mental illness are patient. They’re supportive. They stick around and do all the little things that help to keep you sane – from stroking your back when you’re having a panic to making sure you take your meds. That’s not to say that people who date people with mental illness are saints. They can still be stroppy. They’ve got their own needs. Relationships aren’t built on a poorly person and someone taking care of them – you have to look after each other.
I’m just saying that I recognise that dating someone with a mental illness can be really, really difficult – and I don’t think the other halves of relationships impacted by mental illness get enough credit. And that’s harder when often, mental health issues make partners feel unappreciated and unheard.
When my anxiety is at its worst, I’m a terrible listener. My partner will be telling me about their day, and my head will be on a constant stream of all the things that could go wrong tomorrow.
What they see as a romantic candlelit dinner, I see as a panic-inducing fire risk.
What they think of as a surprise plan puts me on edge, snatching away the comfort of routines, schedules, and hours of rehearsal in my head.
I get paranoid. I’ll worry they’re dead if they don’t message me back for a while, I’ll convince myself they hate me because their response was a little short, I often need reassurance that yes, everything’s okay, don’t worry, stay calm. That has to be pretty hard to deal with. But what’s harder is the realisation that they can’t magically make me happy. Watching your partner sobbing is difficult, but it’s even worse when there’s no reason and no way to fix things. It’s hard to feel like your partner’s happy in relationship when they’re hurting, when their brain stops them from being able to feel and express excitement, happiness, pure joy. It’s horrible to see your partner thinking all the worst things about themselves, unable to see all the brilliant things you see.
I don’t want to be a burden, but sometimes I am. I can’t pretend that my mental illness doesn’t affect my relationship, because it does – it makes me take arguments to heart, it makes me need to leave the pub early because my obsessive brain has got stuck on one looping thought, and over, and over, and over again, it makes me shut down and push people away because depression is a selfish, possessive bugger that wants people all to itself. I can beat myself up for that (and trust me, sometimes I do), or I can shower my partner with gratitude – for all the times they hold me through the panic attacks, every time they make sure I take my medication when my brain’s telling me to self-destruct and give it up, for the way they love me and know I love them even when I shut down.
Our partners are not heroes for being with us, and my reluctance to be dependent on anyone means I’ll loudly say that we could do perfectly well without them. And we could. I can look after myself. I don’t need someone else to stay sane and content. But having someone is a nice bonus, and one I’m learning to welcome. They’re a voice that goes against the horrible one in my head that tells me I’m awful, purposeless, and unworthy of love, the person that’ll give me a nudge to do the self-care that I need to keep going, they’re my safe place when the world feels terrifying.
I don’t say it enough, but they’re brilliant. When I watch them deal with my low points, and when I see my friends organising doctors’ appointments for their partners, listening to them vent, chatting about giving them the space they need, I’m blown away. I’m so grateful that we’re reaching a point when we can openly talk about mental health at three in the morning after yet another visit to A&E for stitching from self-harm, and when mental illness isn’t a deal breaker, but an opportunity for people to step up and offer all the love and support they can.
I’m grateful for a partner that supports me when I’m low, that understands thoughts and feelings that resist understanding, and that loves me through my worst bits. They deserve celebrating, and in the moments I can show that, I’m going to make sure I do.