This is an article I wrote with the hope to become a The Mighty contributor. Posting it here while I wait for the editors to review it and decide.
You know all those posts you see on Tumblr or Instagram, saying that you can’t be in a relationship if you aren’t at peace with yourself? “You can’t love another person if you don’t love yourself first”, things like that.
Well, I have Bipolar Disorder and my partner has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). We’ve been in a relationship for three years and a half. You’re probably thinking we’re crazy — well, technically, we are. Who is neurotypical? Not us.
Talking about madness, we are madly in love. Actually, I proposed to them (they’re agender) on April 4th 2014 and they said yes, so we’re going to marry. But I’m not here to tell you that love alone is enough against mental illness: it is not. What I am going to tell you is how we manage. Here’s how we’ve got our relationship to grow and bloom despite mental illness rooting deep around its bulb.
1. Communicate and reach out – This probably is Relationships 101, but if both of you are living with mental illness this is vital: talk to each other. Reach out if you’re not feeling well. Let the other person know your triggers. Work on a list of coping strategies and do it together. Have a couple crisis plan ready to turn to. You need to know what helps your partner and what doesn’t, as you’re both going to be the caregiver at times, and you’ll need every piece of information about your partner’s illness, no matter how little. I know I sound like crappy self-help books, but really, make lists, write plans, do whatever you need to do to make sure you’re communicating. This will save you a lot of arguing and tears.
2. Set healthy boundaries – This is going to be painful. I guess it’s better to state this straightforwardly. You’re not and you CAN’T be your partner’s therapist. You’ll need boundaries to avoid getting badly hurt or hurting your partner badly. It’s hard to set them and harder to respect them, because you’ll find yourself wanting to save your partner, but the truth is you can only lend your hand: you can’t walk your partner up the road to reach it. They’ll have to walk by themselves. The same goes for you: you can’t pretend that your partner is your therapist. That’ll hurt both of you, for once you’ve confused the roles it’s hard to take a step backwards. Also, your illnesses need to be confined into boundaries, or they’ll eat away your relationship. Ask your therapist for help in doing this.
3. Beware the guilt trips when you’re the one feeling well – I remember a period of my life when depression had got a hold of me and I was completely sucked into the Bipolar depressive episode – except that my Bipolar was still undiagnosed and I had been misdiagnosed. At that tine, my partner’s BPD hadn’t emerged yet. They were not well – anxiety and depression were there – but not too bad either. A sick pattern had then developed: I would feel abandoned and painfully lonely when they went out with their friends (note that we live three hours away), and they would feel guilty for just living their life. My illness made us argue every time they left home. Compromise got us through that painfully tangled pattern: we decided that I needed extra care through extra texts and extra calls, but I promised to wait for those text and calls trying to remind myself that I wasn’t being abandoned. So what I want to highlight here is— mental illness will try to make you feel guilty for absolutely everything: don’t let it make you feel guilty for living, even when your partner is ill. You have the right to live.
4. Don’t believe everything you feel – Here I’m especially referring to dissociation, derealisation and depersonalisation. When a person experiences one of these symptoms, he or she probably simply does not feel. No love, no affection, no anything. We’ve both been through that kind of apathy and we know it can drive you crazy. “What if I don’t love them anymore?” We’ve both been tortured by this question playing and replaying in our minds. If you’re experiencing this right know, just hang in there. You DO love your partner. Ask for help. Ask your partner to be extra sweet— that helps sometimes, but don’t worry if it doesn’t. This shall pass. Don’t believe everything you feel — or don’t feel.
5. Don’t believe their mental illness – Sometimes, your illness will make you say things you don’t really mean— nasty things, things you’d never say to your partner. If your partner has said something that is really not like them, it probably was their illness talking. Make a list of your partner’s illness symptoms and signs, so you’ll know when not to believe to what they’re saying, and you’ll be able to help them acknowledge they need help.
6. Get involved in your partner’s treatment – Go meet each other’s doctors, know what meds your partner is prescribed and help them with taking them as prescribed. Be an active part in each other’s therapy process: this will boost your trust in each other and help you understand each other’s illness(es) better.
7. . Don’t lose hope – Love wins. Even against mental illness. Use semicolons instead of full stops (we’ll never forget you, Amy). Your story has just begun!