An uncomfortable truth to start the day with: when approaching matters with a partner with mental health problems, lots of decisions you make will be contentious.
The hard line: you will make some wrong decisions.
And many right ones. Decisions that will be right for someone else but not immediately clearly right for you. Bitter pills to swallow? Yes.
This is the sort of article that I fully anticipate will be contentious and I just have to take a bracing swig of the nearest beverage and play Halsey’s Clementine and hope that I can summon sufficient demons to exorcise them on this paper. Failing that, Hozier comes up next on shuffle so there’s that at least. Actually, let me put on a Glee cover of Fleetwood Mac. It’s what I deserve.
Right, now that I’ve settled myself into an appropriately contemporary gothic headspace I might as well start serving up some wisdom. Bear in mind that wisdom isn’t universal but it is something wrought out of experience. Do with it what you will.
So yes, on the issue of two of life’s most complex and enduring phenomena: relationships and mental health.
The premises of both are predicated on emotional co-dependency and a willingness to go probably too far to get them to smile. Oh the things I’d do to make my partner laugh when they’re having an episode. You finally fully empathise with how your mother cried when you had tonsillitis and she couldn’t do anything about it other than wish she could absorb your pain. That’s great. That’s why we cry to Adele songs and really mean the tears. Those tears are a piece of art, damn it!
The difficulty here, in the subjective issues – if we are to call it such – of mental illness and responsibility in relationships, is we need to know our own limits.
It’s also a truth universally acknowledged that you only discover where a line is once you’ve long since passed it.
C’est la vie, baby. Some things you have to learn through experience because no amount of people telling you what to do can determine what’s best for you. Actually, not even that. The pursuit of what’s ‘best’ for anyone is inherently presuming that we can be perfect. Do you sense from my tone that that’s perhaps not realistic? And yet, how can we live life pursuing anything other than things in our interest and that we believe will improve our lives? Well, we can’t.
So what I’ve concluded thus far is that we have to sacrifice for love, but we can’t sacrifice too much – unless it’s worth it. But then, what is worth the loss of our own identity and mental health? Like the bridge in any post-2014 era Taylor Swift song, you have to grit your teeth and fall in line with the new beat as it slowly consumes you.
The kicker with mental health is the unpredictability.
Some days, some ways everything is manageable. Life probably tastes like cherry wine (according to Hozier – can you tell I’m binging his entire works as I write this?!) some days. But we know that as much as there are those days, there are other days. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which outnumbers the other. I sat down the other week and concluded that my own only just about broke even, much less my partner.
The other issue is that you may have a couple that both have the same diagnosis but because of the sheer variance of humankind, we demand different things of comfort and recovery. Two people suffering from anxiety are likely to wildly vary in how they recover from anxiety attacks. Some want space and time to think and float above it all. Others want to be smothered in affection and human contact to drown in a little of something that isn’t their own mind for a bit. We may be able to relate to each other. Maybe even understand. But we can’t comfort each other or satisfy what we know the other person may need.
Is it as simple at that, though?
Anyone demanding effortlessness as a quality in a relationship doesn’t want a relationship. They want a robot or an idealised early 2000s Mark Ruffalo. Which is to say the same thing. But where is the line that no one shall cross of how much of your self and time you are meant to give the person that you love?
If you love them the line is a part of them, not something that circumscribes them. They are the epicentre and that’s likely where you will feel compelled to be.
If you aren’t interested or don’t feel that the emotional upheaval or difficulty is worth the relationship, then that answers your question for you. But if you do, then you don’t consider mental health episodes a deterrent in and of themselves.
You will need help, and absolutely don’t go it alone and become your partner’s only hope. Everyone needs space and alternative people to talk to. But the more you draw up boundaries the more you insist on only caring about certain thresholds of their personality. It becomes a disaster zone in which it seems that you are selectively picking parts of them, keeping the undesirable parts at arm’s length. Picking a safe zone to stay in and watch from afar.
Don’t just watch the person you care about suffer. Either support them or leave. You aren’t doing either of you any favours waiting for no-man’s land to blow up.
Relationships aren’t things there to be won, to be perfected, decoded or even to be the thing that defines you. Neither is mental health. You wouldn’t break up with a person who got in an accident and broke their arm and couldn’t help around the kitchen for a couple of weeks. That is not to conflate the very real and overlapping complexities of mental and physical health, but we need to listen to each other. And ourselves.
But in this age of increasing concerns for our own self care and looking after yourself, we must be careful that we’re not excluding ourselves from things that might be. Or that could be. Or that scare us. Our comfort zone need to be renegotiated every now and then. It doesn’t need to be obliterated or unrecognisable. But you need to test the limits.
Things are hard. Life is hard, so are relationships. Mental health definitely is.
The ‘easy way’ is what I will reductively call calling it quits the moment it gets hard with your partner’s mental health. And it’s not to be dismissed out of the park, because when you know, you know that sometimes you do have to end relationships to protect yourself. As with anything.
But mental health isn’t a checkbox that should immediately put red flags up saying ‘not worth it’ in your head.
Just put FUN!’s classic album ‘Some Nights’ on the highest volume in your headphones in the dark on a Saturday evening.