"I know when I'm depressed because I like you less," my boyfriend said to me a few months after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Oblivious to the fact that his words hurt my feelings, he said this with a sense of revelation. He was learning the landscape of his illness and the depressive episodes that came with it, all while trying to tell reality from the overlay that his brain was creating.
When he told me about his diagnosis a few weeks after we started dating, I felt his pain. He seemed like a regular, happy person, but it hurt to hear he was having a hard time. I didn't think much of it, though, and assumed that with medication, he would be fine. His new psychiatrist prescribed him some things and we were off on a never-ending journey, our new relationship intertwining with his mental illness.
My boyfriend was easy to love. He was eccentric, creative, fun-loving, and he always brought people together. I was happy that I could help support him, but navigating his new diagnosis had us constantly on alert for the next shift in his mood and perception of reality.
Over the course of our relationship, I watched from the sidelines as my partner's struggles with his mental health got worse, and I grappled with how to care for myself in the process.
Every few weeks or months, my boyfriend would return to the psychiatrist for a recalibration of his medication. Sometimes, the side effects of these meds - weight gain, sleeplessness, personality changes - were as difficult to cope with as the illness itself. They were difficult changes for the both of us. For me, the challenge was judging myself for the moments when I wasn't sure if I wanted to be in the relationship because of how chaotic it felt.
Over the course of our relationship, I watched from the sidelines as my partner's struggles with his mental health got worse, and I grappled with how to care for myself in the process. We still had fun, made friends, and went on adventures. His openness and ability to communicate about his condition made it easy to work through issues as they came up. And at the very least, I didn't have to guess how he was feeling because he would usually tell me.
But there were times when it was hard to connect with my boyfriend. His depressive episodes made him deeply sad and distant. They lasted sometimes hours, sometimes weeks. He would text less and drift into his own world. About a year in, he started hearing voices and jumping up in bed with night terrors, which terrified me. His high, manic states also put him in an inaccessible, artificial-feeling emotional state. He would play loud music, make silly sounds, or we'd end up in a screaming match.
This relationship wasn't my first time living with someone who had a mental health condition. My mother was diagnosed with clinical depression and bipolar disorder when I was around 8 years old. She died by suicide just two years later. Because of my experience with my mom, I was so tuned to my partner's emotions and holding space for him, which were skills I'd learned in childhood. But it seemed I still had a lot to learn in terms of being there for myself.
About a year into our relationship, a visit to the psychiatrist yielded near-deadly results. His doctor had sent him home with a brand-new medication. My boyfriend took the pills and passed out shortly after. That night, I went to his apartment and found my boyfriend in bed with creepily cold skin and a pulse of 30 BPM - that's one beat every two seconds. Terrified, I rushed to call 911, afraid he was dying. Paramedics arrived in minutes and he was taken to the ER. The nurses had to administer adrenaline and defibrillate his heart twice to return him to normal.
I was angry at his doctor, which became a sticking point in our relationship. Later that week, I joined my boyfriend at his doctor's appointment. The fear of his medication mixing in a bad way never left me. For the next two years, when he was sleeping, I would often check his breathing to make sure he was still alive. This was very stressful for me, to put it mildly.
Even on an ordinary day, I was hypervigilant to how my boyfriend felt. I didn't yet have the tools to care for myself or honor my boundaries, so I danced to the beat of his drum.
But this wasn't sustainable for me. At the time, I turned to nicotine and alcohol to help me cope. Wrapping myself in my own addictions and out-of-control behaviors served as a distraction from my feelings in the relationship. Most of all, they distracted me from the fact that I couldn't control my boyfriend's illness.
He was well aware of my substance issues and was one of the first people to comment that my behavior was becoming a problem. While I knew a year or so into the relationship that I wasn't totally in control, these were the only tools I had that helped me feel OK. I started going to therapy for the first time around this time.
We eventually broke up for reasons unrelated to his mental illness. I simply wasn't ready to settle down. When our relationship ended, I felt worried for his well-being, but knew he was amply supported by friends, family, and his mental health providers. And after the breakup, I struggled with my own mental health and well-being until I got sober about nine months later.
I've since learned helpful tools like EFT tapping and - with lots of support from friends, recovery communities, and a therapist - stopped using substances and learned how to live a healthy life. I've been sober since then.
I don't regret being with my ex, and I don't think mental illness is a barrier to anyone having a deeply loving relationship. In those moments when my ex and I had open communication and I was able to care for myself in healthy ways, we were able to really care for one another.
But in my relationships with my ex and my mother, it was easy for me to lose myself by becoming fixated on how the other person was feeling and what they were doing. As a child, this was a way for me to be safe. But as an adult, I needed to learn how to take care of myself even when how I felt seemed like "not as big of a deal" as my boyfriend's mental and emotional state.
Since then, I've learned that how I feel and what I need also matter. I learned this in therapy and from taking stock of my life. I saw clearly how holding back my truth harmed my relationships and myself. When I was with my ex-partner, it was easy to let my own well-being fall by the wayside.
Today, by taking care of my own needs in healthy ways like eating fruits and vegetables, doing things I enjoy, meditating, practicing breathwork, tapping, and prioritizing supportive friendships, I'm better able to show up for my loved ones and enjoy loving, interdependently supportive relationships. This way, I can be a better partner and - more importantly - feel more at peace within myself.
If you or a loved one are in need of any help, the National Suicide Prevention organization has several resources and a 24/7 lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has resources available including a national 24/7 helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). You can also send your zip code via text to 435748 (HELP4U) for treatment referral and information services.2023-05-24T16:43:10Z dg43tfdfdgfd