Loving Someone With Anxiety: Here’s To You

Whether you like it or not, Valentine’s Day is a time which prompts thoughts about love—and I’ve written a few posts this week about mental health and love, discussing the how love won’t fix your mental health, and the strange narrative of the ‘mentally ill girl’ being somehow alluring.

They’re both important topics, but something I’ve noticed is that these narratives all leave something out – how difficult it can be to love somebody with a mental health issue.

I often worry (go figure: I have anxiety) about how frustrating life can be for people who invest and love deeply in their mentally ill boyfriends, girlfriends and spouses. Loving someone with anxiety can be exhausting, and the people who do this deserve praise and acknowledgment for how relentlessly they love and support people who are not easy to love and support. They deserve (in this week of love and card sales) to be thanked.

I have someone to thank. Roxane Gay has a phrase that always pulls at my heartstrings: ‘my person’. I feel a particular affinity for this, because I often feel boyfriend is not the apt term for the person I split my rent with.

‘My person’ has known me for half our lifetime and can spot a cloud on my horizon almost before I can feel it. He supports me when I weep nonsensically, and leaves me be when I need to be alone. He makes my life better, caring for me even when I am difficult to care for. (I think I do the same for him, although he inevitably needs it less).

He’s also tough, and takes very little of the shit I could probably dole out were I more indulged. I know that I am loved, and this gives me the space to be honest about how I feel. He tells me I am beautiful but also reminds me it wouldn’t matter if I weren’t. He’s my best friend. Here’s to him.

And here’s to you, if you love and support somebody through their darkest days. Here’s to the patient and compassionate lovers. The ones who support and hold. The ones who live with the storms and the rollercoasters. If you have somebody who supports you through your mental health ups and downs, take a moment to thank them this week. We could probably do it without you—but we really wouldn’t want to.

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Loving A Mentally Ill Girl

There are all sorts of narratives about women, love and happiness, and we see them from our earliest days. A popular example is that love will fix you in the broken places or save you from the darkest days of your life (thanks, Disney). Thankfully, this myth is losing ground, and our public narratives increasingly contain strong and empowered individuals who learn to save themselves.

This is all good news. But another narrative has emerged in recent years, surrounding love and mental health—and it’s quite a worrying one.

anxiety
Not goals.

It’s a narrative about loving the mentally ill girl. I see it in TV and film. The mentally ill girl is almost a trope, and there’s a certain dark glamour in loving this girl (providing she’s skinny and tousle-haired—I’m looking at you, Skins). This girl is dark and fragile and sexy. A glittering star in a dark sky. She’s a project and a fantasy and she needs a good man to straighten her out, all at the same time.

I also see it in written articles from time to time, suggesting people with anxiety are the best ones to fall in love with. ‘Why loving a girl with anxiety will be the best thing you’ll do’, and so on. Because girls with anxiety are sensitive and empathetic and won’t ever walk out on you. Right.

I can’t help but worry when I see these titles like this. For one thing, it diminishes women’s experience of mental health issues, turning them into a sort of stock character. For another, this strikes me as a disturbing and dangerous attitude to love. I think it comes from a good place – a place of letting people with mental illnesses know that they are valid and worthy of love. But when I was in the grips of major depression and chronic anxiety, I was not a good person to love. By turns weepy and distant, I was never more selfish or less easy to be around than when in the grips of my illness.

This didn’t make me unworthy of love, but it certainly wasn’t a way of being that anyone should idolise. When I was very ill, I didn’t have the emotional capacity to look after myself—let alone be a good partner to somebody else. Worse yet, a certain type of person is drawn to this—someone who wants to ‘fix you’ and take the credit for it, and then have you be indebted.

This blog revolves around the fact I think there should be no shame in being mentally ill, so let me make it plain: I am not saying mentally ill people shouldn’t be loved, because of course they should. But I will stand up and argue that it isn’t helpful to suggest ‘loving the mentally ill girl’ is the best thing you can do. Not all anxious or depressed people become compassionate, loving, empathetic and loyal. Many compassionate, loving, empathetic and loyal people have never been mentally ill.

This attitude reduces women. It glamorous a horrendous experience. Worse still, it’s potentially dangerous for women. And that’s not okay.

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Why Love Won’t Fix Your Mental Health

Love is difficult to get right at the best of times, let alone when you’re in the midst of a mental health crisis. I’ve done all sorts of funny things when not quite in my right mind. I’ve made dubious and hurtful choices. I’ve broken up a good love and pursued a bad one.

But somehow, even when we know we should be by ourselves, love is hard to stay away from. It’s a story we’re told from the very beginning: love will make us better. Love will fix what is broken. It may even be our reward for struggling on through the enchanted forest and fighting a beast.

It won’t fix us, of course: romantic love is no better route for curing mental illness than alcohol or drugs, for all it mimics their mood-boosting effects.

It’s a tempting thought, though. Mental illness is exhausting. And being alone can be so very tiring, even when your health is well and good. Someone else’s arms can feel like the port in the storm.

And I don’t want to diminish the importance of love: you certainly can’t understate the support many people’s partners give them. I’ve written a post to thank these people. But it’s also important to remember that love won’t fix your mental health.

Because love, even a good love, can’t save you from your own mind. And whilst we’re at it: you can’t love somebody else into good mental health. You can do everything right and try to fight for it every way you can, but sometimes, the most important thing for your mental health—and your partners’—is to walk away.

And that’s a good love. A bad love can be downright dangerous for those with mental health issues, leaving people in a vulnerable state open to manipulation and abuse. Obviously, I’m not saying all mentally ill people should be single: if you have a supportive and loving partner, recovery can be much easier. But if your love is actively making your mental health worse, and you’re free to do so: leave. Life’s too short. There’s too much at stake.

Because whilst it’s scary to deal with your mental health alone, it could be the best skill you ever acquire. Something inside of you cannot be fixed by somebody else. Learn to sail your own ship and you can surmount any storm. Build the strength to go places by yourself, to sit in silence, to journey alone.

In the words of Jeanette Winterson: “In this life, you have to be your own hero. By that I mean you have to win whatever it is that matters to you by your own strength and in your own way.”

READ MORE FROM NICER THOUGHTS’ VALENTINES DAY SERIES