"Telling my partner about my mental illness was the best thing I ever did"
Caregivers, couples, and experts share their advice on relationships and mental health
There are so many rules of dating now. Let the other person call you first, or wait three days before texting them. We’re told to act coy, or be outgoing and adventurous to show the best sides of ourselves. For those in long-term committed relationships, people will tell you about all the things you need to take into consideration and discuss with a partner before getting married or deciding to have children. But when in these overlapping channels of communication is the right time to tell them that you have a mental illness?
Growing up, we create all kinds of visuals about our dream partner. From their dark hair, dimples, and smile to their caring personality, kind heart and sense of humour. I may just be describing Shah Rukh Khan, but my point is that rarely does it cross our mind that at some point in our life we could be in a relationship with someone with a mental illness. But given that one in seven people are coping with a mental disorder (of varying severity), you’re bound to have dated, loved or even had a crush on someone who is living with a mental illness. Those are the numbers the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) put out in 2017. These are also the people who have managed to seek help despite the existing stigma; many more cases of mental illness go undiagnosed.
Unlike our preference for rock music, hatred of karela (we may have just the thing to change your mind), or desire to go mountain climbing, we aren’t quick to share our mental health issues. In a way, I get it. I was one of those people too.
I know a lot of people fear getting diagnosed, especially with a mental illness. For me, it was liberating. Validation on the whirlwind of emotions and behaviours I had no explanation for. Answers for things I didn’t think to question, and medication to clear the haze in my brain.
In today’s ‘awoken’ age, if you ask someone whether they’d get into a relationship with a person who has a mental health issue, they’re likely to say yes. Everyone has low periods where they experience anxiety, distress or panic attacks. But what about the ones with chronic mental illnesses? Say borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, where your symptoms are very likely to be lifelong with no ‘cure’, just day-to-day management?
Earlier, I believed this was my ‘baggage’ to deal with, so I kept it to myself. Until I met my current partner. When things began taking a more serious turn, I felt the need to lay all my cards on the table. I left the decision to him, no hard feelings. But his one statement, “OK”, made me comfortable opening up about coping with a chronic mental illness.
I questioned his response multiple times, but I got the reassurance I needed to hear. It made me wonder about past romantic encounters and the way they could have ended, had I not feared rejection.
Five years later, my mental illness has been one aspect of our lives. He knows that there will be days when I will hyper-fixate on certain foods and refuse to eat anything else until I get sick of this particular dish. He’s worked beside my mummified form as I cried through a depressive episode, tapping my shoulder from time to time to hydrate so I wouldn’t end up with a headache.
The day I told my partner that I have a mental illness, our relationship changed. It allowed me to finally unmask and for him to join the dots of certain behaviours that perhaps previously didn’t make sense.
Last month, Tweak India hosted a live session with Radhika Piramal and Aparna Piramal Raje about the latter’s book Chemical Khichdi: How I Hacked My Mental Health. In it, Aparna shares her lived experience of bipolar disorder and the support she got from her family, including her sister.
What Radhika said pops up in my head every time I contemplate withholding something about my mental state from my sister, partner, or parents. “Good mental health is a collective experience.” My mental health doesn’t just impact me, but also the people I’m around the most. So why shouldn’t I share what I’m experiencing and accept the help of my support system to cope?
It took time for my partner and me to get to a place where we could read each other’s cues, and for him to get comfortable playing the part of caregiver when I needed it. Everyone that I’ve spoken to who is or has been in a relationship with someone with a mental illness has had their own path to sustaining a healthy, functional, and supportive relationship.
Talking to the people whose partners have a mental illness has helped me better understand my relationship. And it could help you too.
“Sometimes you need to zip your lips and just listen”
Thane resident Anju Singh and her husband had just had a baby, and were supposed to be moving into a new home. But with work, the baby and familial responsibilities as Singh’s in-laws retired and moved in with them, her husband started showing symptoms of depression. They sought professional help.
“I didn’t know what to do. If I started to probe a bit, he’d get irritated and if I’d say something random to comfort him, he’d say I don’t need comfort.” What did help, she realised, is zipping her mouth at times. When someone is telling you something, you immediately want to relate it to something that you’ve experienced. But at that moment, they just need to be heard.
Psychotherapist Neha Kakkar says that people who struggle with chronic mental health ailments suffer from very low self-worth in their times of crisis. “They’re constantly questioning their own reality, the validity and importance of it. They’ll downplay what they’re feeling and probably have the lowest self-esteem at those points.” The best thing you can do is to simply listen.
You can end up being a sounding board for someone to unscramble their whirlwind thoughts, at times paranoid, irrational or self-critical and anxious.
“Don’t forget about your oxygen mask while you’re busy helping them with theirs”
“I wish I had focused on myself more,” adds Singh, a sentiment which Manjeet* also echoes in our conversation. When his partner of 4 months opened up about his PTSD and anxiety diagnoses, he was unprepared for what to expect. “A lot of his behaviour made sense once he told me about it, and while I love him, care for him and was on board for everything, I was definitely not prepared to be a caregiver.”
Manjeet hasn’t come out to his parents and most of his friends about his sexuality. So when his partner’s poor mental health started taking a toll on his own, he didn’t know where to turn.
He’d speak openly to his partner about their experience, but even then, he began to feel the strain of constantly prioritising his partner’s care, desires and needs over his own health. “I’d always put what he wants and needs first. I’d preemptively do things to avoid his triggers. And somewhere along the line, I realised I had started developing anxiety about his anxiety,” says Manjeet.
“How can you show up for someone else when you’re not doing well yourself?” says Kakkar. Burnout, including physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. is very common among caregivers, primarily studied among nurses. Kakkar says partners can experience similar burnout.
Self-care can mean pamper sessions at a salon, having a weekly lunch with your best friends, making time for regular workouts, or simply stepping back from a draining situation.
“You are a part of their therapy”
When his wife was diagnosed with depression, 29-year-old Aranav Bose thought he’d created the perfect schedule for them to follow. He’d met his wife Geetika when they were both in design school in Pune. Early in their relationship, she told him about her depression diagnosis and how she managed it with medication. “It never bothered me, it was just one part of who she was. Some days, she’d be low and we’d get through it together,” he says.
During the lockdown, a major depression episode took over their life after she lost two close friends to COVID-19. He thought he could keep her mental health “on track” by following the same routine. “She always had a well-rounded lifestyle, was careful of her diet and exercise as well as her medication, so I thought trying to push her back into that would somehow help, but it really didn’t.”
As an extrovert and lover of the outdoors, he’d keep trying to take her on hikes and short trips once the lockdown lifted, but it just made her more of a shut-in. “Her COVID anxiety hadn’t decreased at all. After seeing so much loss to this disease, the thought of either of us leaving the home and possibly catching it would fill her with fear.”
Arnab reached out to her therapist, and they started doing more couple’s sessions. Geetika started taking calculated risks of leaving the home together. First, they took their chai breaks while strolling around the building premises. Next was a drive, then his sister visited.
Kakkar calls this exposure therapy, where clients are slowly exposed to their fears in a bid to reduce the feeling of panic they feel when they face them. And it can be more helpful having your partner by your side through it.
“You’re not their therapist”
It may seem contrary to the previous point, but there is a difference. When Rohan’s PTSD symptoms were at their peak, he was averse to getting professional help. Instead, he found comfort in his partner. “I felt comfortable talking to Manjeet. I had stopped seeing my therapist when I left my hometown. I’d check in with a psychiatrist now and then, but talk therapy after all this time that too with a new person scared me.”
He started “unloading” on Manjeet, who wasn’t equipped to handle that kind of trauma. As Kakkar note, “There’s a line between being supportive and serving as someone else’s therapist when you don’t have the skills or knowledge to help.”
With the help of a friend, Rohan found a professional whom he could speak to while they took a month-long break from their relationship to work on themselves and their individual mental health.
“We then came back to the table with a fresh lens, better mental health and love for each other,” says Rohan.
“We ‘blobbed’ and then broke up. It was the best thing we could have done”
“How have you put up with me for so long?” I asked my partner recently. At first, all I got was an eye roll. Then a polite response that I put up with him too. With a little prodding, I got a real answer from my partner (we know how difficult it is to get men to open up). “The best thing we did was break up the blob and become individuals. That way neither one of our ‘issues’ takes over the entire relationship.”
Blobbing may sound like a side effect from a trip to Stranger Things’ Upside Down. While I may feel like a screeching Demogorgon at times when I’m in an irritable manic mood, we’ve both remained largely unscathed over the years.
I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of times people have asked me to my face how we’ve been together for so long despite having starkly different personalities. Some may say that opposites attract, but I believe it’s more about respecting each other’s individuality and autonomy. Like many couples, in our honeymoon phase, we did everything together, becoming one giant blob with little semblance of who you used to be. We changed ourselves until we made each other miserable. I could no longer bottle up my panic attacks when I was in a crowded pub, and he couldn’t sit around at home doing nothing either.
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And when you’re in a relationship with someone with a mental illness this ‘blobbing’ can turn into codependency. “It’s important for anyone who lives with a mental illness to have a support system but without being completely dependent on another person,” says Kakkar.
Now my partner goes out with his friends whenever he wants a night out and travels for work, while I get to be a sloth at home with my sister. Or take a leisurely walk around the neighbourhood, listening to a podcast without the pressure of having to make conversation with anyone, fake smile, or shove my anxieties down into a pit in my stomach.
“A partner’s mental illness can require work from both people, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus of the relationship. That’s not healthy, nor should it be the sole reason to stay together either,” adds Kakkar.
Having a mental illness shouldn’t hold you back from dating nor should you deprive yourself of a loving relationship. Give your partner the information they need and the time to process it all. Be open to questions and be vocal about your needs, while also asking your partner about theirs. There’s no tango without the two of you, and if you believe Michael Bublé, and Dean Martin, moulding and bending together is how you sway with ease.
*Name changed upon contributor’s request for anonymity.
A note of caution: This article includes personal experiences and inputs from experts. If you or a loved one are struggling with poor mental health, please consult a trained professional. iCALL has put together a crowdsourced list of mental health professionals across the country, you can find it here.