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Health

How to Deal When You and Your Partner Both Have Mental Health Issues

"I made her laugh in desperate moments, she believed in happiness when I couldn't."
August 11, 2016, 10:15am

Illustration by Marta Parszeniew

My girlfriend and I had been living together for six months when I felt the familiar weight of depression creep into my body and she began her own battle with anxiety.

I tried to hide it from her at first. I didn't want her to know this part of me. I stared at the ceiling as she slept next to me in the dark, oblivious to the grief pooling in my lungs. I felt completely isolated. The sort of loneliness that sits in your stomach like hollow hunger and leaves your bones heavy.

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I had no choice but to explain what was going on, so I sat and told her that I was broken. She was kind, of course, but in some ways I still think it's easier getting through a bad patch on your own – if only because there's no witnesses. You don't want anybody to see you on low days, because their memory of you in those moments becomes a tangible part of who you are. The dark words you used in a state of defective reasoning are not just in your head; they are on record.

You can't take things back.

Telling another person was not a cure for me and it was very hard for her. She felt burdened, confused, sad and frightened. She didn't know me any more. I sought solitude because I believed my toxic thoughts would damage her. She had always had issues with anxiety but began to suffer bad, unpredictable panic attacks for the first time.

It is a real test for a partner when the person you love becomes so fundamentally altered. Their motivations are changed, their reason compromised; their words the voice of somebody else.

At the beginning, we mostly had periods of difficulty at different times, and when that happened, it was manageable. One of us had resources for both. It's was harder when they coincided. We began living quite independent lives in our own heads. We didn't care for each other any less, but both of us drew up our own veils. In those times I wanted to reassure her, but depression had taken away any sense of stability. I wasn't convinced we were actually safe.

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She tried to hold off anxiety attacks, reasoning that the pain she felt in her chest wasn't something serious, while I'd lay next to her attempting to back away from a yawning gulf. When we ran out of words, we relied on skin. I would lie sleeplessly with my chin on her shoulder and place my hand on her heart, willing it to slow.

At times we became frustrated. I wanted her to see reason; she wanted me to seek optimism. I had been her source of comfort, her anchor, but affection was no longer an intrinsic fix. We were powerless. Realising you can't be a person's antidote in that situation feels something like grief.

After a three-month period of feeling desperately disconnected, we tried our best to explain how we felt. And in opening myself up, I realised how important honesty about mental health is. My sad words were met with something authentic. Doing it by myself had felt easier, but it was an illusion. Loneliness disguised as capability.

We talked, and discovered things that eased the other's symptoms. If I began to go down she took me to the Brighton seafront. She didn't know why it helped, but she'd sit with me in the cold, on a bench, while we ate ice cream and watched the sky change. I began to notice her expression when she started to panic, and would lead her out of crowded rooms.

Without other people, it's easy to believe that whatever element of you isn't in sync is your defining thing. She and I didn't see the world through the same prism, but talking about it was a bridge over silence. I made her laugh in desperate moments, she believed in happiness when I couldn't. We separated for unrelated reasons, but I will never regret being honest with her. And I don't think she would.

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Life is hollow if we aren't truthful with each other. No one person can save another, but they can provide hope for a bruised mind.

Follow Emily on Twitter @EmSargent

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