Dating the Mentally Ill
Mama always told me, when I was a teenager, “They’re best to you while they’re courting you.”
It was a warning against all men, but she didn’t mean it as a misandrist attack. She’d had experience with really only one man, and he was the basis for her conclusions. She married a young man who was mentally ill, spent her life with him, raised a family with him, took care of him 24/7 for the last six and a half years of his life, and still–like the rest of our family–lives in his shadow after his death. There were a few times that were better than others but for the most part, he never changed. At least, not for the positive.
We never knew what was wrong. Or really that that there was anything wrong. Mama married him when she was 17 and didn’t have enough experience outside in the real world. The rest of us were born into a family where this was our normal. Where his tantrums and physical and emotional abuse were normal. Where we knew no different. He was just…Daddy.
Someone on social media shared their opinion with me on dating someone who is mentally ill. As someone who grew up unknowingly in the shadow of a man with borderline personality disorder, and as someone who has had relationships with men with narcissistic personality disorder and bipolar disorder as well as borderlines like my dad, the quote hit me especially hard. It said:
If you start dating a depressed person, don’t be surprised if they are still depressed while dating you.
They’re not depressed because they’re single, and you are not an all-powerful cure for mental illnesses.
Just be there for them.
It’s one of the truest things I’ve ever read on social media, but it’s only half the story.
The first problem with “just being there for them” is that we don’t always realize that we’re looking at mental illness or signs of it don’t show up until we’re already heavily invested emotionally. And then we make excuses for it. Excuses for them. Excuses for their behavior. Excuses for hurtfulness, lies, withdrawal. Excuses for abuse and manipulation and cheating. Excuses to other people whom we don’t want to know how bad it is and excuses to ourselves…because we don’t want to believe how bad it is.
When Mama said, “They’re best to you while they’re courting you,” she was referring to that easy-going, charming, eager-to-please, little-boy-ego that shows up initially in so many relationships, and is so easy to fall in love with when they’re pursuing you. After they’ve caught you, someone told me long ago–and they’re sure you won’t leave them–they can “relax and be rotten to you.”
Of course, it may not be that they are intentionally being rotten, although I’ve had my share of relationships where it certainly seemed intentional. They may instead be rotten to you because it takes so much of their personal energy to keep up the facade, and after they feel safe with you, they can let down their walls. At least, some of their walls. They can save their expenditures of positivity for occasional ventures into public life or even into new romantic relationships.
Speaking from personal experience only, I know that sometimes they can hide their illness very well, for months or even years. I was once close to a man who told me about his diagnosis shortly after we met, and I didn’t believe him because he put me on a pedestal and didn’t seem anything like the person he described himself to be. Five years later, I saw some cruel behaviors I didn’t understand. After a decade, his mental illness had progressed to a point where he could no longer hide it except to new people in his life–very new, very shallow relationships.
To those of us who are empathic and to those of us who are born the children of a mentally ill parent, we don’t seem to have the normal mechanism for recognizing danger and running away. We are either so accustomed to identifying with the emotions of others, however turbulent those emotions may be, or we are overly understanding and supportive–codependent–which is a left-over survival strategy for coping with a mentally ill parent from a young age. We love them deeply but our loyalty knows no depth. So, as with a parent, we refuse to flee when we see behaviors that scare people away so much sooner. We’re so proud to be loyal and loving.
The other reason we can’t always be there for them is that sooner or later, they do something so damaging that it cannot be ignored, not only to us but to themselves. They hurt those of us who stood by them through it all. No matter how much we love them, they still have a tremendous capacity to hurt us. So we either sink into the mire with them, harden our shells, or limp away.
The only other solution that I’ve found–the one I’ve adopted in this calendar year–is to run like hell when I see those first signs of mental illness. It’s not out of hard-heartedness. It’s out of self-preservation. It took a while for me to understand what those things look like and to spot them before I cannot extricate myself easily from a new friendship. We don’t have to be magnets for troubled partners, but there is something about us that is understanding and caring and seems to draw the troubled into our lives where we happily and unwittingly become enablers.
Many of us who stay in relationships with mentally ill partners have fixer personalities. We believe that we can change people for the better–and many of us have plenty of evidence of that with people who don’t suffer from a mental illness because we spend so much time coaching, mentoring, or just listening and then advising those who come to us either personally or professionally. We help people grow and change, become better versions of themselves, leave behind behaviors that aren’t good for them, all the while practicing behaviors that may not be good for us in the long run, either. We pride ourselves and on being the most loving and the loyalest of all potential mates and friends.
But do you know what’s really going on in our heads when we find out the person we love has a mental illness?
We’ve bought into the lie that love is the greatest catalyst of all, that love can change anything, can heal everything. That if our love is deep enough and strong enough that we can somehow pull them out of the mire. That we can “Be the change.”
For cancers, infections, illnesses confined to the body, it is easier for us to “just be there for them.” Though truly, nothing is ever easy about loving someone with any illness or watching how it wastes the person we love. We stand a better chance of realizing that it’s medicine or change of habits that will make the difference, if anything will. Or even prayer.
But with mental illness, we somehow think that we are enough, that our love is enough. We take their continuing and progressive mental illness as personal rejection, even when intellectually, we understand that certain behaviors cannot be helped or cured. Or even acknowledged. We are emotional beings ourselves, and we are unable to distinguish the mental illness from the man. It becomes a deep personal defeat.
Our love wasn’t enough.
And what we fail to realize is that no one’s love will ever be enough. We don’t have that kind of power, whether over mental illness or over the person we love. The mental illness itself is a part of that person, and though it can be treated, medicated, and talked through, it is the undeniable shadow side of the person we have chosen. Sometimes the shadow is too much for us, and if it’s too much for us who don’t experience the illness first hand, then how much harder it must be for those who live in the shadow every minute.
ADDED: This article is not meant as advice. It’s just me, working through some of life’s more painful experiences, as I often do in this blog.