What It's Really Like to Be in a Relationship When Both People Have a Mental Illness


Editor's Note

This story has been published with permission from the author’s partner.

Everywhere you look nowadays, you see stories about Ariana Grande’s whirlwind romance with Pete Davidson. And almost everyone seems to want to put in their two cents on the matter, claiming everything from the fact “they’re too young” to “they’re moving too fast.” So many opinions abound.

More than anything, though, I keep seeing people chiming in about the fact they both have mental illnesses they have spoken publicly about, as if their illnesses play a large part in their relationship in some negative way. Ariana Grande has spoken out about her struggles with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Pete Davidson has shared his experiences with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Yes, they both have mental illnesses, but they have also found love. And two people loving each other is not a bad thing.

There are many people who buy into the stigma surrounding mental illness, assuming everyone struggling with one is “crazy,” unbalanced or even dangerous. Some assume nobody can have a healthy relationship while they have an unhealthy mind and that two mentally ill people coming together is a recipe for disaster.

I once even had a friend tell me specifically that “two unhealthy people cannot have a healthy relationship.”  Based on their premise, because I have a lifelong mental illness diagnosis that has its roots in my genetics, I have no hope of having a healthy relationship, especially if I fall in love with someone else who is struggling with an illness as well. If he were to be believed, I was destined to be alone.

As someone who struggles with mental illness who is in a relationship with someone else who is mentally ill, as well, I can tell you from my own personal experience that is not the case.

I have depression, anxiety and PTSD. He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD. We have both struggled with our illnesses for years, even being hospitalized for breakdowns at different points in our lives. Yet, in each other, we have found a love unlike anything either of us had ever experienced before.

We knew each other years ago, as children. He was my older brother’s best friend for a time and my first crush. In our teens, life sent us in different directions and we lost touch for many years. We found each other again a year and a half ago, after spending 25 years apart, and sparks flew.

Like Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson, we’ve had people look at our relationship with judgment because we moved so fast. He found me online again, listed as a friend of a friend he might know and we reconnected. For two days, we talked non-stop whenever we had a moment to spare. On the third day, we arranged to get together in person. We’ve been together ever since. As they often say “the rest is history.”

A month and a half later, we found ourselves living together. We hadn’t planned it that way, honestly. His father had inoperable end-stage cancer and was placed in hospice. There was no way I was going to leave his side for even a moment and make him endure that alone. I had lost my own father to cancer a few years earlier, following his own brief stay in hospice. Going through that together brought us even closer.

All the people looking in from the outside saw were two people who jumped ridiculously fast into a relationship. They don’t realize we knew each other as children and had a pre-existing familiarity and closeness that was brought back to the surface again. They don’t accept that facing hardships together as we had done brings people closer. They don’t consider we have physically spent more time together in the last year and a half than some couples have after dating for years. They don’t see how we are with each other behind closed doors and how close we’ve continued to grow with each passing day. Some people come directly from a place of judgment and automatically think it’s irrational to be so serious after such a short time. Or worse, they label our choices as “crazy,” as if our love was just another way our mental illnesses have presented themselves.

Because of our mental illnesses, we’ve both always felt different, broken, damaged. We both never felt we quite fit in or that anyone else could truly understand what we’re going through. We’ve both felt so lost and felt life should not be this hard. We have both struggled for years to stay positive when it felt like our world was spiraling down into a dark abyss. We both had numerous people in our lives who just couldn’t understand, who told us it was all in our heads, that we just needed to get over it and suck it up.

The difference now is that we both have someone we can talk to about everything we’ve been through. Someone who truly gets it because they have been there themselves.  Someone who listens without judgment because they understand all too well how much that judgment hurts. Someone who sees us not as damaged and broken, but for the big hearts and beautiful souls we have inside.

With that level of love and acceptance comes an incredibly strong bond.

We’re able to open up to one another and talk on a level we never had before, to share experiences and traumas we’ve kept to ourselves for years. In each other, we’ve found the one person we can completely be ourselves with, say anything to, without fear of rejection.

We both have a portion of our mental illness that is unique to us.  I have a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and he has bipolar disorder. Though I have not struggled with his disorder myself, my mother had bipolar disorder so I had some experience with his illness, at least from the outside looking in. We have patiently explained to one another everything the other didn’t understand and offered tips to one another for how to support us when we are struggling. We listen intently to each other and are supportive to each other because we both know very well how it feels to have nobody there who understands.

The depression side of his disorder I understand all too well. The manic side: not so much, though I had learned early on in life to spot the shifts in my mother because she shared his diagnosis. When he has a manic episode, I am always there to offer support and encouragement. He often becomes hyper-focused on one task or another and I intervene to make sure he does not lose himself, putting off self-care and disregarding his basic needs like eating. On the rare occasion that his mania presents itself as rage, I do my best to de-escalate the situation in a non-confrontational way. No matter how his mania presents itself, I offer a calming presence to soothe him and bring him back down again, often rubbing his back, head and shoulders to help him relax.

When my anxiety makes me think irrationally, he is there to talk me down, to help me see reason. Following anxiety attacks, when I desperately just need the quiet presence of someone else, he holds me closely without judgment and reassures me everything is OK.

Depression hits us both pretty hard. In the past, we’ve both dealt with people who never understood and who insisted it was all in our heads. But we both know the signs. We can see in each other when our depression is raging strong. And we are both there for each other in the way we always wished someone would have been there for us for all those years.  We are gentle, kind and compassionate with each other because we’ve been there ourselves and we understand how hard it can be.

We both are plagued by PTSD, as well. Nightmares of past trauma are especially hard for us both. When either of us is battling the demons of our past, the other can see the signs, intervene and offer comfort and support. When our pasts are haunting us, we can talk openly about it on a level we were never able to with anyone else.

On days either or both of us are struggling particularly hard, we have learned to lean on each other without judgment. We each pick up where the other leaves off. We have developed an ever-shifting balance in our relationship. On days we both are struggling, we curl up together and lean on each other for comfort.

We cheer each other on for our successes and support each other in our struggles. We encourage each other to stay strong, to keep fighting and to get the treatment we each need. Neither one of us judges the other for the ways our illnesses present themselves because we understand all too well and empathize with each other on every level. We not only offer each other support but we’ve become proactive in each other’s treatment, as well. We’ve attended doctors’ appointments with each other and helped bring up concerns the other may not have noticed or may have been too uncomfortable to discuss. We love and support each other in every way.

Yes, we jumped into a relationship that became serious relatively quickly, but it was not because our mental illnesses had us thinking irrationally. In each other, we saw someone who finally understood everything we had been battling our entire lives.  In each other, we found that one person who could accept us completely for who we were, loving us not despite our mental illnesses but because of every single thing, mental illnesses included, that made us who we were. In each other, we discovered what we had been needing, what we had been missing, our entire lives: pure unconditional love.

When you find something like that, you don’t question it.  You don’t hold back, think on it or weigh options. You thank the heavens for placing someone in your life and in your path who makes you finally feel not just that it’s OK to be you but that there’s not a single person in this world you’d rather be. You run with it and you love them back completely because life is short. We have to make the most of it, and a love like this is too good to pass up.

Yes, we may lean on each other more than others do because of our conditions, but that doesn’t make our relationship unhealthy. We give each other exactly what we each need. We might both have mental illnesses, but we both are so much more than our diagnosis. And now we are both blessed to have found someone who can truly see that.

After all, mental illness is just another medical diagnosis and one that is largely treatable. The only thing that makes mental illness different from other illnesses is that it presents itself in the brain instead of the body, so it’s not as easily visible. People with different medical conditions live their lives and find love every single day. Those with a mental illness are no different. People who have a mental illness are just as worthy and deserving of love as anyone else.

So please don’t judge others, or their relationships, based on the fact that one or both of them have a mental illness.  Don’t let the overwhelming stigma surrounding mental illness turn you into a naysayer who pronounces doom and gloom on two people in love just because they both happen to share a similar medical condition. Instead, celebrate that, despite the fact there are millions of people walking this earth, they were able to find that one person who loves them completely for who they are.

This piece originally appeared on Unlovable.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash


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