My boyfriend Tim and I have long agreed that we are one and the same. We love dogs, superheroes, the Food Network, Bernie Sanders, grape Hi-Chews, and each other. We hate math homework, when people make bread pudding on Chopped, bad drivers (hypocritically), country music — and our mental illnesses.
I have anxiety. He has anxiety and depression. We know if we ever had kids, we would all be crying at the dinner table eight days a week. Every disagreement feels like the end of the world. Love scares us. And yet we have been going strong for two years.
We met via Twitter. Although we had attended the same elementary, middle, and high schools, one day he randomly decided to message me and tell me that I look like Taylor Schilling. I didn’t believe him for eight months until I watched Orange Is the New Black, put my mascara on one morning, backed away from the mirror, and thought, Huh. Maybe he was right. This spurred a direct-messaging chain on Twitter that lasted all night and moved over to text after we exchanged phone numbers. I drove to his house two days later, hugged him like I had never hugged anyone before, and the rest is history.
We didn’t hide our quirks, even at the beginning. I mean, for awhile we didn’t burp in front of each other, but anxiety was one of our first conversation topics. We didn’t have to explain it to one another. Our mutual empathy was set in stone when we detailed our disabilities before even leaving the direct-message inbox. Two weeks into dating, Tim carried me piggy-back into his backyard, where he handed me a single pink flower to help stop a panic attack in its tracks. He brewed me a cup of tea, and I still think back to that moment whenever my hands get shaky and my breath becomes shallow. We hardly knew each other’s favorite colors before tears were shed, but somehow, that made it feel even more right.
Exposing my vulnerabilities to Tim from day one has brought out a deep compassion and understanding in each of us. However, it doesn’t remove the pain and isolation that comes with mental illness. He tends to shut down into silence when he’s upset, while I yell, cry, and probably scare most young children. It is so challenging to help someone who doesn’t express emotions the same way I do. It’s deeply frustrating to know that mental illness cannot be “fixed” by someone else, that all progress must come from within. Worst of all, watching someone I love so much feel a hurt I know so well, while knowing I have no choice but to keep my hands off, is the most helpless pain I’ve ever felt.
We assume the worst, we yearn for an understanding of our feelings, and we feel “off” instead of having describable emotions. Sometimes we feel everything, sometimes we feel nothing. We don’t know how to act around other people, occasionally keeping quiet or developing a shaky leg under the restaurant table. We live on the same wavelength — a place of compatible fear and compatible joy.
Notice the “we” in front of each of those sentences. We experience our emotions and illnesses in tandem, and our ceaseless teamwork to address both is unstoppable. Every day, consciously or otherwise, we check in with one another. I summarize my therapy sessions, he vents about the pressures and tensions he experiences, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing we are not alone becomes our cornerstone.
We make a great team, especially because the things I love about Tim are the things I dislike about myself. When I am anxious, I guilt myself into believing I’m a weak little nothing. When Tim is anxious and sad, I see him as brave, passionate, and human. Although the circumstances are less than ideal, having those feelings for him reiterates the fact that I, too, am worthy of love, no matter how much emotion I feel.
Having a mental illness doesn’t make my relationship ill. Struggling to breathe doesn’t mean we’re drowning. We don’t need to walk away from something we’ve worked so hard to cultivate in order to continue to work on our individual selves. These are the cards we have been dealt, and after each brush with pain, we are further reminded that love takes up more space in our hearts than anxiety or depression.
Mental illness is not everything.
Feeling the space between us get smaller and smaller every day is everything. The laughter and conversations that stick between us are everything. The “I’m asking you out on a date right now. Do you want to have a picnic in my backyard?” conversation is everything. The dog walks, the shared bags of chips, the road trips, the playlists, the bubble that separates us from the rest of the world, the friendship. That’s everything.
I’ve had a lot of different kinds of friends in my life. Dogs, cool girls, not-as-cool girls, teachers, guy friends, best friends, fake friends, just-for-a-season friends, you name it. But never before Tim have I experienced a friendship so accepting and natural. It isn’t an easy friendship, but it’s an unwavering one.
Mental illness is like a toxic friend who doesn’t go away. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t waver, either. Tim and I are both constantly seeking ways to remove this weight from our lives, but I have realized that now this weight is shared. It’s heavy, but it’s ours. If I had to choose a life without mental illness and without Tim, or a life with both, I would walk to the end of the Earth carrying the weight until my arms were so strong I couldn’t tell the difference.
And something tells me I’m almost there.
So here’s to me and Tim, to everyone else like us, and to all the miles in between. Mental illness has got nothin’ on us.
If you or someone you know is struggling with their emotional health, visit Half of Us for resources and ways to get help.
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