Being part of any relationship, whether it be familial, platonic, or romantic, comes with certain expectations and difficulties. Being in a relationship that involves a participant with mental health issues is a whole separate animal. Sometimes it can feel like being involved with two people: them, and who they are when they have a bad mental health day. You have to contend with their good and bad days, and in intimate relationships, you're involved in the process whether you want it or not. You're in a relationship with the anxiety, depression, or whatever issue as well, and it isn't always a happy one with roses and chocolates and win. For those of us dealing with mental health issues, it can be a double-edged sword, to have relationships of any sort, either romantic or friendly. On one hand, you do have that support (hopefully) from your partner/friends, and they can act as a buffer between you and the worst of things. On the other hand, it creates a strain on the relationship (or it can) and that's a huge hurdle to overcome.
It is very easy to be the toxic part of a relationship when you struggle with depression, anxiety, or another mental health issue. It is very easy to be selfish and needy and desperately clingy, and that drives a wedge between two people. It's very easy to be there for someone on their good days, but that's just like every old cliche about fair weather friends: the relationship isn't tested until shit hits the fan. Unfortunately, every bad day can be a test. I know I've said and done things on my bad days that were terrible and there was really no excuse for doing them. I had no reason, no logic to offer, because your bad mental health days aren't always logical. Sometimes we lash out, sometimes we implode. Sometimes you just spend 3 days in bed trying to sort your life out. It's easy to seem unreliable, antisocial, or rude to those around you, even if they are aware of what you're struggling with. It is one thing to know that a friend or loved one or significant other is dealing with a ADHD or anxiety or depression, or any mental health issue, but it is altogether a different animal to understand what they're going through or feeling or thinking, and that makes all the difference. On the other side, it is very easy to forget that there are other people on the outside of our little bubble, and that these people are not intimately acquainted with our internal mechanisms of thought. They get to bear the brunt of our depression and anxiety and manic phases, and they may not even have an understanding of any kind of depth as to what we're thinking and feeling. We can only do our best to communicate properly, and hope they're very understanding and that their love for us is enough. I can only imagine how much work being damage control for us is,and how exhausting it must be. I don't envy them.
Now for me, I'm distinctly on one side of the conversation. I've had a long string of ruined relationships where my poor mental state was a major catalyst in the ruining of relationships which otherwise had potential. When I have bad stretches of depression, I can only assume I'm miserable to associate with, let alone be around. It has taken me quite a bit of struggling and testing the waters to find methods that allow me to communicate effectively during the times when I struggle with my mental health, and that's the biggest thing either part can do: communicate. I know that's basically me beating a dead horse, but I feel like that is worth stressing over and over. Your partner may not have any more than an associative awareness of what you're dealing with. If they don't understand the feelings and turmoil that come with mental health, there needs to be some form of dialogue. I find it best to have these on good days, simply because it is much easier to verbalize a lot of the things that go on in your head when you're in a more collected, reasonable mental state. Let them ask questions, and give them honest answers. Try not to be too afraid of the hard questions, but also know your limitations. These limitations will be based on trust and personal comfort, and things may change, but there is no need in distressing yourself: if they care, they'll understand if you choose to skip a topic. Also of note, is that sometimes, comfort fluctuates. For example, most of the time I am quite comfortable discussing self-harm and my own history with it, but other days I feel like the best I can do is say that I don't want to talk about it. I know I've touched on this all before, how our closest support system needs to be understanding and ask questions, and just be willing to step back and let us do it our way sometimes, but I don't think I really did our part justice: we have a responsibility to accept that our support structure is comprised of individuals who have needs and desires outside of us, and no matter how much they love us, if they need a day or two away from us to keep from getting burnt out by our bullshit, we have to give it to them. It's a two-way street, and we have to work together. It's like mountain climbing or some other bullshit that they make terrible teamwork posters about. We have an obligation to try to keep them safe and health as well.
Anyway, that got a little off of the topic. I know that, for me, I get frustrated by this internalized stigma and I see my stretches of bad mental health as periods of weakness, an idea thoroughly triumphed by the negative thoughts which come with a depressive episode. I have a hard time letting people see me in that state of vulnerability and impaired function. As a result of that, my process for dealing with my mental health is very internal and withdrawn. I find it very difficult to include other people, even people I trust and love, in my process. I also tend to brush it off once I've processed an issue: once I've handled it, the issue is done.I know this closes down dialogue and discussion, and can make my loved ones feel like an un-involved party to my life, and I really am working on it. It jut isn't easy to do, all the time. I also feel like just the very nature of the mindset of depression can be very painful for a loved one to be witness to. I treat myself like shit. I say terrible things about myself. I get frustrated at myself, and I make arguments about things that may or may not (mostly not) be true, but I feel them so strongly that my brain can't process the logic of it. Worse than those feelings, is I will vehemently argue these negative thoughts of questionable validity with anyone who wants to be supportive by showing me why I'm wrong. It's stupid, and it makes no sense, and I'm not arguing with reason or logic... I'm just picking a fight with someone who cares about me, while also saying pretty shitty things about myself, and I can honestly see how that is infuriating at best, and painful at worst. The thing is, in those moments, I don't care. I don't even really feel like a person, and the noise is so loud in my head that it's hard to get it quiet, and that makes me miserable to be around.
And when I come out of it, with full knowledge of how shitty I was, I never really expect to see anyone there... but somehow, there's always at least one. I'm thankful for that, because I have an idea of how difficult it must be, and it's difficult for a whole other set of reasons than the difficulty I face as someone suffering from depression. I've sat with friends in hospital rooms after suicide attempts, and listened to them tell me all these dark, terrible things, and I know the helpless fear and worthlessness of watching someone self-destruct in little and big ways. I've seen what anxiety can do, and depression, and ADHD, and PTSD. I see how they impact the person living with them, and I can only assume it rings true for other mental health issues. The sad truth is, we need people just as strongly as we push them away from us, and it isn't easy. I want to say that these things aren't an excuse, but if I can think of anything that comes close to a reason for sometimes being a worse person than you expect yourself to be, and normally are, it would be mental health issues. I know that sounds terribly close to apologetics, but sometimes anxiety is so bad that you can't talk to anyone for weeks. Sometimes you jut can't focus, and you flake on plans or get frustrated at yourself. Sometimes depression is so bad you lash out because you are already fighting internally. We miss appointments, we miss classes, we miss dates and phonecalls. We can't always be at 100% and I know that it is okay to not be okay, but I also know how exhausting it is to have to be on the ball for someone who isn't always capable of giving back 24/7.
For the sake of this conversation, I of course didn't feel entirely comfortable just giving out my point of view, so to that end I reached out to a friend with some experience with this topic. For background, this contributor is like a big sister to me, and we discuss the nature of mental health struggles quite often:
As the old adage goes, “the best things in life don’t come easy”. This is true on so many levels, but in terms of human relations, it is pretty spot-on. Lasting relationships of any kind, whether it is a friendship, or a romantic relationship, require hard work from those involved. Obstacles within human relationships are prone to come up eventually. But what if the relationship begins with obstacles because one or both of the individuals struggle with mental illness? Well, that makes it at least ten times harder to maintain a lasting, and happy relationship. Although, I’ve had ADHD my entire life, I was undiagnosed and untreated until very recently. Because of such a late diagnosis, the symptoms of ADHD really took a toll on me, resulting in someone who deals with mild anxiety and mild depression, on top of ADHD.
Untreated ADHD leads to self-esteem issues. You know you’re smart, but you always underachieve. You try hard to do things that come so easily for other people. You procrastinate, you don’t pay attention in conversations, you don’t live up to your potential, and you know people see this, or at least you feel they do. When you’re in a relationship long enough, and comfortable enough to confront your partner with any issues you have, it gets difficult. My husband and I had many issues because of my ADHD symptoms. Some issues that have been presented in our relationship because of my mental health issues are my fidgeting (very annoying for him), interrupting, not paying attention in a conversation (especially important ones), starting things and not finishing them, and him bearing the brunt of the responsibilities.
Two people in a relationship should mean that the responsibilities are divided 50/50. I’m a stay at home mom, and my husband works. It is more convenient for me to take care of household duties, and he can do bills, and work, while we take an equal role in cooking, and the raising of our children. He would nag me to do things that I said I would do. I never got around to doing them, and his nagging would stress me out. I would get anxiety about all of the things I had to do, and my self-esteem was on a steady decline because I felt like he thought I was useless, and just lazy. Clearly, getting diagnosed was really what we needed in our relationship, but it was not a “cure” for our issues. When a label came that explained the majority of our problems, he became much more empathetic toward me. He realized that these things were not my fault, but they weren’t his fault either. He knew he had to be patient, but that’s a struggle.
I feel terrible about it daily.
He is stuck with someone that he has to walk on eggshells with, and that’s not fair for him. He has to practice restraint and patience, and I get to use my chemical imbalance as an excuse.
But not really, I know that I need to own my issues, and work on them.
Putting laundry away is annoying for everyone, but for someone with ADHD, it is so boring, it cannot hold our attention. The laundry will pile up; we live out of the dryer, or the “clean hamper”. It sounds ridiculous, but getting the laundry done, and put away promptly is a huge feat for me. In a “normal” relationship, maybe the partner would just expect it, or maybe just say “hey, thanks for doing that”. But for my husband, he knows he has to praise me, and that’s sad. It is common for those in a relationship where mental health issues are present for the parent-child dynamic to occur. In my opinion and experience, it is not a healthy dynamic within a romantic relationship. Who wants to have sex with someone who they have to “parent”? Creepy.
Anyway, this happened with us, and he continuously felt stressed because of the huge responsibilities he had to take on. I still feel bad that he can’t trust certain time sensitive tasks to get done if he asks me to do them.
Our relationship is not 50/50.
He has to pick up slack, and I know it is hard for him. The stress that has built up within him seems to have caused resentment toward me, and that really sucks.
There are a lot of misconceptions about ADHD in general. The worst one is the myth of it being a made up disorder. Everyone thinks they have ADHD. Most people think ADHD is someone who can’t focus or pay attention, this is not true. Well, it’s true, but there are so many other symptoms that affect our lives. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we “hyperfocus” on things we are interested in. When we’re hyperfocusing, it is hard to bother us with anything else. When something new comes along, it is exciting, it is triggering all of the chemicals in our brain that we crave and we will hyperfocus on it. Therefore when I met my husband, just hearing his voice gave me the adrenaline rush that I craved. All of my focus was him, him, and more him. After 8 years, I’m still in love with him, and he’s still my everything, but he does not get my undivided attention at all times. Sometimes, a website is more interesting to my brain, and I’ll zone him out. I don’t do this on purpose, and it doesn’t mean I am not interested in what he is saying, but is happens. This results in him feeling unimportant, and it results in him thinking “well, why isn’t she like how she was when we first met?” The non-ADHD partner begins to doubt our love, and feel neglected. It’s funny because when we met, he fell in love with the impulsivity aspect of this disorder that he’s come to grow tired of. He loved how spontaneous I was.
“Let’s go to this concert”,
“But Jackie, we can’t afford it”.
A nuerotypical person would say “well, we can’t do this, it’s not in our budget”, where my ADHD impulsivity says “I’ll put it on my credit card!!!”. Yes, I have racked up some debt because of all of my exciting purchases, but it was worth it. We had so much fun, he had never been so spontaneous, and he loved it.
Now, we have kids and “adult” responsibilities. These impulsive tendencies are no longer fun, and they are definitely not okay. The debt gives me anxiety, the responsibilities give me anxiety, it is overwhelming, and will most definitely cause a panic attack, which it has. This leaves my husband with taking on more responsibilities to avoid me getting anxiety about things that other people seem to just ‘do’.
Having a conversation with me can annoy anyone. They are talking, and it is almost impossible for me to not interrupt. I come off as rude, and selfish. The most important part of any relationship is communication, and I can’t even manage to listen effectively. My husband resorted to ironically constantly repeating “I refuse to repeat myself”.
I truly admire my husband for the patience he has with me. I know for sure that I could never handle it, considering my lack of patience. Speaking of patience, ADHDer’s not only lack patience, but we are highly emotional, and super sensitive. Little things my husband says can be HUGE to my brain. I will overanalyze the crap out of anything because my brain is constantly going from thought to thought to though. Something harmless will frustrate me or hurt my feelings. Thanks to my lack of filter (another symptom), I will lash out on my husband, and say things that no one should ever say, and that really, no one should ever have to hear. I’ve said beyond terrible things to him, and when I’m in my right state of mind, I see it. I feel terrible about it, but it’s too late. It’s been said.
I don’t mean these things, but how does he know that?
He has to deal with feeling unwanted, mistreated, and constantly stressed just for being with me. Once again, it’s not fair.
The relationship, which involves two people, constantly revolves around one, and his feelings are usually ignored in this process. This is another part of being in a relationship with someone who has any type of mental illness
It is hard for me to fathom why and how he puts up with it at all. But it is so appreciated, and I love him for it.
To end this, I’ve explained here the core problems that exist in a relationship with someone who has ADHD, and really, many other mental illnesses. Yes, there are advantages in my case, but there are plenty of difficult things that go along with it, and it’s important for people to know this. We are currently constantly researching this, and looking at forums that have other couples that deal with these problems.
Support helps. Research helps. Empathy is key. Patience is important.
But overall, communication, while it is an obstacle for us, is the prime factor in making this work. I own up to my mistakes, and we use humor now to joke about me not getting things done, or me constantly losing things, which helps.
Thank you to my husband, friends, and family members for dealing with me, and having patience. It takes two to really make these things work, but it is mostly on me to fix my issues, and that’s the goal, and the struggle.
*Side note* Reading this, and seeing how I jump from topic to topic should give you a clear indication on how the ADHD brain functions. Philip asked me to do this, and a week later it is done. A week later seems late, but really, it’s a big deal that I finished it at all, so horray! =]
Thanks Philip for asking me to do this, it was a fun a cathartic project.
***Look, I'm not a fan of knowing that I will struggle with normal relationships and friendships. I know that there will be stress and strain, and probably some pain and hurt and definitely a lot of frustration. There will probably even be fear and sadness and a whole lot of relief when I come back online after I disappear for days at a time and lock myself away from the world. I know that my methods will always struggle to include others in a positive manner, and that some days it will feel like I'm just pushing them away. I know that my mental health struggles will hurt the people I love, eventually, in some way. I also know how it can appear from the outside of a relationship, when the significant other feels the need to vent about the negative things; we rarely ever get to hear the good or normal stuff, but we can see the tears and bad feelings, and it can create this very negative impression.
Knowing the people outside of the relationship are perceiving you and your relationship in such a negative light is very disheartening. You start to doubt yourself, and start to doubt your ability to be in a healthy relationship. it doesn't help when you can see the weight of your poor mental state weighing on the ones you love and care for. You have to kind of let that externalization go and focus on your relationship. At the end of the day, it takes a lot of work, and maybe it won't always work, but sometimes you find someone who is willing to fight the good fight with you even when you're unreasonable and selfish and stupid and need a lot of maintenance.
I also know that I love them for being there, and I appreciate the people who tried, and couldn't handle it. I don't blame them, I doubt I'd put up with my shit, because it is exhausting and draining. But, I'm trying to be better, and though it may not count for much, it's better than nothing. Any small bit of movement forward is still progress.
So I know this sounds terrible and cliche, but if you struggle with your mental health, in any aspect, please take a moment to consider the people around you who act as a support system. They put up with our shit, even at our worst, and they still love us. I won't make a judgment about whether that says more for their intelligence or their love for us, but I'm gong to err on the side of love.
And for all of you who support, care for, and love someone who struggles with their mental health (whether you actively are aware or not) thank you so much. We may say and do things we don't mean. We may frustrate you, and scare you, and anger you, and hurt you... but we also appreciate knowing that you're there when we come out of it.
As always, thank you.