I almost didn’t meet my boyfriend, on account of my mental illness. It was a down day, a blue day, the third day in a swag of no-shower days. I might have worn deodorant. Probably not. My sincere preference that day would have been to eat pizza from the hands of my servant children while watching Top Gear. Those days were all pretty dark, come to think of it.

Some days I am certain I look more mental than others. On Mondays I usually get around with clean hair and skinny jeans and the good sunglasses without tape. On Mondays I am fairly certain that people in the street can’t tell me apart from the sane people. But on that day, when I was enlisted to sing some songs on an album about which I could not have cared less, I looked like a crazy. I smelled like one too. I smelled like the kind of person you would find inside your cupboard and fend off with a chair while you called the police. I know because I have been that person and I know how I smelled then.

But I went and I stood on one side of a soundproof booth and he stood on the other side and I liked him so much. From the first minuscule instant I knew what he would smell like as an old man, and how warm the skin was behind his knees, and the sound of him burping in the shower.

Maybe this is a symptom, I thought. Maybe I have gone full lunatic and started falling in love with strangers.

But I tried it anyway. I hid with him under the covers and held his hand in parks.

The fact that he didn’t know made me feel normal. I felt as though he could ask me if I wanted to go to Fiji, and I could say yes like it was nothing. We went to an all-night bottle shop and drank vodka on the footpath and he didn’t know, not a hint, not a whisper that I was anything except a whole, entire person.

I nearly told him lots of times. In the kitchen. In the hallway. I didn’t want to give him a reason not to love me. Maybe I thought that if I hid it long enough, it would disappear. Maybe he was the antidote, the balm, the cure.

I found his medication by accident, under an envelope in his bedside drawer. I was looking for evidence of a girlfriend at the time. I was relieved, sort of. Relieved, and flooded with sadness and guilt and terror.

“There’s something I want to tell you,” I said, and his eyes were different because they were the eyes of a depressed person and not of the man who would judge me for being outside of my body sometimes. “I’m depressed too,” I said.

And we ate pizza together under a red moon.

The thing about telling someone about your mental illness is that it’s rarely just that one step. It’s rarely just, “I have depression, or anxiety, or bipolar, or schizophrenia, or PTSD, or any number of other illnesses, and that’s all there is to know.” Mental illness unfurls. It is a culmination of so many symptoms and feelings and words that how is one person even supposed to remember all of them?

So when I said to my boyfriend, “I have a mental illness”, and he said, “So do I,” that was an opener, the catalyst of a conversation that’s lasted seven years and counting.

At the beginning of our relationship, after I told him about my mental illness but before it trapped me inside the house, we sat cross-legged on his single bed and drank one thousand beers. We laughed about cats and breasts and football and hamburgers. But then he was silent. And when I looked at him, his eyes were someone else’s eyes. They flickered and flashed. And when he spoke, it was in a language I didn’t understand.

A language he didn’t understand.

That was the first time I learned something new about his mental illness.

Telling someone about your mental illness feels like a lot of things. It’s partly confessional: I’m sorry, you don’t know the whole truth. It’s partly catharsis: It feels good to tell you, I need you to know. It’s partly apology: I tricked you into loving me. It is a discovery process, learning that your depression is staying in bed all week and my depression is hiding in a car park and isn’t it funny that when I told you I was depressed, I thought I knew what that meant, and you thought you knew what that meant, but actually it’s a huge, moving bubble?

Telling him everything at once was impossible, not only because there was so much to say but also because I didn’t know the words. There were things I hadn’t learned about it myself, then. About how I would feel eating biscuits in a recovery room. About how I would know he was home just by the earthy smell. About how the shape of his back could quell my anxiety, even when I was alone in the dark.

As my illness has unfurled — and his has, as well, though its surface area is much smaller — he has taken each factor and hung it on his board. He has never asked me to explain or justify a feeling. He has never called me stupid or insane or rolled his eyes while he held my head against the shaking.

I guess I still haven’t told him, really.

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About Anna Spargo-Ryan

I’m Anna, a freelance digital strategist, web developer and writer who likes to drink 'Ice Tea' but doesn't understand why it's not called 'Iced Tea'. By night and occasionally morning, I eat things, write things, berate my children, walk my dogs and hug my chocolate.

27 Comments

  1. Maggie

    Dear Anna, this is a wonderful piece of writing. It’s challenging, insightful, powerful, disarming and i wish i’d read it a decade ago.
    Go you.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      Thank you so much, Maggie :)
      Anna Spargo-Ryan recently posted..Where there is depressionMy Profile

  2. Michael McDonagh

    You are so sweet, so honest. This was beautiful writing. You deserve someone wonderful, and it sounds like you found him.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      He IS wonderful, and I am a lucky gal. Thank you :)
      Anna Spargo-Ryan recently posted..Where there is depressionMy Profile

  3. John James

    Oh, Anna… I am always knocked over by your honesty… this post is as raw as it is beautiful… thank you for writing this… xx
    John James recently posted..The Books That Changed My Life: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth GrahameMy Profile

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      Thank you, and for taking the time to read it.
      Anna Spargo-Ryan recently posted..Where there is depressionMy Profile

  4. Helen K

    Anna – that is so brave, so beautifully written – and so helpful. Thank you xx

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      Oh gosh, thank you Helen. It doesn’t feel brave, it just feels like life :) I’m so glad others can take something useful or helpful from it.
      Anna Spargo-Ryan recently posted..Where there is depressionMy Profile

  5. Kate Morell

    Anna, you’ve perfectly put in words how it felt to tell the one who was falling in love with me everything that I was trying to hide, that I was deaf and would one day go blind, and the joy I felt was it was all revealed and all okay. So beautifully put Anna. If only we knew it would be okay and didn’t have to go through the secretive phase and the mental torment of not telling!
    Kate Morell recently posted..Oh, God and I? We’re not talking…My Profile

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      Thanks Kate :) I’m so glad you had a positive experience too. To me it felt kind of like taking off my skin, and as you say, the relief is immense. Thank you for reading x
      Anna Spargo-Ryan recently posted..Where there is depressionMy Profile

  6. Katie Paul

    Sometimes it’s hard to come up with an articulate comment.
    This is one of those times.
    My ex-husband, or I should say, my late husband, died of depression.
    I wish I had known what he was going through.
    Fuck.
    And thank you.
    Katie Paul recently posted..Gratitude • Warning: May Raise Dangerous QuestionsMy Profile

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      I’m so sorry for the experience you had, Katie x Thank you for reading.
      Anna Spargo-Ryan recently posted..Where there is depressionMy Profile

  7. Carly findlay

    While this amazing piece is about telling a partner about mental illness; I can relate in so many ways re physical illness.

    There’s always something new and embarrassing about Ichthyosis for a partner to discover. My skin lives in Adam’s pockets.

    Thank you for writing this.

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      Thank you Carly :) I can completely see how the two experiences would have commonalities. There is always something more to learn about a person, whatever their particulars.
      Anna Spargo-Ryan recently posted..Where there is depressionMy Profile

  8. Dorothy

    So beautifully written.

    I’ve never had to tell anyone. Apart from friends. And those friends already had their own mental illness. In fact, I’ve met very few people who have never had a brush with it.

    If I ever again meet someone, a significant someone, I’ll probably blurt it out straight away, just to see if it scared them off. And it probably would.
    Dorothy recently posted..The budget and fire in my bellyMy Profile

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      Thank you Dorothy. And I’m the same — I know few people who have no experience with mental illness (my ex-husband didn’t, until me, which was a huge factor in why our marriage didn’t work).

      I think there’s some value in trying to scare them off at the outset, to be honest! I found out about Gaz’s depression when we’d been together for a couple of weeks, and it gave me a reason to give proper thought to what that would mean for me (and for my kids). He is such a good man with such a big heart, and the empathy we can offer each other is definitely something for which I’m very grateful.

      Of course, it does mean that we sometimes have depressive episodes at the same time, which is a whole different issue.
      Anna Spargo-Ryan recently posted..Where there is depressionMy Profile

  9. edenland

    I am actually in love with you.
    edenland recently posted..Teach A Kid How To Write And They’ll Never Be Lonely.My Profile

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      The feeling is, in every way, mutual.
      Anna Spargo-Ryan recently posted..Where there is depressionMy Profile

  10. Erin Marie

    You’ve captured so perfectly, so terrifyingly, so accurately. It’s like you’ve wormed your way into the cracks I’ve papered over my heart.

    I want to say more, but I’m lost for words.
    Erin Marie recently posted..Some of my favourite people are men (a poem) …My Profile

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      Thank you friend x I promise not to make too much mess in here.
      Anna Spargo-Ryan recently posted..To my childhoodMy Profile

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      Thanks so much Lisa x
      Anna Spargo-Ryan recently posted..To my childhoodMy Profile

  11. Jessica

    You have a wonderful writing style Anna, great post! So many folks suffer or have suffered from anxiety or other mental disorders, but in a lot of cases many suffer in silence and feel so alone. I think it’s great that you are able to share your experiences not only here, but with your partner as well. Thanks for sharing!
    Jessica recently posted..Does the Linden Method Work For Eliminating Anxiety?My Profile

  12. Amanda Geering

    Your writing makes me smile. I just found your blog and I am so glad I did. You make me want to write with my heart!
    Amanda Geering recently posted..No Bake Strawberry CheesecakeMy Profile

  13. Tuesday Treats: July 2014 « dorkymum

    […] while watching Top Gear. Those days were all pretty dark, come to think of it.” – How I Told My Boyfriend About My Mental Illness on Anna Spargo-Ryan’s […]

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