How I told my boyfriend about my mental illness
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.
MaggieMay 21, 2014 at 12:18 am
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.
Anna Spargo-RyanMay 26, 2014 at 3:03 pm
Thank you so much, Maggie :)
Michael McDonaghMay 21, 2014 at 8:08 am
You are so sweet, so honest. This was beautiful writing. You deserve someone wonderful, and it sounds like you found him.
Anna Spargo-RyanMay 26, 2014 at 3:04 pm
He IS wonderful, and I am a lucky gal. Thank you :)
John JamesMay 21, 2014 at 9:27 am
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
Anna Spargo-RyanMay 26, 2014 at 3:04 pm
Thank you, and for taking the time to read it.
Helen KMay 21, 2014 at 10:17 am
Anna – that is so brave, so beautifully written – and so helpful. Thank you xx
Anna Spargo-RyanMay 26, 2014 at 3:05 pm
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.
Helen KMay 26, 2014 at 9:40 pm
Kate MorellMay 21, 2014 at 10:31 am
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!
Anna Spargo-RyanMay 26, 2014 at 3:06 pm
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
Katie PaulMay 21, 2014 at 6:53 pm
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.
And thank you.
Anna Spargo-RyanMay 26, 2014 at 11:18 am
I’m so sorry for the experience you had, Katie x Thank you for reading.
Carly findlayMay 21, 2014 at 10:03 pm
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-RyanMay 26, 2014 at 11:17 am
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.
DorothyMay 22, 2014 at 12:06 am
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.
Anna Spargo-RyanMay 26, 2014 at 10:09 am
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.
edenlandMay 22, 2014 at 10:03 pm
I am actually in love with you.
Anna Spargo-RyanMay 26, 2014 at 10:04 am
The feeling is, in every way, mutual.
Erin MarieMay 26, 2014 at 4:14 pm
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.
Anna Spargo-RyanJune 6, 2014 at 4:40 pm
Thank you friend x I promise not to make too much mess in here.
lisaJune 3, 2014 at 4:27 pm
Beautiful words Anna…you have such a wonderful gift xx
Anna Spargo-RyanJune 6, 2014 at 4:40 pm
Thanks so much Lisa x
JessicaJune 18, 2014 at 1:25 am
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!
Amanda GeeringJuly 7, 2014 at 10:17 am
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!
Anna Spargo-RyanJuly 10, 2014 at 9:24 pm
Thanks so much Amanda :) I hope that you find it fulfilling, writing with your heart.
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Annette RasmussenJanuary 7, 2019 at 5:20 pm
Beautifully written. I’ve just stated a blog and will be talking about mental illness as well. Particularly the effect that Anorexia has had on my family. So I relate. Well done!