I liked this guy from church. He was quieter than me, and had a humble self assurance that drew me to him. I showed enough interest until he finally suggested we catch up for coffee. This was it.
Over coffee, we shared our stories. Funny ones, sad ones. The ones that went deeper and brought us closer. After four hours of talking and a significant sunburn each, he walked me home and, within a block of my house, finally confessed that he like-liked me.
I was thrilled, of course. We weren’t official yet, but we agreed to keep spending more time together. And that’s when I started wondering: Is this when I tell him?
He knew I was the girl who struggled with anxiety, because we’d been in a small group at church together for over a year. But I knew that was only part of it all. In our conversations up until this point, I’d wanted to appear my most capable, confident, and mentally-stable self. Not a lie; just not the whole truth.
Would he want to back out if he knew?
I wrestled with that question for a week or two, wondering when was the right time to open up a little further. Would it be during the snack break on a movie night? Over drive-through chicken nuggets on the way home from church? Six months down the line?
In my past, I’d sometimes gone months into a relationship without telling boyfriends about my mental illness. For the most part, it was easy to hide; I played nerves off as cute quirks and made excuses for when I wasn’t feeling up to hanging out. I could anxiously pace in bathroom stalls on dates and collapse in a heap of blankets and exhaustion when at home.
Despite my attempts to keep the state of my mental struggles to myself, though, eventually The Anxiety would erupt so loudly and abrasively that it was difficult for any partner to ignore. And that’s usually when a relationship would peter out.
But I felt like this guy was different, and I didn’t want to get six months in and have him say, “This isn’t what I thought I was signing up for.”
I wanted him to see me at my worst and still choose me; to give him the option to back out now if he didn’t think he could be with someone who wrestled with a mental illness.
So I told him, before we’d made anything official.
We sat in the car after a date and I bit the bullet. “Hey, Matt…” My hands fidgeted in my lap. “There are some things I want you to know about me, before we go any further. I know you know I struggle with anxiety… But it’s more than that.”
I told him that I’d been anxious for as long as I could remember, and that even though, through God’s help, I’d learned ways to lessen its effect on my life, it was still very real and very present. I also told him about my periods of depression, and that at one point in my life it had come close to taking everything from me.
He listened, quietly. Thanked me for telling him. And then came the hard part: He was honest. He said it was a lot to take in and that he needed to go and process and pray about it. I had to let him do that, because isn’t that what I’d wanted? For him to know everything, and still choose me?
Spoiler alert: he pursued me anyway. If you want the full story of how that happened, you’ll have to listen to the podcast episode. But the long and the short of it is that by telling him about my struggle with mental illness early on, we were both able to go into the relationship with our eyes wide open, knowing there were no secrets and that even though we wouldn’t always understand each other, we’d do our best to communicate well and show grace to one another.
Now, three years and a wedding later, we’ve learned a lot of hard lessons about navigating a relationship when one of you suffers a mental illness. It’s my prayer that by sharing some of these lessons, you’ll be encouraged in your own journey; whether you’re the one who struggles with mental illness or you’re in a relationship with someone who does.
Here are three things we’ve learned along the way:
1. Keep learning, together.
It was somewhat disconcerting to begin with, being with someone who’d never felt the tumble-drier effect of a panic attack, the crippling waves of anxiety or the unexplained heaviness of depression.
As a self-proclaimed ‘fixer’, Matt wanted to know what he could do to help. And most of the time, I didn’t know. So he got really good at asking questions. Not in the moments, but later, when the emotions had subsided and I was able to explain with a clear head. “This is what it felt like,” I’d try to help him understand. “And this is what I need from you in those moments.”
The first time Matt ever saw me in the throes of a full-blown panic attack was confronting, for both of us. I was on the floor of my room sobbing, cheeks hot and snot dribbling down to my lips. It was hard to breathe, let alone look him in the eyes. It was the most vulnerable I’d ever felt in someone’s presence, and I was terrified that he’d want to run. He didn’t. He sat there quietly, patiently, not bombarding me with questions or attempts to ‘fix’ it.
Later, when I found my words, we talked about it; what helped (or didn’t) help, and how we could communicate better next time. I was grateful to be with someone who wasn’t trying to ‘save’ me, but who genuinely wanted to understand and walk the journey with me, at my own pace.
These days, we’ve come up with little signals and action plans we can use to communicate when it’s too hard to use words. We’ll be at a gelato bar and I’ll give Matt a look that means ‘I’m too overwhelmed to make a decision, can you please choose for us?’. Or I’ll come home from socialising and he’ll wordlessly hand me my noise-cancelling headphones, knowing I’ll need time to rest and process by myself before I can talk again.
Coming up with those little strategies has helped both of us take the strain of mental illness off our relationship, because he now knows how he can help, and I now feel understood.
2. Your partner is not your rock.
I learned this the hard way.
I was so comfortable with our roles in the relationship; me with my anxiety, Matt with his stability. When you struggle with mental illness and your partner doesn’t, it can be hard not to put them on a pedestal.
But sometimes, the tables can turn. After we got married, Matt went through a rough time with his work, and ended up needing to quit. All of a sudden the person I’d trusted most in the world to be my solid constant was struggling just to keep himself afloat. For the first time in his life, he too started feeling the insidious cloud of anxiety, and the pull to shut himself off from the world.
One morning I sat there comforting Matt through tears, thinking, This should be the other way around. I can’t do this. Outside it poured with rain and inside I felt lost. Where do I go now? I wondered. And in that moment I heard a familiar voice: “I’m still here. Come to me.”
I realised that without noticing, I’d started putting my trust in Matt to be my ‘rock’ instead of God, who is “my fortress and my deliverer” (Psalm 18:2). In many ways, my adoration of him had become an idol, and I needed to give that back to God.
It felt silly to feel ‘let down’ by Matt. Of course he was allowed to be the one who wasn’t okay. But it took adjusting to, and ultimately, brought me closer to God when I realised that only He would never change or let me down.
The other thing I learned from that season of our lives was that it was crucial to have a full support network. I’d neglected this fact in early marriage because it felt like Matt could be all the support I needed. I was so wrong, and when Matt started struggling with his own mental health, I saw how unrealistic and unfair it was to have expected him to help carry all my burdens.
Now, we’re in a much healthier place because we’re not expecting to have all our needs fulfilled by each other. I have the support of close friends and family, mentors, and a counsellor, all of whom I can go to for wisdom and comfort. And, above all, I go to God first, knowing that it is only He who can fulfil my every need.
3. You are an equal part of the relationship.
As the person in the relationship who struggles with a mental illness, it can be really hard to remember that you’re an equal partner. Matt was really good (and still is) at reminding me of all the things he loves about me; of letting me know how lucky he feels to be with me. I’m not a charity case. He doesn’t love me out of pity. He loves me for the many things that I am; ‘anxious girl’ being just one part of that bigger picture.
In our early dating days, I made sure Matt understood that me allowing him into those raw, mentally-ill moments took a huge amount of trust. I let him know that no one else had seen me at my most vulnerable, and he took that very seriously, seeing it as a privilege to be trusted by me in that way.
These days, we talk to each other about our capacities and how they fluctuate in different seasons. Since being married we’ve come to understand more fully that we both have our weaknesses, and that there are plenty of ways Matt needs my support; it’s not just a one-sided relationship.
If you’re in a relationship where mental illness is involved, or you wrestle with your own mental health and wonder whether you’ll ever get to be in a relationship because of that, I hope you find hope in mine and Matt’s story.
Our God is a redeemer. He’s a God of restoration and relationship, and He loves seeing people loving each other well. As challenging as mental illness can be, I’ve seen the way that God has used our struggles to bring us closer to Him and to each other, and that’s a beautiful thing.
My prayer for anyone dealing with mental illness in a relationship, myself included, is that we would“Trust in the Lord with all [our] heart[s] and lean not on [our] own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
This blog post was originally published at anxiousfaith.org, the site where I write for work. Anxious Faith is a community of people sharing real, raw stories and tackling the big questions around faith and mental health. Come join us on the site or socials (@anxious_faith)!
Matt and I were recently interviewed in this podcast episode, where we shared our story of going from friendship to dating to marriage, and how we’ve learned to deal with my anxiety disorder as a couple through those seasons. I hope that our journey will encourage other couples who also carry a mental illness between them! You can listen to the interview or watch the full video here. You can also read Matt’s side of our story in this article on the blog: ‘Dating Someone With Anxiety: What I’ve Learned’.