Love and Fear: Romantic Relationships and Mental Illness

“Wise mind is like a deep well in the ground. The water at the bottom of the well, the entire underground ocean is wise mind. But on the way down there are often trap doors that impede progress. Sometimes the trap doors are so cleverly built that you believe there is no water at the bottom of the well. The trap door may look like the bottom of the well. Perhaps it is locked and you need a key. Perhaps it is nailed shut and you need a hammer, or it is glued shut and you need a chisel.”—Marsha Linehan, Developer of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

Love. Lust. Hatred. Fear. Excitement. Anger. Happiness. Jealousy. Trust. Confidence. Shame. Regret. Hope. These are but a few of the wealth of complex emotions that result in much of our reactions to life events,especially if we act impulsively and do not consider the positives and negatives, and thus make our decisions from state that develops from the healthy marriage of our emotional and logical selves: our wise mind.

plutchik's wheel of emotions

“One ought to hold on to one’s heart; for if one lets it go, one soon loses control of the head too.”―Friedrich Nietzsche

While operating in wise mind, it is possible to understand what governs our emotional or detached responses to our circumstances; and for those struggling with mental illness, a major and greatly harmful problem often arises when we come to the realm of all that is beautiful and all that can tear us apart: love.

If we want to learn to govern our emotions in a wise-minded manner, we must first understand what emotions are driving forces behind how we act, rather than who we are. Of course, it is not always so easy to think with our wise, full mind. And no wonder. Psychologist Robert Plutchik had to develop a visual aid {pictured; click to enlarge}, in order to illustrate how complex, intertwined, and close certain, seeming very different emotions actually are to each other. And that, naturally, is compounded even further by the presence of a behavioral health issues, such as anxiety or depression. At heart, we want to be nourished by life’s riches and nourish others as well, but there are many reasons we may not have that privilege (yet). One of them, particularly for folks with recurrent and long-standing behavioral health issues, is fear. This damages our relationships in myriad ways, including the way we choose them, who we choose to surround ourselves with, who we choose to exclude, and how we treat and think about the world and ourselves. Fear is simply an emotion, and should not be classified as wholly negative. In fact,  it sometimes serves a very particular and essential purpose, such as one electing to stay out of dark alleys or parks at night for their personal safety or  drive too quickly on the highway. But in other situations, such as romantic relationships, it is understandable why one may be nervous, but to truly be afraid is something far different, as true FEAR can also be completely immobilizing and destructive.

What does that have to do with mental illness? Because countless people who are surviving with a behavioral health malady live in constant states of fear, even if they are buried underneath other rapidly cycling emotions, such as depression, anxiety, hypomania, or rage.

We’re afraid of what other people will think of us. That they will call us crazy. (Chances are, if you’ve suffered with a mental illness…ever…you’ve probably been called some exceedingly hurtful names, or at least had deeply offensive comments geared toward you or what is perceived as “wrong with you.”) We’re terrified others won’t give us a chance, romantically or otherwise. We’re scared we won’t give ourselves a chance too. We’re afraid people will give us a chance, only to abandon us later. We’re afraid of the past returning; of the present getting worse. In short, we’re afraid of the future. Sometimes.

you're worth it

Just think: What if YOU are WRONG about how SOMEONE ELSE feels about YOU? Don’t try to predict the future or dwell on the past. Live in the moment, mindfully, beautifully, as often as you can.

According to a study conducted at Temple University, studies have shown that many people “[...] feel a need to hide their mental illness when trying to establish new relationships because of the negative beliefs, prejudice, and discrimination associated with a psychiatric diagnosis. In addition, mental health providers and family members sometimes discourage the development of intimate relationships, either implicitly or explicitly.”

Often, when we imagine ourselves pursuing a romantic interest, we often put undue weight on our illness, and what it could mean in the long run. To be truly mindful and live one’s life fully, one cannot stay healthy or sane constantly worrying about the future rather than living in the present tense. Some of most prevalent questions  (posed internally and/or externally) by people with behavioral health disorders who are interested in a new romantic partner are frequently exactly the opposite of that.

The Most Common Concerns About Relationships and Mental Illness:

  1. Do you say it right away, just so the other person knows what s/he is possibly getting into?
  2. If I tell him/her right away, I’ll scare him/her away.
  3. How long is it fair to wait before I say anything?
  4. What’s the proper time/moment to bring up my mental illness?
  5. How can there be a good time to bring up my illness? Right away or I’m a liar?
  6. I have to say anything at all? I’m afraid of what the outcome will be.

The answer is that there is no answer. Naturally, it would be rather odd to drop far too much personal information too quickly–but that holds true for much more than our behavioral health status. I don’t go around starting conversations by declaring, “Hey! I’m Alex and I have Major Depression (severe, recurrent); Generalized Anxiety disorder with Panic; Borderline Personality disorder; Chronic Insomnia; and am recovering from PTSD, which stemmed from a few psychotic breaks.” That would be odd, wouldn’t it? Just as it would be odd for anyone to announce their most personal business to those one does not yet truly know or trust. Regardless of if we have a physical or mental illness, it would be unjust to expect one to walk into any space and tell people very intimate details about their lives. And besides, an illness does not define a person, and therefore it would be senseless and harmful to act as if it does. Mood, Thought, and Personality disorders function differently for each and every individual who grapples with them. Never forget that there is no one like you. If we approach this issue using our wise-mind, we can resist toxic self-shaming and resist a deliberate obfuscation of truths from those we really do love.

And that’s not easy—but it is possible.

Be honest with yourself: what do you really fear most about disclosing your mental illness? That someone will judge you? Break-up with you immediately? That a potential mate will assume you are unstable, insecure, unreliable, untrustworthy, overly sensitive…CRAZY? Well, good news: most of these concerns ARE NOT unique to people with mood, personality, or thought disorders!

Try thinking about it this way: have you ever dated someone without a behavioral health malady who embodied any of these characteristics? Of course! There is no sure-fire way to predict that a person you are getting to know will be a good person. Period. And would you really want to be with someone who embraced an old and tired stigma without getting you know YOU first? Hopefully not! Romantic relationships are difficult—and yes, mental illness does add another extremely serious challenge that should not be understated—but might it open the metaphorical door for a class of beautiful honesty, acceptance, and understanding? In other words, real love.

What’s most important is that you remain honest.

And yes, you DO have an obligation to information an intimate partner about your illness, just as others have an obligation to reveal other potential “deal breakers.” Perhaps those for whom it is a “deal breaker” aren’t really worth having around. Remember not let fear govern your life.

Use your wise mind and be patient and gentle—with yourself and others.

Besides, if it’s really love and truly worthwhile, you’ll know when the time is right.

postsecret true love

“I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times; but it is vague, like a breeze passing among flowers.”–Helen Keller