Dating is tricky, but add the complication of mental illness and it’s even harder! On the road to recovery, while considering dating etc I’d decided I did not want my illness to be part of my future relationships but I also thought that dating and entering into a relationship couldn’t necessarily wait until I was fully recovered. During my recovery I dabbled in on-line dating, it was fun but nothing much to report until I met Steve.
On our first date, an informal drink at a pub, Steve and I agreed to go on a second date, out for a meal. I was desperate to look normal. One big problem – I’d not been out or eaten with anyone but my family for years. I fought with myself because I wanted to challenge myself so, in trepidation (I really liked this guy) I wrote a carefully worded email entitled “In hope I won’t put you off” and explained I’d struggled with anorexia, although most of it was behind me, I have a few hurdles to overcome. I wanted to “be normal” but asked if we could dial it down and if he could pick a restaurant where I could have a salad. That way the actually eating wouldn’t be as tough and I’d just have to tackle the eating out with a relative stranger aspect!
How Steve reacted to this email and therefore our future was in his hands:
How did you feel when you received the email? “It was a mixture of feelings. On one hand, there was the “poor girl, she’s been through so much” reaction. There was the feeling of shock, “could I handle this? How ill is she now? How to I treat/behave around someone with these conditions that I know NOTHING about (especially the anorexia)?”. Then there was the, “stuff it, I can’t be arsed” thoughts (these lasted about 2 seconds). Then, there is the fact that all relationships, especially romantic ones need a lot of hard work and graft (of which I was no stranger to, considering a previous relationship I had been in) and I was prepared to do it, because we had a right giggle on our first date (my fault!)”
“So going forward, I thought I would try and support her, by helping her take baby steps in facing challenges. I think I compared it to a marathon runner, they don’t start by running a marathon, they’d just fail, they start by running around the block. So we changed the plan. I said I’d cook some nibbles at my house and we could watch a film (hoping to take the pressure off the eating side of things). (I cremated the bruschetta, though I still think it was her fault….she kissed me whilst they were cooking!)”
I was used to taking baby steps, hence why I’d suggested a low key restaurant but Steve seemed to instinctively know that even smaller baby steps would help! I’m glad he still agreed we could eat since I didn’t want my old behaviours (of avoiding eating with people) to impact a new relationship.
What resources did you use to react to the email? “Firstly, the reason (in my mind) we didn’t have food at the first date, and only a couple of drinks, was because I was en route to visit my best friend, Tom and his family. I had no idea, she hadn’t suggested food for her own reasons. How stupid did I feel now?!”
“I was with Tom when I received the email and mentioned it to him and his wife. They didn’t really know anything about either depression or anorexia but we bounced a few ideas over together. Other than that, maybe due to the taboo of mental health, I Googled it and came up quite frankly, blank. There was a forum, where I registered and asked the question “how does one cope in this situation?”. They were as good as they could be, ramming home the idea that each situation/diagnosis was as unique as the person who has it. Totally! They also said how good it was I wanted to be with, and help this girl, I’d just met, and not in a patronising way. (The way I saw it, wouldn’t all people do this? It’s just human to want to help the person you like/frankly, want to impress)”
Not everyone is like this – many people would be put off by something they don’t understand. Steve genuinely has no idea how amazing he’s been at helping me (a relative stranger as I was then) through so much.
Why did you not run a mile? “On our first date we had a giggle together. She was (is!) also cute, and seemed keen to go one a second date with li’l ol’ ugly me. I’m not afraid of hard work, and in hind sight those first few months (arguably are the hardest of any relationship) I had lots of emotions ranging the full spectrum, but we grew through it, and learned to communicate early on. Pen and paper worked best for us, I think it started with a letter posted under the toilet door. This set, in my mind, a brilliant foundation for our relationship (if you want to know more, comment below and I’ll elaborate – it’s not anything dodgy!)”
When most distressed I’ve always struggled to talk, I don’t know why, there’s some sort of block. Steve and I realised we could write to each other – might sound odd but it worked 🙂
So, moving on, Steve and I decided we’d give a relationship a bash, this turned into marriage. We’ve dealt with a few issues relating to my health:
What’s been the hardest thing about being in relationship with someone with a history of depression and anorexia? “Other than eating 2 entire pizzas in Italy in one sitting because she got stressed out in a restaurant?! It’s the helplessness I feel when she’s upset. We started very early on going to her therapist together, something she was keen for me to do. This obviously involved a lot of emotions, and I will never forget one of the very first ones where afterwards we sat in the corridor, her crying inconsolably in my arms for over an hour. I am a man, we are famed for wanting to fix everything, and although I’ve learnt I can’t fix everything I still want to. I’m working on it, but when I can’t do it, I feel helpless, useless, a failure. That’s the hardest thing.”
I hate that my issues impact Steve, I’d rather manage my stuff on my own and prevent it affecting other people but that’s just not feasible! Letting Steve in (to my head) has been so important to our relationship.
What’s your worst fear and how do you manage it? “The unknown. Frances has had multiple hospital admissions, and some very intense treatment in the past for her illness(es). I’ve not seen her at her worst in this aspect. I’ve seen little dips here and there, but never hospitalisation. I treat every new expression of emotion with suspicion, is she getting ill again? If she is, how will I manage it, what if we have a child (the grand plan) and she gets ill and goes into hospital. How will I cope with that? As Frances will tell you, I am GREAT, the world’s best, at worrying. I worry about everything. To deal with this, I have to simply ignore it. There are no answers. She may not ever get ill again (woohoo!) but she may. I can’t fix it, so I beat it down and ignore that fear, and will have to cross that bridge when we, IF, we get there.”
If Steve’s concerned, he tells me. I’m honest and mostly try to reassure him. For me, I know how hideous being ill is so I’m not afraid of the unknown, I’m afraid of the known! We are doing everything we can to avoid me getting ill again, we talk about everything. If it does happen, I know we will tackle it together.
When considering to marry Frances, did you consider her mental illness? “Yes, when I started thinking about marriage I thought about Frances being ill, being vegetarian and the fact she’d have to put up with my farting in the middle of the night (seriously, I feel sorry for the girl on this one!). I just saw her illness as another thing that needs to be thought about.”
Have you had doubts about marrying Frances? “If I hadn’t, I’d argue I wasn’t human, or honest with myself. The first few months after marriage I felt trapped. Why? Who knows. Truth be told, having lived together for a year before hand, the only thing that had changed was having a piece of paper saying we were married. That was it. So I knew it was just me being irrational. I did some research as to why I’d be feeling like this and apparently it’s very common. So I thought I’d just move on.”
“If you asked me if I’d had doubts due to Frances’ mental health? Not once. It can be a challenge at times, it can be a fear, it can be a pain in the backside. But not a doubt. It has shaped Frances into the woman she is and the woman I love.”
How will you cope if Frances relapses? “As I’ve said before. I’ve no idea. I have our friends, my family, Frances’ family (who’ve been there before) that I can glean comfort, wisdom and strength from. I have my motorbike that always helps clear my head when I need it to. We have 2 cats who never fail to make us laugh. I know Frances has been to hospital before and has always been discharged so there’s always a light. She is a survivor, not a statistic. She doesn’t want to be ill. All of these things I can hang on to.”
“My biggest fear is about how Frances will feel about me. I will do the only thing I know how to. Be myself. But if she’s that unwell, will she still be able to look me in the face and say “I love you”? If ever she can’t say that due to the numbness of depression, then I will struggle. But I have made sacred promises to Frances, and I am a stubborn ass, and she will break her promises to me before I do (but I know she won’t, because she’s even more stubborn than I!!)”
I know I will always love Steve but he’s right – mental illness messes with your emotions so there’s no way of knowing (if I get ill) how I will feel or what I will think. If the illness takes over, I hope he can remember that it’s not me. He has my promise that I will fight to recover and I will never break the vows I made before God.
What advice would you give anyone in a relationship with someone with a mental illness? “Have ‘you’ time often. I go down the pub most Fridays with my friend Phil, or play xBox with/without my friend. I talk to them about things I’ve found hard. Whether it’s been that Frances hasn’t eaten because she’s feeling fat or she’s come home from work in tears every night (thankfully a new job solved this!). I’ve spoken about it all. I’ve expressed my fears, I’ve not bottled it up.”
“THE bit of advice. The bit that works for mental health, physiological health, relationships, even cooking. Communication! Talk to each other. The “you” time lets you unwind from the stress of things. But doesn’t sort it. Why do you think you are fat even though you fit into clothes I thought small enough to give to a child? Communication isn’t just about the listening, its about the talking too, and about the working through things together. As a junior software engineer, I had the phrase “root cause” rammed into my head, over and over again when bug fixing. Something is wrong, don’t worry about what is broken, worry about what has broken it. (E.g. Bike engine not getting any petrol, you don’t put petrol in the engine, you trace the fuel lines all the way back to the empty fuel tank). Maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t need fixing and just needs to be expressed and WE have to learn how we can enable that expression in an appropriate way. If it can be fixed, often, the only way to figure out how to fix something, is to approach it from a different point of view. How do you find those points of view? Explore it, with each other, with friends, with professionals, with family, and see what you come up with.”
Final word? “If, like me 3 years ago, you have come across this blog/interview looking of help and advice and/or answers to a new relationship with someone who’s just dropped this bombshell on you (and yes, it is bombshell the first time of the 20 or 30 times you’ll read that email) ask yourself this. Why are you entering this relationship? It’s hard work. Take the usual hard work of a relationship, and add more into it. I count myself lucky, I entered into the relationship knowing about these illnesses. I’ve had friends who have had these illnesses thrust upon them after marriage. Some are still going strong, some have ended the relationship. It effects everything. Whether it be the knowing what to do about taking meds abroad, or the phone numbers of the CMHT in your phone. To knowing how to comfort this person when they are in tears for seemingly no reason. Everything will change, and your way of thinking will change too, be prepare to get offended by Halloween costume names that normally you wouldn’t think twice about! BUT, and its a huge but, if you stick at it, learn to identify the help your significant other needs, the help you need from both them and the people around you. You build the strongest foundations for the relationship. I love Frances, through and through, and whilst I have had nightmares about what might happen in the future, I wouldn’t change a thing about her. Except maybe persuade her to eat meat, oh and let me have a dog :P”