To Our Partners, From Those Of Us With Mental Illness

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Antoine Rouleau / Getty Images

We know. Please never think that we don’t know. Even at our disease’s worst, even when we cannot think in straight lines but instead in rigid boxes, when we are weeping or yelling or rocking against the wall, there is the part of our mind that’s saying, “This is a terrible idea. You need to stop. You need to stop now.” But that voice is a whisper, barely loud enough to hear, let alone cut through the compulsions, and we cannot stop and tell you.

But we see you, loves. We see you, and we know the hard, lonely work you do for us. Only you know it better than we do. We see you, and we thank you from the deep, dark depths of our hearts, the depths even we’re afraid to plumb some days. You do so much, and comparatively, you ask for so little. Every relationship is hard. But a relationship with someone who has a mental illness can be much harder.

You live with someone who has a chronic illness. If that illness were physical — say, if we required feeding tubes, hospital trips, and the rest that comes from some hellish disease — you’d be feted as heroes. You’d get ticker tape parades, accolades from all, whispers of “Wow, what a great catch” behind your backs. Everyone would acknowledge your help and your necessity.

Instead, we have a mental illness. Mental illnesses of all different stripes: anxiety, depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and schizophrenia. These conditions leave no scars, show no tubes, keep us looking as regular as every neurotypical person we pass. Sure, there might be cutting scars under our sleeves. Maybe pill bottles rattle in our purses. But these are small details, tiny details no one notices. To the world, we are normal couples. To the world, the work you do is invisible.

But we know what you do for us. We know the late nights. You stay up with us when we’re in a bad way, when we’re shaking and crying for reasons only we can begin to understand, over something that probably won’t happen and likely isn’t plausible. But that doesn’t stop us. And you know, by now, that reason does not help. You know that you cannot talk us out of our disease. And so you do the only thing you can: You sit with us. You rub our backs. You hold us close and shush us, which sounds patriarchal and condescending, but actually deeply comforting when you reach the place where you need it.

We know what you put up with. We remember the words we say when we’re raging. And who better to rage at than the person we love, the person closest to us, the person who won’t leave (please God, don’t leave). And so you are subjected to terrible words. Horrible words, sometimes screamed, about us and about you and and about our relationship. We tell you, through clenched teeth and stifled tears, that we want to end it. To end us. And in that moment, we do want to end it because we are convinced that you would be better off without us, that this isn’t fair to you, that we aren’t fair for you. And you take a deep breath. You say something like, “We can talk about this another time.”

Because you are the master of deflecting the disease by now. You see us; you are our witness.

We eviscerate ourselves with words: We are terrible people. We are horrible parents. We hate ourselves. Maybe we whisper that we deserve to die, that we want to die. And you probably know by now to ask, as calmly as you can muster, if we have an actual plan to do it or if we just feel it — because you have two different game plans depending on our answer. You know how to cajole us from folded stiff-bodied on the far end of the couch to melting into your arms. If you can just gentle us into your touch, you know the gates will open, the tide will loosen, and when it finally does, the worst will be over.

You have taken mental health days — not for you, but for us. There were days when we couldn’t bear for you to leave us, and so you didn’t.

Worst of all, you have held yourself guarded from us. You have hidden your own emotions so you don’t trigger our own. You know how much some of us feed off others’ suffering, and especially their anger. Because all suffering can feel like our own, and all anger seems aimed at us. And so, when it’s bad, you hide it. It’s not fair. A relationship should work two ways, should let us comfort you as much as you comfort us. But you know that often we don’t have the mental reserves to comfort you. So you hold yourself inside, and this hurts us more than almost anything. Because we see your endless giving every single day and want to return it but don’t know how.

You have cajoled us into psychiatrist’s offices, into therapy, into treatment centers. You have helped us practice the skills we need to function. You have picked up our pills at the pharmacy and then reminded us, ever so gently, to take them. Not in the condescending did-you-take-your-meds way, but in the I-know-it’s-hard-to-remember way. You have cooked when we couldn’t eat, sat with us when we couldn’t move, watched trash TV at our sides when our minds couldn’t take any more. You have sacrificed so much to be with us. You have given yourself again and again and again.

No one sees this. There is no glory in it. There are no awards or accolades, and if you talk about it, people just ask why you stay with a someone like us. We know the stigma. We know it’s there. You care for us despite it. You hug us and hold us and keep us from harm. You love us. You actually love us. Most of us thought ourselves unloveable. The world told us, tells us, that our disease makes us unloveable. But here you are.

In the end, there is nothing we can say, no words big enough for the emotional messiness that drops down, no words large enough for the kindness and love you show. All we can say is this: Thank you, darling. Thank you. I love you too.