I recently discovered a spoken word poem by Brittney Smaila called “Dating Mental Illness,” and I instantly fell in love with it. This poet expertly uses her words to attack the countless “articles detailing why dating someone with a mental illness is a good idea.” In this poem, she claims that these articles “romanticize pain [and] glorify illness.” I will leave the link to this video below, but first I wanted to discuss a few points that were made in the piece, because as I was listening to it I found myself thinking of when I first began dating my now-wife, and connecting with Brittney’s words. Using the points that she brings up in her poem, here are 5 realistic expectations to dating my mental illness:
1. “For the first few months of our relationship it will seem perfect…only when I realize you’re here to stay will things begin to get bumpy.”
When I first met my wife I was in a very independent time in my life. I was working two jobs while going to school and living alone. On the surface, my life seemed to be going smoothly. Unfortunately, that’s how many people with mental illnesses appear to the outside world; others don’t see the internal turmoil, and we spend a good portion of our time and energy trying to appear higher-functioning in public than we actually feel. I was also younger, and for a number of mental health issues the symptoms may gain severity at certain time-periods; for many, including my own, it was my early 20s when symptoms began to worsen. With all that said, I seemed to be an ideal dating candidate, and, as Brittney mentions in her poem, “I will be just aloof enough; strangely straightforward because I’ve got nothing to lose.” That’s the issue that ultimately arose; I was living alone, and also towards the beginning of when my issues began to become more apparent, and I had the confidence to go along with it. I was, seemingly, a different person than I became.
2. “You will get annoyed with my sudden neediness…when did I get so clingy?”
As I mentioned above, I had the confidence to go along with how my life appeared, and being single, I had nothing to lose. I think it was my persona of self-assurance that ultimately convinced her that I was worth spending time on, but, as with many mental health issues, it all went along with the construction of my mask for the public eye. It stands to reason, then, that she would assume this person was really me—which it was at the time, to an extent—so the issue came with the fact that when that mask came off I was actually the opposite of confident; my self-consciousness was something that I had worked very hard to conceal, and since I was living alone it was never really an issue. However, as Britney says, “I said I wasn’t a jealous person, so why am I so f*cking jealous?” My insecurity began to reveal itself, but by that point the relationship had progressed to the point of having developed an emotional bond, so she didn’t notice it at first.
3. “Please reassure me that you like me. I know you get tired of it…but how can I be sure that your answer hasn’t changed?”
The stigma surrounding mental health is very strong, and part of that is a fear that we, as those dealing with the issues, have about judgement, which therefore causes us to not speak about our problems (click here to read my article on Mental Health and The Stigma Within Ourselves). That means, at least for myself, when the symptoms of my mental health issues began to escalate, I tried that much harder to conceal them. For Brittney, she describes begging her significant other to reassure her, but for me I did the opposite; I hid, and simply allowed that feeling to grow and fester within me, only feeding my insecurities. Of course, this only added to my clinginess because, as opposed to simply asking for reassurance, I was looking for it in other ways. It’s interesting to note that, in my case, I have very strong intimacy issues, so you can imagine how quickly relationships became tangled in my life, especially romantic ones.
4. “…I have grown tired of me in the meantime…reassure me that it’s okay that I started crying and don’t know why, that it’s okay that I haven’t done the dishes in 3 weeks, haven’t gotten out of bed in 4 days-in-counting…”
As my symptoms increased, so did the physical manifestations of them. My depressions would become deeper and longer-lasting, making it difficult to get out of bed or even function. I began to develop a dislike of who I was becoming and how I behaved, which only sunk me deeper. I longed for reassurance that I was still the same person that she’d fallen in love with—that I had not changed so much that I was becoming the opposite of what she wanted—but, as I mentioned above, I was still caught in that stigma, so I simply continued on without saying anything on the subject, hoping that it wasn’t too noticeable. Of course, this attitude, coupled with the festering resentment that I felt for myself, caused many of their own issues.
5. “I will apologize. ‘I’m sorry that you’re dating me’.”
Ultimately, due to the previous four points, I developed a very strong self-loathing. I hated myself for no longer being the person that I once was, but more than that I was upset that the changes that occurred—and continued occurring—were effecting her, making her upset and consequently making her life more difficult. Ironically, this self-hatred made my mental health symptoms grow exponentially, causing life to become more difficult for me to handle, creating a viscous cycle within what was now our life. Not a day went by during the entire time that we were dating—after we’d reached this point in the relationship—that I didn’t apologize. Oftentimes, I would apologize for something that she was upset with me over, but what I really meant was exactly what Brittney said, “I’m sorry that you’re dating me.” I legitimately felt sorry and guilty for everything, because I knew deep down that I was not the same person that she had initially met; at that point I had changed so much that I wasn’t even sure if that person had really existed or not. I felt that I had unwittingly mislead her, and so, consequently, every time she got upset over something concerning me, my self-loathing grew because I knew that this was not what she had signed up for, until ultimately I began to feel guilty every time she got upset regardless of whether or not it concerned me.
I agree with Brittney’s poem, because it reflects the exact course that my relationship with my wife went down. I have never been good at maintaining interpersonal relationships, and that’s because, for all intents and purposes, my own mental health issues have made it difficult for me to maintain my own personality for extended periods of time. I feel that I should mention that neither myself nor Brittney are saying that people shouldn’t date someone who has mental health issues; we’re simply saying that it’s not as simple and fun as many articles in the current social media try to make it appear. Dating my mental illness has not been an easy road for my wife to walk, and, truthfully, I’m not sure how she’s put up with it this far.
One major point that I hope you realized, however, is that she is not my girlfriend; she is my wife. I put off proposing to her for 6 years, because I was convinced that eventually she would realize that she made a mistake and leave me, and I didn’t want to put her in a position where that would be a difficult task. We had our ups-and-downs and even a couple of break-ups before ultimately I asked and she said yes (click here to view a video of my public poetic marriage proposal). Even today, I often wonder when that other foot will drop and she’ll decide to leave. My symptoms have gone up and down, and I am nowhere near the easiest person to live with, let-alone be married to, and yet somehow we’re still together.
If you take nothing else away from this article, take that: Regardless of whether it means that she’s more screwed up than I am, my significant other chose to date me, and to stay with me even after things got difficult. She chose to marry me, knowing that it would mean spending the rest of her life with my mental health issues, and when my symptoms flare up and I can’t get out of bed she’s still there. As I mentioned, I am nowhere near the easiest person to live with, so if I could find someone who was willing to truly accept me for me, then anyone can. Yes, it took trial and error with relationships, going through the same cycle described above over and over again until I finally found her, but it happened. We, as those who deal with mental health issues, may feel like we don’t deserve to be loved, but regardless of whether we do or not there is someone out there who will love us just the same; we’ve just got to believe it.
Please let me know what you think. Can you relate to my story or Brittney's? What do you think of the poem? I love hearing feedback, so please leave your thoughts in the comments below.