One of the hardest things to navigate as a person living with a mental health condition, is how and when to tell the people in your life about your illness. Who do you tell? Why do you tell them? What do you tell them? How soon is too soon to talk with a new romantic partner about your mental health? These are just some of the questions I have faced. I am sure they are not unfamiliar questions in your own lives.
I used to start all new relationships with a kamikaze approach to the issue of my mental health. I would barrage my romantic partner very early on with the reasons I believed I was crazy. I followed it up with a laundry list of inappropriate examples, a tsunami of tears, and an insane amount of blubbering. Nothing I told this poor unfortunate soul would really help him understand me better. It certainly couldn’t have been endearing. I imagine it was mostly scary and smacked of desperation. Somewhere deep inside, I instinctively felt I had to test people. I needed to make sure they could handle my “issues” and not run away. In my mind if they were gonna run away, better sooner than later. I was protecting myself and my walls were five million miles high.
Amazingly, most of the time my approach did not scare people away. But the reality of the situation would eventually eat away at the relationship. I would try so hard, to keep my mental illness from getting the best of me. I tried to live up to these unrealistic expectations I put on myself, to be a perfect partner. I attempted to hide my symptoms so I could appear “normal”. It wasn’t a healthy plan. Eventually my symptoms would leak out through the cracks in my walls. Stress levels continued to build and put pressure on my carefully built façade. Then huge chunks of my protective wall would blow out. After that it was only a matter of time before a complete mental break down would occur. My partner, who had only received my poorly thought out “crazy speech” wasn’t prepared for crisis mode, and would buckle under the pressure. Daily fights, tears, blame and general unhappiness become the new normal as the relationship comes to an ugly, bitter end.
A better approach to a new relationship would have been to talk with your partner. Engage them in a dialogue, not a rambling speech. There is no need to casually throw inappropriate information at them like a weapon, or try to scare them away. During this real conversation, you may wish to share your diagnosis and give a simple explanation of what it is. You may also want to share any triggers you have, and what that means for you. You could then give a few simple suggestions of what your partner could do for you if you are having a panic attack or a bad mental health day. It doesn’t need to be overwhelming or complicated, just a few easy to follow ideas.
Lastly, let your partner know they can ask questions and keep this dialogue open as the relationship progresses. By creating an open dialogue early on, you are giving your partner the tools they need to be proactive in your health. Your gifting them with an ability to feel less intimidated and more comfortable during those crisis moments. This also gives you “permission” to be yourself. There is no need to hide or feel ashamed. This is just a part of who you are and a medical condition that needs attention from time to time. Although the timing of this conversation is entirely up to you, in my opinion earlier is better. An ideal time for this talk could be once you are past those first casual dates and have had a chance to decide if you consider each other relationship material.
This same conversation can be modified and used for any type of relationship you have. For instance, if you are prone to panic attacks you may wish to take a few moments to speak with your boss or manager at work. If they are aware that you have a health condition, they may be able to work with you to find a solution that works for you both. It is certainly preferable to having a panic attack in the middle of your shift. No one would know what is happening to you and you would have zero support. Speculation might run unchecked throughout your place of employment. The normal stress in a job can be difficult enough, but when you have had a mental health break in front of coworkers it adds to that stress by giant leaps and bounds. This turn of events could cause you to spiral further into panic and possibly trigger other symptoms of your health condition. You might even lose your job. If you work something out with your boss beforehand however, you could get the support you need in that moment. This is beneficial for both you and your boss because it creates a less disruptive work environment. It is also more productive for the company as a whole.
I understand that the idea of sharing your mental health condition is scary. I’m not suggesting you wear a giant sign around your neck announcing to the world that you have an illness. You don’t have to feel pressured to tell everyone in your life. But there will be people who should know. If for example, you had an illness such as epilepsy you may need to tell some people. If you had a seizure, they may need to tell a paramedic you are epileptic. There are many illnesses that could also fit into this category of “need to know in case of….” Take a moment to think about the relationships you have and your life. Your closest friends and family members, maybe they should know? Are you in school? Perhaps a teacher or a councilor should know? Consider how and if your illness may affect those relationships and life circumstances. Would having a simple conversation with any of them be beneficial to you? Would it be beneficial to the relationship?
I remember asking myself these same questions as I considered telling people in my life about my diagnosis. I also remember being offended when a job asked me about my meds and why I needed to take them. They were concerned that my mental health might become an issue in my employment. Not every employer will respond well. Not every friend or family member will be supportive. Prospective romantic partners might just decide they don’t want the “hassle” of dealing with a person living with a mental health diagnosis. The good news is that not everyone will respond badly. There are support groups out there for friends and family members who need that little bit of extra help too. NAMI offers a Family-to-Family class and support group for example.
Today I am blessed to have healthy relationships with friends, family members and in my romantic relationship, where my Dissociative Identity Disorder is understood and accepted. I can truly be myself in front of them. I can discuss what one of my alternate personalities feels, thinks or needs without fear of judgement. I work at a job where my employer respects me and is understanding of my mental health. She even put a sign for the Jenelle Hohman Color Me Happy Walk and 5K out in her business lawn. It was terrifying at first to take those steps and really let people in. I spent so much of my life trying to hide a brain condition that I could not help having. I was ashamed and I let the worlds stigmatized views keep me silent. I am so glad I am not silent anymore! I wish you all happy healthy relationships with open and honest communication.