The symptoms of my sexual assault cropped up in unexpected ways, years after the traumatic event. As I slowly came to terms with what happened to me, these symptoms began to interfere with my romantic relationships in a variety of ways, both subtle and overt. I tried to navigate these symptoms and the further I strived to avoid them, the further they popped up unexpectedly and uninvited. Over the years, I have discovered that there are several things that my partner and I can do to help ease my mind and work towards understanding the aftermath of my assault.
Assertive communication works well when it comes to my communication styles. I have a history of vacillating between aggressiveness and passivity in relationships. Both of these styles come with their downsides and it's been an arduous journey to find an effective middle ground. Assertive communication is my middle ground.
It's good for me to self-disclose about my mental illnesses earlier in relationships rather than later. You see, when I received my diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder and began taking antidepressants in middle school, I felt my identity shift. Finally, I had a name and a treatment for the frustrating and complicated symptoms I had experienced since I could first walk and talk. For so long, my identity and mental health were inextricably intertwined, and they still are.
Anxiety made me "that annoying friend" early in life. I vividly remember the first time that my generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) inserted itself, without invitation, into my relationships. I was in third grade, playing in the sandbox during recess when I found out that Jess (names changed) had invited Katrina to see the new Shrek movie but hadn't extended the invitation to me. I remember being devastated and insecure. For the remainder of recess, I moped around the chain-link fence by myself, kicking up patches of dirt while negative thoughts swarmed my head. Why hadn't she invited me? What was wrong with me? These tentative thoughts soon turned into statements taken as fact. My friends hate me. Nobody likes me. I am an annoying friend and useless. I didn't talk to anyone else for the rest of that day.
You probably should expect less from people because people are going to disappoint you. Let me repeat that. People are going to disappoint you. This is a widely understood truth in the world and applies to everyone. For those of us with mental illness, the dynamic changes a little bit. Here is why we should expect less from people and why we shouldn't.
The danger of comparison is very real. Last weekend, I spent some time with a friend for her birthday. Many of her other friends were there, nice people all, and yet I found myself unhappy. Why? I looked around the room and saw happy people. They were smiling, joking with their significant others, discussing their lives, and I felt different. Why didn't I have a significant other? Why don't I make as much money, or have as seemingly nice of a life? Most importantly, why am I stuck with this mental disease when they seem like they have everything together?
You need to set boundaries in relationships-all relationships-and when mental illness is added to the mix, personal boundaries become even more necessary. The boundaries in relationships that include a person with mental illness are both for the person dealing with the illness and those dealing with him/her. But what do those look like, and how can we enforce boundaries in relationships that are so complex?
Establishing a wide mental health support network is important. I often say that my mental illness is sometimes harder on those around me than it is on me. I am, after all, used to having bipolar II disorder and the mood swings that are associated with it. I have lived with it for more than 20 years. However, in my relationships, it can sometimes be a challenge to cope with me when I am at one pole or the other. This is one of the most important reasons to have a wide mental health support network.
When did you know you were dating someone with a mental illness? It may have started like this: You met the most amazing person. You have been on a few dates, and the chemistry is there. It's exciting, and it's going so well. And then one night you have a deep conversation and you learn that you're dating someone with a mental illness. What now?
Balancing one's emotional needs with the responsibilities of any kind of relationship is one of the hardest aspects of being someone with a mental illness in a positive relationship. Where is the tipping point where one takes too heavy a toll on the other? How do you deal with emotional needs in your relationship?