Living with a mental illness is like a rollercoaster ride you did not consent to get on, but once you learn to live with it (like I have) the whiplash eases up. My relationship with mental health is a complicated one. While I actively worked towards managing my conditions (that are for life) and being a functional person, I still found myself being defensive and even borderline embarrassed when it came to sharing this aspect of my living, more so when it’s with people you date and possibly get into committed relationships with.
The way I proactively manage my mental health has given me a sense of empowerment and control but I still find myself with a feeling of ‘unloading my burden’ onto someone else when it comes to opening up about it with a possible partner. It’s not easy being vulnerable and having healthy relationships in such situations can be a challenge for both people involved.
I can still see my partner mince his words when I’m having a ‘down’ day – a pressure to react in an appropriate way. I can’t blame him. In those moments of heated arguments and fights where people rarely hold back, I watch him bite his tongue, giving me a certain allowance to lash out. Feeling a responsibility to be ‘the good guy’ in the scenario, I watch his brow furrow with restraint until one of us exits to the room, letting both people cool down and gain some perspective.
Don’t get me wrong, he’s no knight in shining armour either – we both mess up and both make up for it when it’s needed. That’s the meaning of a partnership – a give and take by both – but it does get tricky to navigate between someone’s genuine, warranted responses and behaviour and something that may be triggered by a chemical imbalance in their brain that’s acting up, to put it simply. It can’t be easy to watch someone you care about constantly wrestling with their mental health, counting pills and holding their hand through an anxiety attack.
It’s important to open up about your struggles when you’re dating someone or married to them, because these aspects of your life, your personality can and do affect your relationship. There’s never really a right or wrong time to bring it up, but there will come a time when you bring what you’re dealing with, inadvertently, into your relationship.
Being a caregiver can be difficult. These are often journeys you share – the good and the bad. It’s important to have such dialogues, to gain insight from others who live these realities. I spoke to individuals from different background and generations about their experiences being a caregiver, perhaps to better understand my own boyfriend’s state of mind. Their responses ranged from heartbreaking to inspiring and even disturbing at times.
There are as many similarities and differences in all our stories. The need to recognise your own abilities to provide support to someone. To have your own individual lives and personalities, interests and friend groups. Being equal partners and have healthy communication, but also, recognising toxic situations that can be detrimental to your own mental health when your partner isn’t willing to seek help. All together, they raise important questions and hold lessons we can all learn from each one of them.
I. Aishwarya Vohra, 30
“My boyfriend was diagnosed with Depression about 4-5 months ago. It was something both of us already suspected in a way so it wasn’t a real big shock or anything. From what he told me these were feelings he’s had since he was much younger but never paid much attention to.
It got difficult when it really started affecting his work. He would call in sick a lot, always find some excuse to leave early or not go in. He’d rarely want to leave home and would just lie in bed watching something on his computer most of the day but you could tell that it was mostly just for background noise, his mind was somewhere else.
When he ultimately quit his job, everyone at work started calling me and asking if he was fine, I would just say it’s family problems or he just needs a change of space. It was around that time that he came to me on his own and asked to come with him to a doctor. The fact that he himself sought help, that he opened up about it to me just strengthened our relationship even more.”
Aishwarya shares that her boyfriend himself has been very open about his mental health with whoever has asked about it. “One of my girlfriends one day came to me looking very concerned, asking me if I was alright and basically what it was like to date someone with Depression and I just laughed, ‘What’s it like for you to date a Gujarati?’ Everyone’s different and comes with their own good and bad. The only ‘difference’ for me is that I make sure he takes his medication when he needs to because he’s a scatterbrain, that’s about it,” she says.
She tells me about the simple system that she has in place with her boyfriend – a question for a question, and make sure each person gets a turn. “For example, I ask him about his day and he asks me about mine. If one day I’ve had a really bad day at work and sulk all night he’s there to humour me and put up with it, in turn I make sure I’m there for him when he’s had a bad day. It’s all about balance, but that’s in every relationship. We make sure we both live our own independent lives. We do things together and on our own, meet our friends, take vacations together and apart.”
II. Shazmin Seyid, 39
“My ex-husband and I were introduced at a wedding by our parents with the intention of getting us married. We didn’t fall for it but did end up liking each other and met up after that for coffee dates and dinners. I never understood his family’s urgency for us to get married but after one month of knowing I had fallen for him and agreed. He was always a little eccentric, larger than life and a great storyteller, and I loved that about him. What I would often let pass as a part of his unique personality soon grew grimmer about a few months into our marriage.
He would tell me stories about his friend Rafi from school that always seemed a little twisted – about how he was a bad influence and told him to do bad things. He grew more and more paranoid as time went by. One day I got home from work and saw that he disconnected all the electronics and broke the computer and telephone. He would throw out what to me sounded to conspiracy theories about business competitors bugging the house. I tried to rationalise with him and even spoke to his parents about the possibility of something putting so much stress on him (maybe it was work-related after all?) but they brushed it off.
There were other things I’d rather not get into but I really did love him and I tried to help figure out this situation. The breaking point for me came when he stopped me from leaving the house because he said I’d get kidnapped. I stayed in with him for the first 2-3 days but then one morning I just stepped out to get some groceries and when I came back he lost it. He started hurting me, screaming that I was ‘one of them’ and that Rafi had told him they would get to me.
I locked myself in the bathroom and later that night he broke down crying and let it spill that he has hallucinations and his parents suspected its some type of schizophrenia or paranoia disorder but never did anything about it.”
Ms Seyid and her family weren’t made aware of her husband’s mental health problems before marriage. She shares that being supportive at that moment was very hard because she didn’t expect the situation and was completely unfamiliar with his history, while his parents were in complete denial about his reality.
“It’s tough trying to maintain a relationship with someone that’s going through something like this. This was a family that cared more about their image and ‘honour’ than getting their son help, fearing what other people would say. I was duped into marriage, to put it simply,” she says.
Would she have gotten into a relationship with him had she known in advance? “It’s hard to say. Mental health and illnesses are not something I was ever exposed to growing up. He really was a lovely man when I met him and I did love him. Maybe there was a possibility that we got together and sought help for him together, but right now his family has filed a case against me for defamation and adultery so as to protect their own name because I asked for a divorce, basically on grounds of his mental illness being hidden from us and other people found out, so my opinion of them all is completely tainted now.”
What she has taken away from her entire strenuous and harrowing experience is the need for people in relationships to look out for themselves as well. “If the person is not getting help and only getting worse you’re allowed to exit the situation. The other person in the relationship is sick, but your well-being also matters,” she says. She also comments on the importance of parents educating themselves about signs and symptoms mental illness to be able to spot them in their children and provide help: “His parents, even mine actually, are from a generation where such things were unacceptable to address, forget seeking help. The stigma is so rigid for them. Seeing how more and more young people are talking about is good. It gives me hope that others may not go through what I am right now.”
III. Shoumik Ghosal*, 27
“My girlfriend has bipolar disorder and she told me about it on our first date itself. I was definitely taken aback by her honesty, but also couldn’t help admire it. I had learnt about mental disorders in psychology class so was familiar with it, and it’s going to sound odd, but she was the first person I had ever met who had one. I had so many questions but I was also worried about offending her with them so kept them to myself.
She told me right off the bat that if I wasn’t prepared to handle her struggles that I had an out, but I didn’t want out. What really strengthened our relationship was the honest communication we put in place. Of course, I’m not going to toot my own horn and I can be own up to my own mistakes and assumptions made. There are times when she’s going through a depressive episode and it aggravates me. I’ve said things like ‘just come take a walk with me and get some fresh air and you’ll feel better’ even though I know it’s not as simple as that. At that moment, when you’re trying to be helpful there is a kind of pressure on you to say the right thing, try and compensate for how terrible your partner is feeling by being extra joyous.”
Ghosal opens up about the challenges of being the support system for someone when they struggle to believe they can get better. “It’s challenging yes, we’ve had our ups and downs, but it can also be really heartbreaking. How do you convince the person that you love that they’re worthy of love? That they’re worthy of life and happiness? There are times when she forgets to have her medication (or doesn’t have them by choice) and it affects her mood in a very negative way. If you’re not feeling happy it’s so easy to put it on the other person and putting them down. We have fought and she gets nasty, projection her frustrations onto me and I have had to walk out of the room to avoid making it worse,” he shares.
In times like this Ghoshal says that it’s difficult but also important to call out your partner on their behaviour, and try and make them recognise the pattern. He stresses the importance of cementing your role as their partner and caregiver, but not a parental role. “You’re basically also in a relationship with their mental illness, but you’re not their therapist. You have to be supportive and tell them that you’re there for them to talk to if they need to but nothing replaces professional help. Being the ‘saviour’ can be romantic in movies, but in reality it is no fun and very harmful for all people involved. You can’t be made responsible (and aren’t) for what’s happening to someone else.”
Ghoshal and his girlfriend have been together for over 4 years now, and he says he couldn’t be happier. “There are moments of doubt and troubles like any other relationship. We love each other and make a lot of effort to be as open and honest with each other as we can. We know that it’s the only way we will make our relationship work. She has good days and bad, but then so do I, sometimes even worse and she is always there for me,” he says.
IV. Siddharth Brar*, 25
“When I think back to it I just shake my head at being a stupid kid, but there was a lot I didn’t understand at the time either. I was in my first year of college in the US, fresh off the boat from a sheltered life in Delhi and out into the wilderness of parties and beer kegs. I started dating this really nice girl and we would spend all day in bed, hanging out, watching movies and cooking, but very rarely would we actually go out somewhere.
She would never want to hang out with my friends or go to parties together and at first I thought it was something about me and my male Indian ego would come out and we’d fight a lot. ‘You don’t like me drinking!’ ‘You don’t like my friends!’ ‘You never want to do anything’ ‘You can’t be this anti-social!’ – general arguments and fights we would have. I felt like shit too, being the only single guy at a friends house full of couples, drinking alone in a corner while others partnered off later into the night. It bugged me.
She told me she has social anxiety and has periods of depression, and doesn’t like being in group settings. Initially I brushed it off and joked about it – ‘how do you handle going to class? Is that even a real thing? These are all people you know how can you be scared?’ Like I said, I was ignorant.’
Once I pressured her to come out with me and she spent most of the night in the bathroom and then left without telling me. We had a big fight later that night and I broke up with her. Why? I told her its because I can’t handle her depression, I like going out and partying and I got bored with her because she never wanted to do anything.”
Brar says that he wouldn’t exactly call himself a caregiver and in retrospect wishes he handled the situation better. His advice would be to assess your own capabilities of handling such a relationship before diving into something and abandoning it when it doesn’t go your way. “I knew she hated me after that and we didn’t talk for a long time. I did write her an apology because I know I wasn’t a nice person in that moment. But you can’t be with someone just our of guilt. Is it wrong that I did what I wanted and didn’t want to be in that situation?” he signs off.
V. Asif Ansari, 66
“Shazia and I got married when we were so young. I just completed my Bachelor’s in Political Science and she was finishing her English course. It was a typical college romance of canteen lunches and bike rides. I started working at my uncle’s travel company and together we’d go on tours with foreigners across the country, it was such a blast. She was outgoing, dynamic and the life of the party wherever we went. Everyone wanted to be friends with her and even my friends liked her more than they liked me!” laughs Mr Ansari. His was the most difficult conversation I had to have and at many occassions I found myself at a loss for words, awkwardly mumbling ‘right.... right’. Listening to him reminisce about his past adventures with his wife you’d never imagine what a drastic turn it all takes, and your heart breaks.
They were in their late 20s when Shazia gave birth to their daughter, Amna. “We’d never heard of Postpartum Depression, it’s more likely Postpartum Psychosis I’m told by our daughter now who is a psychologist herself. Mental disorders weren’t a real thing at that time for us, to put it simply. You’d hear of Autism and Down syndrome only, that too in a very negative, sad way. Or you’d joke about people, jaise ‘woh thoda khiska hai’ ya ‘uska screw dheela hai’.”
“It was a difficult time... very difficult,” Mr Ansari trails off. “I was working non-stop trying to save up for a house that I didn’t even see how my Shazia changed. I’d come home at night and hear the baby crying in the room and Shazia would be sitting in the bathroom with her hands over her ears. She would refuse to hold her, to feed her or even be in the same room as her. I couldn’t understand it. Her mother came and stayed with us to look after Amna. We attributed her behaviour to new mother stress and just tiredness.”
Postpartum depression is said to affect 1 in every 10 women, but the degree of it can vary and at times can require treatment. It can turn into Major Depression too. In comparison, Postpartum psychosis is rare but dangerous, requiring immediate help. “It was as if she hated her [Amna] and would get jealous when I spent time with her. It was around dinner time; Delhi winter so it were bundling up and watching the fog fall. Her mother and I were worries about Amna falling ill and talking about it at the table. From the corner of my eye I saw Shazia hurriedly walk out our room and into the living room. We didn’t see her for a while and called out to her to come eat. I was so distracted... I don’t remember how much time had passed but the next thing I remember is someone banging at the door. It was someone from our colony, big-eyed and muttering Shazia’s name, pointing to the gate at the end of the road. It dawned on me, for some reason I already knew she was gone. I ran out the gate and onto the main road to see a gathered crowd and loud calls for help. Shazia had walked out into oncoming traffic, and she was gone.”
Mr Ansari says that he himself went into depression after the incident, unable to recall the next few days after that – “I think I was in shock and just blocked it out of my memory” – but he knew he had to be there for his daughter. He found himself struggling to care for her, overcome with grief and feelings of hopelessness himself. “I was guilty, ashamed and sad that I couldn’t see what she was going through. After some time I felt nothing at all. I was just numb,” he says.
Amna went home with her grandmother as Mr Ansari went through his depression, and he shares that he too felt suicidal at one point. It was only when he moved in with a friend of his who lived in Goa did he feel himself getting better – it took 2 years. “I tried to work but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t see meaning in anything or have any purpose. My friends was a GP (general practitioner) but he spoke to me about mental health and helped me so much, I wouldn’t have been able to get through it without him,” he says.
*names have been changed at the request of the contributor to maintain anonymity.
This article is part of a month-long campaign leading up to Mental Health Awareness Week. If you’d like to share your mental health journey with us, write in to [email protected]
Feature image illustrated by Karan Kumar for Homegrown, see more of his work here.
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