CW: Depression, eating disorders.
It is commonly said that in order to love another, one must love themselves. In fact, loving one-self is somewhat viewed as a prerequisite to becoming involved in romantic relationships.
As someone who has struggled for unending years with eating disorders and depression, accompanied with the typical low self-esteem and self-hatred, this approach to relationships scared me. Although I once could not see a life past twenty, the thought of growing old without anyone to hold, simultaneously frightened me. In retrospect, the thought probably conjured fearful emotions because I viewed it as a manifestation of my isolation. Yet, as a malnourished sixteen-year-old, I lacked such insight and simply knew that dying alone felt miserable.
Thus, a question that chipped at me constantly was whether I could love someone else, when I definitely knew I did not love myself. Could I be in a relationship when I had suffered from a slew of mental health issues, let alone while possessing the baggage of untreated mental illness? The answer is complicated, as most dilemmas of life can be described.
At one point, I considered myself an exception to the above-mentioned maxim. Though I did not love myself, my heart was full of love to give to another. On one hand, my compassion, empathy and warmth are traits that I value within myself. I realised these traits are key to a healthy relationship. However, I believed, or rather deluded myself into believing, that my possession of these attributes meant I was adequately prepared for relationships, even though I was struggling with my own inner battles (and losing).
With the deadly combination of a fear of loneliness, untreated mental illness and a big heart, I rushed into far too many relationships. Only in hindsight did I realise that I was probably too emotionally immature for the commitment that accompanies relationships. I was probably wearing rose-tinted glasses, thinking that the right relationship could “cure” my mental illness; love was to be my remedy where all other medications failed. There is a sad truth that underlies the idiom that hindsight is 20/20; there are times where I wish I could broach the wall dividing the past and present, to prevent myself from making certain decisions.
Regardless, the inability to change the past has equipped my present self with profound lessons about love and mental illness, which I hope to anecdotally share here. First, untreated mental illness results in unhealthy attachment styles, usually either avoidant or anxious. I found myself continuously falling into the latter type of attachment style. A mental illness, whether because of stigma or because of the innate vulnerability that accompanies it, is often suffered silently. When dating, you learn more about your partner and indulge in each-others vulnerability. Trust blooms. There reaches a point where you may feel comfortable disclosing your plights with your mental health. However, when that mental illness is untreated, sharing such a private aspect of your life becomes an unduly monumental step. I felt like I had tied myself to my partner. How could this person leave when I had just shared my deepest darkest secret? From here, it is a slippery slope into dependency, an inattention to the other’s mental health and a lack of boundaries. Untreated mental illness can be consuming, and when that is shared with another, it can be difficult to stop it from engulfing and suffocating them too.
Second, dating with an untreated mental illness is ridden with insecurity. This is when it dawned upon me why people say you must love yourself before you can love another. I was so anxious to lose the person who knew all about my dark secrets, that I convinced myself that they would inevitably leave. Every other person was prettier, smarter, funnier and more caring than me. Of course, they would seem so to me, when I considered myself the equivalent of damaged goods. My insecurity inspired volatility; I would shower partners in affection in an attempt to hold onto them, then turn cold when I had fooled myself into thinking they would leave any minute.
Upon learning these two lessons, I had to swallow a hard pill: mental illness can unknowingly transform you into a toxic partner. As you cling onto the other person as the only source of light in the darkness of mental illness, they become drained of their independence. With each boundary that is crossed, each vile insult that is uttered out of insecurity and each moment offloading mental illness onto another, I grew more toxic without ever knowing it.
These relationships, unsurprisingly, came to an end. With each failed relationship, it became easier to paint a dreadful self-portrait and picture one-self as undeserving of love. It is hard to assure yourself otherwise when such a perception is confirmed by years of mental illness. However, untreated mental illness often does not make you a bad person. Usually, it just means that you have the tendencies of a bad partner. It is difficult to prevent the negative influences of mental illness from spilling into your relationships, romantic or otherwise, when you do not have the resources to self-regulate and help yourself.
Finally, coming to the question posed towards the beginning; can one love when they have a mental illness? While reflecting during my rustication, I realised the answer is positive. Nonetheless, there is fine print that needs to be read before entering the dating world. Dating with a mental illness requires one to take an active approach to improving their awareness and general mental well-being. Mental health issues should not remain untreated, full stop. However, a romantic relationship and an untreated mental illness is a match made in hell, for all the above-mentioned reasons. Only with an active attitude of self-improvement can one avoid falling victim to the unique pitfalls of dating while managing a mental illness.
On the other hand, I have personally found that there is no need to feel “cured” of mental illness. Sometimes, it can feel like one can never free themselves of their mental health issues, even if they have been stifled into remission. There is a life-long vigilance that needs to be taken to your own mental health, that those who are not neurodivergent do not need to possess; your memory has unhealthy coping mechanisms stored away in a dark cabinet that can be unleashed and wreak havoc like Pandora’s box.
Crucially, loving yourself can be tricky when mental illness distorts one’s perception of themselves. However, challenging this poisonous hallucinogen that our brain feeds itself, through seeking (often professional) help for your mental health can create contentment. The effects of mental illness become clearer to your trained eye. You can spot how your mental illness manipulates your own actions, and those of others. With this deeper awareness that comes from working on being in-tune with one-self, and partnered with other healthy attitudes towards relationships, dating while having a mental illness is certainly possible.
A better love-guru maxim for those handling mental health issues would be that you cannot love another, if you do not want and do not put effort into loving yourself.
Image Credit: Rabiem, CC BY 2.0