When loving someone means losing yourself

Credit: Rosie Wilson
Samantha Heritage

Content Warning: this article contains references to mental illness.

Andrew shouldn’t have been in a relationship at the time;  I shouldn’t have either. We were both very damaged people with respective mental illnesses. I with Anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a history of Depression, and he with ADHD, Anxiety, Depression and I’m sure a few others. Within a few weeks of introducing ourselves over an in-depth tutorial discussion of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, we began what would be our messy, beautiful, but incredibly damaging, nearly-two-year story together. After the end of my prior relationship I made a vow that I would always put myself first, and I had gotten pretty good at it, that is before I met Andrew. He has this mysterious and damaged persona, sparking my intrigue and luring me in to find out more. Turns out the “more”, was a boat-load of issues stemming from past traumas. But this didn’t scare me off as I had a painful past of my own. Him having his own issues actually made me feel less alone – more understood. As fast as we fell in love, we also became completely dependent on each other.

Now that I’m viewing the relationship from the outside, I can see that this is incredibly common in couples where one or more people suffer from mental illness. Neither of us were seeking therapy, or taking regular medication, so instead we went for the budget-conscious option: becoming each other’s therapist and crutch until one of the participants inevitably broke down and lost every aspect of themselves that once brought them joy and gave them individuality. Obviously that’s the worst-case scenario but, as I mentioned before, I didn’t know any better. It was subtle at first – personality traits of mine changed slightly or dimmed. I began to define myself by our relationship and not by my own qualities and hobbies – most of which I would soon put on the back-burner. He consumed my existence. His bad days increased, and thus so did mine. Both of us crept into a deeper depression, unnoticed and unable to understand that the other person was our trigger.

This cycle of dependency is incredibly common in romantic relationships like ours, especially when one person is labelled as an empath – in this case, myself. In addition, the Saviour Complex, as it has been referred to, played a big role in our partnership. This complex is the desire to mend your partner’s hardships and act as a beacon for them in their depressive and pervasive darkness –it’s also what most likely initially attracted me to Andrew. I was so out of touch with my own mental health issues that I felt if I was able to fix him, I would subsequently find a way to fix myself. Perhaps, rather, it was just a way to avoid taking care of myself –I haven’t had enough therapy sessions yet to figure that one out. Regardless, he became so dependent on me that it started to feel natural, like a normal part of life. I would leave outings with my girlfriends if he even uttered that he had a remotely difficult day. I would use my last available moments in the day to cook him dinner when I knew I had multiple assignments due the following morning. I worried so much about him and his happiness, or lack thereof, that I lost sight of myself and my own mental health journey, but it wasn’t just me. The longer we were together the more familial conversations were flooded with “so how’s Andy doing?” and “has he finally decided to talk to someone?” while these discussions were so thoroughly dehydrated of questions about how I was. My needs came secondary in everyone’s eyes as a result of them coming second in my own for so long.

Flash-forward, and to no one’s surprise, it didn’t work out. The relationship ended by his hands, as he realised he was dragging me down and couldn’t stand to see it go on any longer. “You’re the only reason I wake up in the morning, what kind of pressure is that to put on a person who has bigger dreams than to be someone’s beacon?” I couldn’t handle the weight of Andy not waking up if I decide to leave one day. I was then in psychotherapy and working towards taking control of my anxiety and dread, while he still couldn’t find it in him to seek help too. This was not his fault. He had, and still has, an illness. I wanted to help him see the beautiful and contagiously brilliant man that I saw in him, but eventually, I realised that that was never my job.

After some space from the relationship, I came to the realization that the entirety of our partnership functioned as a structure to help him feel better. Anything that I may have wanted from the relationship when it began became secondary to making sure he was having good days. It’s so easy to become consumed by another person’s problems when they struggle with their mental health, and I know first hand how heartbreaking it is when you are faced with the reality that there is nothing more you can do. Love and support your partner, whether they have a mental illness or not, but never let their happiness become more important than your own. Remember, you are doing something commendable, but there is a limit to how much you can do. You’re not failing if you need to take a step back. You are not a caretaker or a therapist. You don’t get paid enough to be a 24-hour helpline.  

Although my relationship crashed and burned, it doesn’t mean that romantic partnerships in similar circumstances will as well. Reach out to loved ones and mental health professionals who can help you, as relationships such as these can easily isolate you and leave you feeling like no one else could possibly understand. Trust me they do. I do.

If you are struggling, visit The University of Glasgow Counselling & Psychological Services at https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/counselling/

Other important contacts: NHS 24 on 111, Breathing Space’s on 0800 83 85 87, Samaritans 0141 248 4488 and, in a medical emergency, always phone 999.


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