Ashley Ford’s previous Disrupting Domesticity posts for The Butter can be found here.
Every year since 2011, on the first Monday of July, poet and advocate Bassey Ikpi holds a #NoShameDay on Twitter. People living with mental illnesses or mental health issues—people like me—are asked to share their stories in a safe and supportive way. It’s an opportunity to connect. I try to participate on Twitter each year, but this year I thought I’d participate in this installment of Disrupting Domesticity. Of course, since this column is all about cohabitation, I’m going to offer some background on my experience with mental illness, and let Kelly talk about his experience living with and loving someone with a mental illness.
I’ve always been a little on the sensitive side. Even as a kid I frustrated my family and infuriated my peers with my emotional fragility. It was something we all hoped I’d grow out of, no one more so than me. But I didn’t. In fact, it got worse. As I got older, I learned to mask the more embarrassing aspects of my overly-empathetic demeanor with humor, but that didn’t stop me for crying to myself in bed most nights. It sounds so dramatic, and it felt so dramatic, but I couldn’t stop. I was overwhelmed by all those feelings, but I never felt in control.
I was sexually assaulted when I was thirteen, and felt more guilt about that than my quiet sadness could handle. My brain was great at taking whatever twisted path necessary to come to the conclusion every bad thing that happened to me was my fault. It gave me a semblance of control, even if it wasn’t entirely real or based on the truth. By this point, I’d read enough books to know that my incessant crying and panic attacks were symptoms of a real problem. Still, I was scared to tell. No one “got help” in my family. I didn’t tell anyone who could actually help me until I turned eighteen and could sign up for sessions with a therapist without my mother’s consent. Since then I’ve been clinically diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Anxiety, depression, and PTSD are all different mental health issues, and they all manifest for me in very different ways. My depression causes a lot of crying, fatigue, and suicidal ideations. My anxiety causes trouble breathing, trouble sleeping, a complete productive paralysis, some crying, and panic attacks — which make me feel like I’m going to die from feeling too many things at once. Lastly, my PTSD can sometimes cause a kind of break with reality. I feel sure of danger that isn’t there, I hear things no one said, and while I don’t have “flashbacks”, I do re-experience the heightened emotions from moments of great psychological and physical pain. None of these are fun, and every day I try to keep myself from thinking of them as evidence that I am a “broken human”. Not going to lie, having someone like Kelly around helps.
That’s really all the background you need to understand Kelly’s answers to these questions (from you!) about living with someone who has a mental illness (like me). I’ve taken the questions that were suggested and personalized them. I also interject into his responses from time to time to offer a little more context. Read away:
1. How did you feel the first time we talked about my mental health issues, and were you concerned about dating someone with PTSD/Depression/Anxiety?
The first time I really remember discussing your trauma and what that meant was when we were in college. We were in your room at The Victorian [Ashley: That’s what Kelly named the house I rented with friends] and you read me your essay, “Sins of My Father.” I felt responsible to respect that you’d shared that with me first. It’s not that I felt like I should have been concerned, but more that I wanted to prove worthy of the trust you’d given me. When we got back to together [Ashley: We stopped dating for about two years, then reunited], I already knew you had anxiety problems. I knew I could love you through any ups and downs that came along. I wanted you, so that was a thing I figured I wanted too. When you were finally diagnosed with PTSD, I was more relieved that anything. It’s easier, I think, to deal with something when it has a name.
2. Did you prepare yourself emotionally for living with a partner who had my mental health issues? Why or why not?
When we were still living a whole country apart, I always wanted us to be as honest as possible, to not leave our lives unsaid. I’ve pretty well always known you’ve built many emotional walls. I wanted to get through as many of them as possible before we lived together. I thought that would help me be most helpful when you needed me.
3. How are you most supportive to me when I’m having an “episode”, and how do you separate support from enabling?
I’m always working toward the goal of you feeling better. When you want to do things that aren’t helpful during an episode, I tell you so. My biggest issue is not wanting to sound mad at you while keeping your attention long enough for you to listen to me. I don’t ever want to appease you when you’re having an episode; I want to help you feel calmer, safer, like you can catch your breath.
4. Can you talk about a time when you were frightened for me in a way that was directly related to my mental health?
When you called me after getting stuck in Chicago while coming home from seeing your Grandmother [Ashley: I went to Indiana to say a final goodbye to my dying grandmother, who I’d been very close to], that’s one of the times I’ve been most worried. You were hostile and not really talking to me as much as you were just talking out loud. You also kept saying how easy it would be to fall. That really terrified me. I don’t want to think of worse hell than losing you that way.
5. How do you know when you can be helpful OR I need to be left alone OR I need professional assistance?
Whether I can be helpful or I should leave you alone is mostly up to you. I can usually tell if you need a minute to yourself or if I can help you feel better. If you look stuck in a particularly negative loop, I’ll definitely stick around and try and be the voice you can’t find in your own head, letting you know that you’re good. That you’re a person worthy of love. As for professional help, that becomes a pretty big concern of mine when you start to think about or become a threat to yourself. I don’t want you to be thinking, I don’t want to hurt myself because I don’t want to hurt Kelly. I want you to be okay because you want to be okay.
6. How do you avoid trying to “fix” me? Do you have any hope that someday I will be “fixed”?
I think there is a happy medium out there, but I don’t expect anyone to ever be cured. Life marks us, and we carry those marks with us everyday. I don’t think there is any hope anyone will be fixed. I love you for who you are. Anxiety is part of you. That part of you also shaped the person I love. I don’t believe you could be the voice in the darkness for some, if you didn’t know the language of the pain.
7. Do you feel like you have space to feel all of your emotions? How do you express yourself when we’re both sad, but I’m the one with the diagnosed mental illness?
I think I have enough space for my emotions. It might not be a good idea for me throw a tantrum, but is it ever? When I’m sad, I tell you. I can’t expect you to trust me with your emotions if I can’t trust you with mine. Also, if I’m sad and you need me, I can be sad and still be there for you.
8. How do you remember that I love you when I’m having an episode?
Because I know that it is a fact that you love me. You having an episode doesn’t change the fact. I want to be calm space for you in those moments; I don’t think I’d be able to do that if every time you needed me, I was worried you’d stopped loving me.
Ashley Ford does cool things at the Harnisch Foundation during the day. She's a former staff writer at BuzzFeed.com and a current serious yacht rock enthusiast. She’s also working on writing a book (or two). Born and raised in Indiana, Ford now resides in Brooklyn, where a good Sunday means a long walk in Prospect Park with her boyfriend, Kelly. A GREAT Sunday includes a doughnut.