I haven’t dated much.
I know I’m a little young to be saying that, at least based on what other people have told me. I’ve been repeatedly reminded that I’m only twenty-one, and that I have a lot of time ahead of me to find the right person and that there’s no pressure. Perhaps I’m just impatient to find ‘the one’, or maybe I just can’t stand being alone. There’s probably a bit of truth in both of those possibilities.
I’ve been a hopeless romantic for as long as I can remember, but it only really became evident when I got into my first serious relationship. I guess what really opened my eyes was just how much I was willing to do for the person I love: the sacrifices, the extra effort, the swallowing of my pride and admitting when I’m wrong. Obviously it was the big things, like moving out of my parents’ house into an apartment in the city, that gave me the largest doses of reality about love and relationships. However, it was the little things that were the most poignant reminders that love is not easy, nor is it something you can sustain without putting in the effort every single day.
It’s about cuddling each other to sleep. It’s about kissing them, even when they’re sick and make a fuss because they don’t want you to catch their cold. It’s changing your plans last minute to make room for them in your day. In my case, a big part of my past relationships has been taking long trips on public transportation. Even when I would finish work late at night, or when the weather was less than optimal, I would hop on a bus and travel over an hour to see them. To me it was never a big deal; I did it because I wanted to, not because I felt obliged.
All of this to say, love is a very complicated system of give and take. That applies to everything: money, trust, who gets to pick the movie, etc. You win some, you lose some. If you’re the man in the relationship (male or not), prepare to lose more than you win. Don’t get too upset by our assigned gender roles though, because that’s not what I was trying to say. I just meant that the key is finding someone to whom you are willing to lose a few battles. In fact, let me rephrase that: find someone who you will, on occasion, lose to on purpose.
If love is a cycle of reciprocation, it is not a perfect circle and there are a lot of kinks that need to be worked out. For one, people tend to be stubborn and selfish and that alone is enough to throw off the balance in a relationship. So now you realize that you can’t be too hard-headed or self-centered if you want a healthy partnership. Now you’re going down the list of things that a relationship needs in order to function: trust, honesty, loyalty, all of the things in that verse of First Corinthians that they read at weddings. All of that is very important- absolutely, no doubt- but it forgets one often overlooked aspect of being emotionally connected to another human being.
It is hard enough to be in a healthy, loving relationship when both of the people involved have their mental health under control; but when you love someone who doesn’t know how to love themselves, it can feel like trying to keep a newspaper dry in a hurricane.
I’ve been in long-term, committed relationships with people who struggled with depression, anxiety and chronic insomnia. To be clear, I found out very early on that they were sick and it never stopped me from falling in love even a little bit. I knew what I was getting into and I thought I was ready for the challenges that I was to be faced with. For the most part, I was well-equipped to handle the basic stuff: the doubts, the insecurities, the lack of motivation. I would bend over backwards just to get a smile sometimes, but it was worth it. It was hard sometimes, especially when the bad days came along, but I always tried my best. It wasn’t the amount of work that bothered me at all; it was the fact that sometimes there was nothing I could do.
The most absolutely excruciating part about loving someone who struggles with depression is the feeling of inadequacy that comes with not being able to make them feel better. There are some days where you talk to them, comforting them for hours, and they just keep crying and shaking and it seems like it will never end. Sometimes they don’t even know why they’re upset, they just get hit with a bad day and can’t handle it.
“If only she could see herself the way I do,” I thought to myself. It was a thought that passed through my head on an almost daily basis. I would always come up with new ways to try and cheer her up: building pillow forts, movie dates, leaving love notes stuck to all of the walls. It would make her smile, she’d show her appreciation and I would think that I did pretty well for myself. “If I do this enough, eventually she’ll come around,” I would convince myself, almost daily.
I learned the hard way that you can’t fix someone by loving them- the love has to come from them.
I’m not trying to perpetuate the worn-out saying that says you need to love yourself before you can love someone else. Speaking from experience, that’s completely false. You can be drowning in self-loathing on a daily basis and still give your whole heart to another person. You can be caring, patient and understanding and be there for someone else even if you yourself are broken. The problem with loving someone who is fighting their demons doesn’t lie in their inability to love.
The problem lies in their inability to feel worthy of being loved.
In Stephen Chbosky’s classic novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie writes in one of his letters that “we accept the love we think we deserve”. This applies to the people I have loved and to anyone else who tries to balance a love life against their mental illness. The problem with depression is that it corrupts a person’s feeling of self-worth and, by extension, their perception of other people’s feelings towards them. When someone feels worthless, it’s near-impossible for them to understand why someone else would care for them, let alone love them. As a result, they either reject or dismiss any and all attempts at an emotional investment.
Love is about sacrifices, right? It’s about being the big spoon and sleeping with hair draped over your mouth and nose. It’s about running to the store in the middle of the night because she wanted ice cream. Those are the sacrifices that are easy to make, the ones that you make because you know it makes them happy. Knowing that you can put a smile on their face is a pretty good motivator. When that’s gone, you stop giving up your time and your sleep and start having to relinquish parts of yourself- your confidence, your emotional well-being, your motivation.
Maybe it’s just me; maybe I’m not as well-suited to deal with someone’s illness as I thought. I know for a fact that I take it too personally. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been told that it’s not my fault, that I’m good enough, that I’ve done more than enough just to feel like I’m failing to do the simplest task involved in being in a relationship: making them happy. When you give and you give and you give and they’re still sick, when you feel your heart drop because their last text message seemed off, when you see the scars on their skin and wish that kisses were a cure-all- that’s when the real sacrifices happen.
I’m not trying to say that healthy relationships are not hard, because they are. The reason love is so difficult is because it leaves us vulnerable, in the hands of someone else. I’m not saying that loving someone who goes through bouts of incurable sadness is somehow more noble or more difficult. No matter who you are or what you’re dealing with, love is the single most vital human experience we have. It is what unifies us, what gives our lives meaning and what comforts us when the world gets dark. Being in love and working to maintain a healthy partnership will always be hard, sometimes even impossible, because making sacrifices is not easy.
All I’m trying to express is that being sick doesn’t mean being unable to love. I have been loved gently and wholeheartedly by someone who couldn’t even look at herself in the mirror. I have been loved passionately and incomparably by someone who put on a mask every day to avoid being thought of as broken. I have had beautiful, loving, relationships that ended for other reasons, but mental health was always the elephant in the room.
What can I say? You win some, you lose some. In my case I lost quite a bit, but I did so with good intentions. It wasn’t easy making those difficult sacrifices on an almost daily basis, but I never thought twice about it because I knew that creating even a moment of happiness in her life would make a difference. While she may not have accepted the love that she deserved all of the time, getting that newspaper inside with even one dry page gave me an overwhelming sense of satisfaction.
Take what’s left of me, if you must.
It isn’t much but it’s enough
To keep the darkest days at bay.
I’ll light the lantern every day
To keep the shadows from your mind.
Despite the life I’ve left behind,
Your love endures and occupies
The thoughts behind my fractured eyes.
With nothing left but love to give, I need you.