Reader Question: How do I Tell My Boyfriend I’m Depressed? [11 Tips for Telling a Loved One About Your Mental Illness]

by Charlotte on January 27, 2014 · 10 comments

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 Now all is sunshine and roses, er, dead corn husks and pumpkins (because that says total romance, right?)

Puking with the flu, two weeks overdue pregnant, shaking on the floor with a panic attack, accusing him of stealing my pants and purse as I came out of anesthesia, both pre- and post- op, crying while holding a crying baby, numb with grief, irrational with fear, swearing at people during childbirth, hysterically silly, screaming with nightmares – and my personal favorite – dragging my infant son to the doctor’s for the “fleas” all over him that turned out to be Oreo crumbs from my super-healthy snack I’d eaten while breast-feeding him.  I could go on but suffice it to say, my husband has seen me at my worst. (Oh, and there was the time I was so angry I didn’t speak to him for an entire day because I dreamed he had an affair. I’m still really embarrassed about that one, actually.)

He’s most definitely seen me at my worst. And I’m really glad about that. I am more nutty than Mr. Peanut eating a Payday and it’s kind of a relief to have a safe person where I can really let my freak flag fly. Plus, he has his own neuroses and so is able to understand me in a way no one else can. He’s held me and comforted me through so many of life’s difficulties that I do not have enough ways to tell him thank you.

But we were not always like this.

Our first introduction – in class at college – was tainted by deception: First I told him I loved watching professional basketball. Second I made him think I was sane. (I’ll let him tell you which one he thinks was the worse offense.) When I first met the man who would later become my husband, I was hot off the heels of my relationship with my abusive ex. At that point I had only told one person about the abuse and that hadn’t gone well so I made the same choice many sexual assault survivors make when they think they won’t be believed and that it was all their fault. I stuffed it down, pretended nothing had ever happened and tried to live my life as if that were true.

For awhile I managed to keep it all under the surface. We dated, got engaged, got married. But then the cracks began to show. I became depressed and was having episodes of PTSD. I cried a lot. Had a TON of panic attacks. Worried all the time. I distinctly remember him carrying me to the hospital during one panic attack so bad that I couldn’t stop vomiting and as they filled my veins with a sedative he joked, “It’s been a year, I guess your warranty ran out.” It was meant to be funny. I felt like a failure. But the more I tried to talk to him about what I was scared of and what had happened in the past, the more he pushed me away. He didn’t want to hear it. So I stopped talking about it.

Eventually I learned to manage my panic attacks and irritable bowel syndrome. We even had a couple of kids. But those wounds were still bleeding deep inside me and my depression and anxiety kept worsening. I tried to explain to my husband what the darkness felt like but I couldn’t find the right words. He either couldn’t or didn’t want to understand me. Eventually it all exploded when the court case against my ex happened and I finally spoke about what had happened to me. In open court. It was brutal but it finally got all the ugliness out there. The consequence was it sent me to a spiral of shame, utter despair and anxiety that was absolutely the worst time of my life. It was worse than when my daughter died. It was worse than when my sister died. That ugly, fear-tainted, oil-slick of depression covered everything. I thought I would suffocate.

But good did come of it. The main thing was that as much as I hated having it all out there, the fact that it was all out there meant I could never be tormented by the secret of it again. And that was a huge relief. Around the same time my husband had an experience of his own that helped him become more empathetic and understanding of mental illness. We finally started really talking about it. Fast forward many years, several rounds of therapy and some good meds and we are to the happy, secure place we are now. Today I know that he is my safe place and I am so grateful for the experiences – all of them – that brought us to this point together. It’s not perfect but it’s beautiful.

But it wasn’t easy. Not at all. The more you love someone, the more your vulnerability to be hurt by them. I was reminded of this when I got an e-mail from a sweet reader in regards to my recent posts about my latest round of depression. (Which is doing much better, thank you! I think my Give a Little Experiment really helped.)

Thank you so much for blogging so honestly – I always look forward to your posts and find that they really resonate with me. In light of your most recent post on depression, I have a question about how to navigate such a situation with a significant other. I have been struggling with an eating disorder and mild depression (at times not so mild) for almost five years now, and I just recently got into a relationship. My boyfriend knows about my past, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that the struggle is still ongoing. I just feel like he either wouldn’t understand or wouldn’t know what to do or how to act around me if I told him the full extent of my issues, and it’s so early in the relationship that I am insecure about what he would think of me. Furthermore, I am having a internal conflict. Before I started dating him, I thought that having someone special in my life would make my self-esteem problems much easier to handle. After all, if he finds me attractive and cares about me, then I must be worth caring about. But for some reason, I haven’t gotten any sense of reassurance from this, and it is making me doubt my relationship even though my boyfriend has been nothing but sweet and supportive.

I guess I’m just trying to ask how you broach the subject with your husband and how having a significant other does or does not change your outlook on depression and eating disorders. Thank you for your time!

Dear Reader R, First I want to apologize for how long it took me to answer this! You e-mailed me in November. It’s January. Oops. But in all honesty it’s taken me so long to respond because I am not sure how to answer. Mostly because if there was a mistake to be made in this area, I have done it! I learn by doing things the hard way… Your question has been weighing heavily on my mind yet it’s SO important to talk about. You are definitely not the only girl struggling with self-esteem issues related to mental illness in their relationship! And you’re right: it changes everything. So I’ll do my best to give you some tips as to how I’ve learned to talk about it and I hope my readers will help out with their experiences too!

How to tell a loved one about your mental illness

1. Tell them. The first step is the most obvious and yet also the hardest. You need to have that conversation. When you have it will be different for each person but I’d suggest you give them a little info pretty close to the beginning of the relationship. If you can’t say it, write it. It doesn’t have to be much – even a simple “I’m really struggling right now. Can I talk to you about it?” is a great start. Be direct. I prefer to just say, “I am really depressed right now” or “My ED voices are so loud right now it’s like living in a bird cage!” A walk or a quiet dinner is a great place to do this. (Drunk dialing, not so much.) But if you’re going to be in a relationship with someone – whether that’s romantic, friendly or familial – if they’re going to be a part of your life then they need to know this about you.

2. Be clear about your expectations. What happens now? What do you expect them to do to help you? Ask them how realistic those expectations are. For me, I told my husband “I don’t expect you to do anything with this information except listen. I just need you to hear me out. And then a hug would be awesome if you feel like it.” Some people assume that by telling them this you’re expecting them to fix everything for you. Other people will worry that they want to help you but won’t know “the right thing” to do. You have to tell people what you need.

3. Don’t hide your past. (Which it sounds like you’re already doing this one Reader R!) My husband knows all about my past now but when I talk to new friends I try not to hide my past if/when it comes up organically in conversation. For instance, if we’re talking about food issues I will tell people I struggled with eating disorders and have been in treatment for them. You don’t have to dump everything on every one but a little openness can go a long way. Not only will it help you feel better but it will also give them permission to talk about similar things in their lives, if they like.

4. Answer questions honestly. It’s likely they will have questions. Just do your best to give them an honest reply.  And “I don’t know yet” is a completely valid answer.

5. Don’t force the subject. Some of the conversation needs to happen on their schedule, when they are ready for it. I have such a hard time with this one! I’m one of those people who wants to talk everything out all the time, up till 2 a.m. hashing out all the gory details. My husband hates to do this. Hates it like he hates that Justin Beiber’s drag racing is headlining the news. But he’s learned over the years to tell me, “I’m too tired to talk about this right now – can we talk tomorrow before breakfast?” and I’ve learned to respect that answer.

6. Do it in pieces. This is not the type of conversation you have once. You are not a Ronco Rotisserie Oven. You cannot just “set it and forget it”. You can have it in bits and pieces as it comes up or make an agreement about when is a good time to talk about it. Make it an open topic of discussion and hopefully they will be comfortable bringing it up as well. A little humor goes a long way!

7. Make sure you’re doing everything you can to take care of yourself. Needing other people is not a bad thing – it’s what makes us human. But being overly needy can be exhausting for your partner and it helps you not at all. In the end, you are responsible for your own happiness. No one can “make” you happy. That’s a gift you give to yourself. So take your meds, keep your doctor’s appointments, have a plan for what you’ll do if you start to go off the rails, eat well, exercise moderately, all that good stuff. I know it’s hard when you’re in the Sads (oh I know!) so just do your best but it’s important to try. Sadly the things that can best help us out of our depression are the things that we least want to do when we are depressed.

8. Call in the pros! No one should be ashamed of getting professional help. The right therapist/doctor/treatment program can be a salvation. Plus, helping you is their job and what they are trained to do. It’s not your partner’s job to “cure” or “fix” you. And it sounds, Reader R, like this might be a good option for you as you describe your struggles as “ongoing.” Nothing wrong with needing a little fine tuning every once in a while!

9. Be careful. I add this on with some hesitation but some people will use the knowledge of your weakness to their advantage. Using my history of depression against me was one way my ex controlled me. He made me believe that I was crazy and that what he was doing was fine. He told me I couldn’t trust my own feelings, my own experience. I believe most people are good but trust your gut. Pay attention to how he/she reacts when you talk to them – it will tell you a lot about them as a person and the state of your relationship.

10. Consider what they already know. Reader R, I’m guessing that your boyfriend knows or suspects more than you think about your current struggles. Many of us with eating disorders think we’re really good at hiding them but the deeper they become ingrained in our lives, the more apparent they become to those around us. Especially if you are living with that person! And sometimes knowing only pieces and guesses can be more scary to your loved one than if you just told them the truth. Plus, remember that everyone has their own issues to deal with. Even if they can’t relate to your current struggle, they certainly do understand what it’s like to struggle!

11. Don’t push away the ones who love you the most. Just don’t. You don’t have to be superwoman all the time. It’s okay to show vulnerability. Let them love you. Believe them when they say it.

 

 

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Darwin Seed January 27, 2014 at 1:50 am

I learned long ago about “listening” and not worry about KNOWING instantly the right thing to do when someone wants to talk.

More than one girl I knew in university wanted to confide in me…because they had to tell SOMEBODY…in a situation where their female roommate was staring at them when they changed clothes. I could see that they did not want to lose the friendship…but boundaries were crossed and this was upsetting to them.

My “go to” response was, as it often is, to make a funny.

“If it bothers you that your female roommate watches you undress…I guess I can watch you undress just to make you feel better!”

She looked stunned…and then burst out laughing…long and loud.

This put it into perspective for her…I as another friend facetiously suggesting crossing boundaries…the way to deal with it was to communicate the boundaries: friendship preserved.

I too am “…one of those people who wants to talk everything out all the time, up till 2 a.m. hashing out all the gory details.”

In my mind there is a danger in letting things fester…so why pour gas on the fire when it is best to put it out as soon as possible?

And the best way to put it out is by talking.

My ex had…issues…past abuse…eating for the wrong reasons. I created a safe environment for her…and SHE did not want to talk.

Her “crazy” (and seriously…HER “crazy” makes Charlotte’s “crazy” seem like wearing white after labor day…not to minimize Charlotte’s experiences…but my if my ex was born crazy then she took great effort to seriously increase her birthright)…her “crazy” was her identity…and she feared to be separated from it.

All guys in her past…her “crazy” drove them away…and then she still got to keep her “crazy”.

I would not be driven away so she left…dumped me and kept her “crazy”.

To inject some testosterone into the proceedings…my favorite motivational speech is from the movie ROCKY BALBOA:

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. And I don’t care how tough you are…it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You…me…or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.

But it ain’t about how hard YOU hit…

Its about how hard you can GET hit and keep moving forward…

How much you can TAKE and keep moving forward.”

Do I regret making the effort with my ex?

No.

She needed the option of either moving forward without the crazy…or embracing it wholeheartedly.

She made her choice.

And me?

Its about how hard I can GET hit and keep moving forward. How much I can TAKE and keep moving forward.

And still be honest enough to say…that when I first got to this blog and read about Charlotte and other ladies talking about “ED”…I was thoroughly confused.

From the commercials I saw…that was a guy thing.

So those who are explaining such things to your significant other…clarity is good.

Otherwise…it is a WHOLE other conversation.

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Carla January 27, 2014 at 6:15 am

Oh Charlotte I LOVE THIS.
Ive purchased the book HYPERBOLE AND A HALF for so many friends to share with their loved ones/partners as well.

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Joemama January 27, 2014 at 12:52 pm

I LOVE hyperbole and a half. The way she describes depression is as accurate as any I’ve found, and she’s SO FUNNY. You are too, Charlotte. It’s why I love your blog so much.

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Geosomin January 27, 2014 at 11:10 am

” Let them love you. Believe them when they say it.”
Yup :)

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Robin January 27, 2014 at 1:04 pm

I think all of your points are important, Charlotte, and the one that most resonated with me was #2, sorta in combo with #7. People genuinely don’t know what to do or how to help. So tell them how, yes, but also make sure to combine that with seeking help from professionals who can better do the “heavy lifting.”

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Lyndsey January 27, 2014 at 2:57 pm

Getting professional help was really important for me. Mental illness has such a stigma that it didn’t really occur to me that my anxiety, which was well on the road to debilitating, fit the bill (when my therapist used the phrase, “mental illness,” it took me a few minutes to realize she was referring to me). Eventually I realized that I needed a therapist and that my husband was not one, wonderful guy though he is. But all that happened after we got together, so he was sort of in on everything as it developed.

If I knew about my issues before I met him, I think I would have shared with him how I deal with it these days, what I do to stay healthy, and, like Charlotte suggested, what I need from him or how it might affect him. Very best wishes for health, happiness and a fulfilling relationship to Reader R and her boyfriend.

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Kristen January 27, 2014 at 4:27 pm

I just wanted to say a hearty thank you for covering every topic I need covered in my life, haha. I’ve been a loooong time lurker, I rarely comment, but felt it’s time to reach out. You make me feel so much less crazy.

I have all the anxiety and panic attacks and “normal” crazies, but one of my weirder ones is night terrors. In times of high anxiety, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and see thing (normally huge spiders, sometimes other things), hallucinations, and they scare me. I’ve been with my bf for 2 years now, and he’s just learning about them, mostly from a week ago when I spent the night at his place, woke up to a snake coming at me from the wall, and proceeded to roll over him and fall off the bed in trying to get away from a phantom snake. Serious fun in trying to explain that one to him.

I guess I just want to say thanks for the solidarity :) You’re amazing, it helps to remind me maybe if someone so amazing has as many problems, maybe I’m not so bad either haha.

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Abby January 27, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Great, great post Charlotte! And such an important question. I think your list was fabulous.

I went through the same thing with my now husband. With enough space from it now I can see the stages he went through, including not understanding, trying to fix all of my problems himself, anger with me for not just being fixed, fear about what would happen if he did the wrong thing, and finally coming to a semi-acceptance. He still pushes me to live outside of my food comfort zone and gets upset if I even joke about skipping meals but he loves me in spite of my problems. I won’t say he understands because he’d never known anyone with an ED before me but he tries. I think that R needs to give her boyfriend a chance and time to get there. If he doesn’t then I don’t think he’s the right guy but she has to at least give him a chance. I know it’s not easy. I’ve started huge fights just to avoid talking about my ED but I’ve always felt better in the long-run when I did.

We still struggle with when I’m feeling down my husband wanting me to just snap out of it and me explaining that it’s okay for me to feel sad some times. But we both try to see where the other one is at and that helps.

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Sagan January 27, 2014 at 4:50 pm

LOVE this. Thanks for it, Charlotte!

I’ve been very open with Mr Science about my disordered eating / depression / anxiety / – I think it all came out within about three months of seeing each other so he’s known about it from pretty much the beginning – but NOW my question is, once you’ve gotten to the point of being very honest and open and communicative about it, how do you move onto the next step (of DEALING with the issues and managing them)?

I tried therapy for a while, but the pressure to do the activities assigned between therapy sessions made me more anxious, and the cost and transportation associated with it added to my stress (yeah, I DEFINITELY see the amusement factor with that). So instead I talk to Mr Science about pretty much everything, and even though Mr Science never complains, I don’t want to heap all of my issues onto him.

I’m thinking about finding some books because then it’s the benefit of professional help AND the comfort of your own home, but do you happen to have other ideas for managing these types of issues once you’ve identified it and communicated it to your loved ones? If books are the way to go, do you have any recommendations?

Would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this!

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